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Framing foreign policy

Perhaps no better example of the difficulty in framing a sound foreign policy was the canceling of the talks between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government scheduled for Camp David. President Donald Trump, pressured by his hawkish advisors, used a terror attack in Kabul as an excuse not to negotiate. One American was killed, a tragedy no doubt, but a drop in the bucket as compared to the drone and air attacks that pounded the Taliban the last few weeks.

For even considering talks to end America’s longest war, Trump was pounded by Democrats and Republicans. Liz Cheney led the no retreat, no surrender chorus, failing to explain to Americans that victory was impossible without further escalation. Trump, like Barack Obama, sensibly concluded that the United States military is not a “police force.” And Trump, who doubtlessly despises the Taliban, was simply trying to cut his losses.

Trump critics sometimes fail to see, especially Democrats, that his approach to foreign policy runs counter to many neo-Conservatives in the GOP. No doubt Trump agrees with them in principle, but disagrees on matters of proportion and not purpose. He sees America as overstretched by commitments both military and financial. He does not see the need to like or dislike a foe as a prerequisite to striking a bargain.

But choleric critics, unable to distinguish sensible caution from appeasement, give Trump little leeway in pursuing different approaches. If it is not Mike Pompeo on the right, it is the anti-Trump national security establishment. One screams no negotiation with “terrorists.” Their leftish counterpart shouts “Russian collusion” if he tries to deal with Vladimir Putin. Try as they might, there is not a dime’s worth of difference between neo-Conservatives and liberal Democrats on foreign policy.

An example of how Trump’s judgment on these matters may be sounder. Recently Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners — the first civil contact since 2014. The new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, praised the agreement as an important final step. Trump was quick to praise the transactional prisoner swap. Remarkably, he saw no reason for America to interfere, he allowed Russia and Ukraine to work it out.

Now does that exonerate Trump for every aspect of his administration, certainly not. He has much to answer for regarding immigration, remarks on race, just to mention a few other transgressions, but he is perceptive on issues of war and peace. Critics of the president by lambasting what he does regardless of merit, weaken their overall argument. They lose themselves by pointing out his eccentricities and lack of discipline. They forget that in contrast to his critics he has tried to avoid conflict.

And, it has been hard. Pompeo producing the policies of George W. Bush contradicts the commander-in-chief on Russia. Trump, as clumsy as he can be, has tried to master a very tough situation indeed. Neo-Conservatives that did not desert the administration have undercut Trump every step of the way. Their desire is to keep America on a permanent war footing.

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