While most libertarians were horrified by the election of Donald Trump, there was a line of thinking among some of them that compromise with the Trump administration on a few of its more illiberal policies is a small price to pay to ensure a more peaceful foreign policy.
They seem to believe that by currying favor with the 45th president, the administration will be less amenable to a neoconservative foreign policy agenda. But one need not be a neoconservative to be hawkish. And Donald Trump is most certainly a hawk.
A Hawk Is as a Hawk Does
Despite Trump’s hawkishness, Senator Rand Paul apparently believes that by approving Trump’s nominees he will then wield influence over the president’s foreign policy.
Writing for The Week, James Antle laid out the method to this madness. Referring to Paul’s vote in favor of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Antle argued that a vote against Sessions would have done little because Trump is committed to being a “law and order” president.
However, Antle suggests, because Trump is something of a blank slate on foreign policy, Paul can push him in the right direction by blocking unacceptable foreign policy nominees such as Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative whose named was floated as a nominee for deputy secretary of state, and John Bolton—who himself is not a neoconservative but consistently pushes for the use of military force.
Even if Donald Trump were a dove, there are plenty of reasons to oppose him.
But if Bolton is unacceptable because he has a low threshold for the use of force, why would Paul consider Donald Trump acceptable?
Few would claim that Trump himself is a dove. But during the campaign, a few libertarians saw him as more palatable than the foreign policy establishment. As a reason for hope, they pointed to his willingness to question the wisdom of a decade and a half of costly wars in the Middle East, his hostility to regime change, and his skepticism about America’s military alliances. And it is true that Trump criticized his predecessors for wasting trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a result, Paul has argued, “One of the things I like most about President Trump is his acknowledgment that nation building does not work and actually works against the nation building we need to do here at home.”
But whatever his views on nation building, the evidence of Trump’s hawkishness abounds. During his campaign, Trump declared himself the “most militaristic” candidate. He claimed he was “really good at war” and “loved war.”
Trump lied repeatedly about his support for the invasion of Iraq and military intervention in Libya. He argued that the problem with the Iraq War was that the United States failed to rob the country of its natural resources. Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State, escalating the military operations begun by his predecessor.
Campaign rhetoric can be easily dismissed, but President Trump’s actions during his short tenure in office cannot.
Business As Usual
Five days into office, he ordered a raid in Yemen that has garnered attention for the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL but also resulted in the deaths of around twenty-five Yemeni civilians and an eight-year-old American girl. And while President Trump has passed the blame for that operation onto the generals who planned it, he has continued to ramp up U.S. military operations in the country since.
According to Micah Zenko of the Council Foreign Relations, Trump is conducting drone strikes and special operations raids outside of official battlefields—that is, in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan—at a far higher rate than former President Obama did during his time in the Oval Office. By Zenko’s count, Obama ordered strikes every 5.4 days during his two terms. By early March, his successor had done so every 1.4 days.
Libertarians oppose war, whether it is conducted for neoconservative reasons or not.
It is possible that Trump will slow the rate of strikes as his presidency proceeds, but there are plenty of reasons to suggest Trump’s hawkishness will not abate the longer he is in office.
Personnel Is Policy
As political scientist Elizabeth Saunders has explained, presidents—particularly those with little experience in foreign policy—rely heavily on their advisors. Close Trump advisors such as Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and the recently dismissed national security advisor, Michael Flynn, have all suggested the United States is in an inexorable ideological conflict with the Islamic world.
Bannon in particular, who is arguably the president’s closest advisor, views this conflict in apocalyptic terms. And while focused on trade policy, Trump advisor Peter Navarro has decidedly hawkish views on China. Bannon has also previously predicted the United States will be at war with China within the next decade.
Some members of the foreign policy establishment hope that the grown-ups in the room—Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and General H.R. McMaster, the new National Security Advisor—will temper the influence of Bannon and company. But while both Mattis and McMaster have well-earned reputations as warrior intellectuals who do not take the use of military force lightly, neither one is a dove.
Libertarians oppose war, whether it is conducted for neoconservative reasons or not. War is destructive abroad, wreaks havoc on human life, and impedes free exchange and cooperation between individuals from different parts of the globe.
Domestically, war leads to growth of the state. Standing militaries require taxation and bureaucracy to support them and are a threat to domestic liberty. War distorts a country’s political and economic institutions in ways detrimental to liberal values.
Even if Donald Trump were a dove, there would still be plenty of reasons for libertarians to oppose him.
Trump has repeatedly made it clear that he rejects the free movement of both people and goods across borders. The “law-and-order” presidency mentioned above includes plans to ramp up the drug war, while the same attorney general Senator Paul voted for indicates the Justice Department will weaken federal oversight of local police abuses.
Trump has no interest in peace.
And never once has Trump suggested he will reduce the size of the warfare state. Time and again he has promised the opposite. Upon taking office, he signed a memorandum calling for a “great rebuilding” of the U.S. military and, more recently, called for a $54 billion increase in defense spending. The taxation, bureaucracy, and standing armies that America’s founders warned were threats to liberty are not going anywhere under President Trump. Expect them to grow.
What exactly do some libertarians think they are buying in Trump’s foreign policy by giving him a pass on his other illiberal positions?
Winston Churchill famously said of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolph Hitler:
“You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
Libertarians face a similar choice with Donald Trump. They can choose dishonor in the vain hope that the 45th president will be more dovish because he rejects neo-conservatism. But they will have war nonetheless because Trump has no interest in peace.
Libertarians should instead accept that Trump is a hawk and act accordingly.