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Trump’s anti-interventionism helped him win, says Obama’s former Middle East adviser

Philip Gordon, former Middle East adviser to President Obama

The U.S. press is playing down an important element of Donald Trump’s accession: his anti-interventionism.

Two days ago in Philadelphia, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech on anti-interventionism that became a big story in the British press. BBC led its international broadcast with the news:

She talked of “the failed policies of the past”, before making her crucial declaration of new foreign policy doctrine: “The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

Here are May’s actual words to the Republicans in Philadelphia on January 26, describing the U.S. and British interest:

It is in our interests — those of Britain and America together — to stand strong together to defend our values, our interests and the very ideas in which we believe. This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over. But nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests.

May’s statement of course echoes Donald Trump’s statement, “America first– America first!” at his inaugural speech of Jan. 20th; but since then the American press has been largely caught up in the issue of the dark echoes of that phrase, or in characterizing Trump as an “isolationist,” without considering the substance of his objections to US military adventures.

The New York Times article yesterday about May and Trump as an odd couple completely eliminated her anti-interventionist statement of the day before. (Though an Associated Press article on May’s speech did appear on the Times website).

While this morning on NPR, reporter Scott Horsley characterized the agreement of the two leaders on this point as “superficial.”

they’re both pulling back a bit from international cooperation.

Clearly, our press is belittling an important issue. The rejection of US interventionism was part of the election campaign last year: Hillary Clinton supported regime change in Syria; her likely choice for Defense Secretary advocated for “limited military coercion” and a no-bombing zone enforced by the U.S. there.

One expert who has not missed this angle is President Obama’s former aide on Middle East issues, Philip Gordon, who spoke at length on the matter at an Israeli security conference earlier this week and said that Trump won in part because he represented “an American feeling that we have tried everything, it’s been costly, it’s been bloody, it hasn’t worked, and let somebody else take care of it.” Here are his comments in full:

As to … Pax Americana, I don’t know that we ever had full control over this region. But surely you have seen a gradual American disenchantment with its own role in the Middle East. And I think interestingly that has been exacerbated, leading to an administration that may want to wash its hands to a large degree of the whole region, because we’ve just gone through a phase where we’ve tried two very different approaches to this complex and difficult region.

One that said, we must use all of our power to resolve the region [the Bush administration]… We’re going to change the regime in Iraq, spread democracy. This is too important to us, we’re going to use our power to transform it…

When that didn’t work, you had a backlash… that said we can’t transform the region and what we need to do is to minimize our interests there and largely pivot to other regions… I think it has fueled a very large degree of– isolationism might be too strong, but Donald Trump, he won for a lot of reasons. But let’s just say at least that it did not seem to cost him that he seemed to be saying, This is just not our problem.

He said it even just the other day. We have been spending trillions of dollars, what do we have to show for it? And I think a lot of Americans sympathize with that attitude. Now it’s inconsistent like a lot of things are inconsistent, with the notion that we’re going to wipe Islamic extremism off the face of the earth, we’re going to stand up to Iran, … but I wouldn’t underestimate the degree to which Trump actually does represent an American feeling that we have tried everything, it’s been costly, it’s been bloody, it hasn’t worked, and let somebody else take care of it…

And I’ll end– to reinforce that point– by reminding, even in this presidential campaign, if you think about it– normally we swing back and forth, and the pendulum is just critical of whatever the current president is doing, and you go in the other direction….  Even the Republican candidates, and not Trump, who was much more isolationist…. they were not proposing to put 100,000 troops in the Middle East or to take risks. At the far end of the spectrum, you maybe had Lindsey Graham calling for 10,000 troops in Syria. I think that reflected the genuine American feeling that this is too hard and it’s too costly and let someone else deal with it.

The U.S. press ought to show more respect for this point of view. Gordon is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015. Before that he was an assistant secretary of state under Hillary Clinton.