As our hearts break for the people of Ukraine, it is imperative that we wrap our heads around the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the price we pay for supporting a president who stridently promoted “America First” and cast doubt on America’s commitment to NATO, weakening its deterrent strength. This war is the price of supporting a president and his enablers who divided us here at home and made us weak in the eyes of adversaries. This war represents the danger to the world of supporting a president who invited Russian interference in our elections and supported Vladimir Putin’s account of that election over the findings of our own CIA. This is the price of letting a president get away with holding back military aid to Ukraine in hopes of obtaining political dirt on an election rival. And this is the price of supporting a president who aligned himself with aggressive authoritarians and actively promoted selfishness and self-interest here at home and before the United Nations.
While some may accuse me of “Monday morning quarterbacking,” the facts are this: I and many others steeped in foreign policy warned of the risks Donald Trump was creating by ripping up previous international agreements, casting doubt on our commitment to allies, and cozying up to authoritarians like Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un.
As a conservative, a Republican and a student of foreign policy for over 40 years, never have I seen anything like the set of self-inflicted wounds former President Trump has wrought upon us. Never in the history of the world has a global hegemon withdrawn from its position of power and responsibilities like the US did during the Trump presidency.
Setting aside Trump’s ties to Putin prior to the 2016 election, according to both the Senate intelligence report on Russian interference and the Mueller report, Trump and his campaign team invited and coordinated with Russian nationals to interfere in our elections. In July 2017, Trump chose to side with Putin and his denial of interference over the assessment of our CIA, an agency full of extraordinarily bright and patriotic Americans.
Within months of taking office, Trump began a long string of confrontations with NATO country heads of state over their defense spending. After years of bullying and threatening our NATO allies, in June 2020 and to the dismay of our allies and despite bipartisan objections here at home, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 US troops from Europe. Our allies said it “undermined NATO and boosted adversaries such as Russia.”
Sadly, Trump’s bullying wasn’t limited to military spending. In March 2018, Trump began a trade war with them, imposing tariffs on steel, aluminum, autos, aircraft, and consumer products and announcing with much braggadocio that “trade wars are a good thing.” Given Putin’s primary goal of weakening NATO, former National Security Advisor John Bolton summed up why Putin didn’t invade Ukraine during Trump’s presidency: “Putin saw Trump doing a lot of his work for him.”
At the G7 meeting in June 2018, Trump condoned Putin’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, stating that “Crimea is part of Russia because everyone there speaks Russian.” Trump’s assertion that the West should look the other way and let Russia rejoin the G7 signaled Putin that Trump was fine with Russian military invasions, so long as they didn’t directly impinge on America’s immediate self-interest.
In 2018 and 2019, Trump allowed Putin to install anti-aircraft missile batteries in Syria, significantly complicating freedom of navigation for US and Israeli aircraft. In 2019, Trump withdrew US troops from Syria, abandoning to the slaughter Kurdish troops that had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with US troops to defeat ISIS, and empowering a triumvirate of brutal authoritarians: Putin, Bashar Assad and Erdogan. Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned over the decision, but “Trump insisted America has nothing at stake in Syria.” Also that year, Trump held $391 million of defensive military aid to Ukraine hostage in an effort to strong-arm the country to produce political dirt on rival Joe Biden. The congressionally authorized funds were “meant to bolster Ukrainian forces in their ongoing conflict against Russian invaders in the country’s east.” While the funds were eventually released after a whistleblower complaint, and Trump was impeached, adversaries were watching a divided America being led by a president with little commitment to our allies.
With an eye toward what will likely be our next major international crisis — China trying to take Taiwan by force — it is essential that we remember the day Trump delivered his “America First” inauguration speech and promptly withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trump, eager to rip up any Obama achievement, gave away our most significant means of deterring China. With roots dating back to 2008, the TPP brought 12 Asian Pacific, and North and South American allies into a trading block to enhance economic growth among free nations and check China’s burgeoning economic growth. The nations, keenly aware of China’s accelerating territorial aggression and that military might is derivative of economic might, understood that banding together economically was the best means of deterring China. Tragically, Trump, a go-it-alone, short-term, person hungry for accolades, withdrew the US from TPP. So, someday, when China tries to take Taiwan by force, just like Russia is trying to take Ukraine, I hope people recall the day Trump opened the door to that invasion.
As Ukraine struggles to survive and as we witness the immense suffering of the Ukrainian people, it is imperative we remember that when American “leaders” distance us from our allies, put their personal interests above the security of our nation, and elevate the short-term and self-interest to thoroughly dominate decision-making, the consequences can and often will be devastating. “America First,” and all those who supported and enabled such a mindset and the man behind it, laid the groundwork for what we are witnessing today. May we never endanger the world with such short-sightedness again.
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