Donald Trump Is No Dick Cheney

By James Mann

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At first glance, the recent drone attack led by President Trump against an Iranian general would seem to return Republican foreign policy to the era of George W. Bush. Several elements of the attack reflected the approach to the world defined by Mr. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney: the belief in the effectiveness of military forces, the validity of the preventive attack and the determination to avoid the approval of congressional leaders. But when examined more closely, such comparisons fail. In his foreign policy, Trump represents something completely new.

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The president’s recent actions highlight the fact that the Republican Party has no guiding principles; He only has Mr. Trump, who demands loyalty to himself as his leader. Nor does the party leadership have high-ranking figures with long experience in foreign policy that can challenge Trump's thinking. The Republican Party, which once served as a home for a variety of contradictory philosophies on foreign policy, has lost its stability.

Consider the history of the match in recent decades and the contrast with the current situation of the match. During the last half century, Republicans had freely divided between two approaches to deal with the world. One was traditional internationalism centered on the alliance that had dominated, for example, under President George H. W. Bush. The other was the aggressive unilateralism of the party's neoconservatives, who had strengthened during the Reagan administration.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the Secretary of State advanced, albeit imperfectly, the ideas of internationalism; Vice President Cheney adopted many of the positions of neoconservatives. These two schools of thought entered into an acrimonious conflict over the issues of Iraq, Israel, North Korea and other matters.

Now, under Trump's leadership, the Republican Party has been transformed in such a way that neither internationalists nor neoconservatives have influence in the White House. Trump has interwoven, hesitated and reversed the course of foreign policy based on his views of the moment, and as he has done so, Republicans have followed him. Factional disputes that characterized the Bush years have been replaced by a single question: Are you loyal to President Trump or not?

Now there is no one to challenge Mr. Trump. In contrast, consider the era of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell. Those two men were the most durable figures on top of the US foreign policy apparatus from 1988 to 2008, spanning the end of the Cold War and its aftermath.

During those 20 years, Mr. Powell served for nine years under four US presidents as national security adviser, president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. Mr. Cheney served for a total of 12 years as secretary of defense and vice president. The Trump administration has nothing comparable; in fact, none of the main leaders of the current administration, including the vice president, the secretary of state and defense or the National Security advisor, has been involved in the main positions of any previous administration.

Even officials with more experience than Trump initially appointed to senior positions in foreign policy, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former National Security Minister HR McMaster, had spent less previous time in senior positions in Washington than veterans of previous republican administrations.

It is tempting for liberals to assume that all their opponents on the political right are equal or come from the same source, and that, therefore, Dick Cheney somehow led to Donald Trump. But that is not correct; Mr. Trump's origins, perspective and style are quite different from those of Mr. Cheney.

Mr. Cheney's rise to power, in fact, his own personality, was based on a concern for government processes and a familiarity with national security bureaucracies (call them the "deep state") that Trump so often despises. Cheney has sometimes expressed his disapproval of some of Trump's foreign policy pillars, such as his dealings with Russia and North Korea.

From Trump Republicans we can see the absence of party ideas or strategies in current policies on the Middle East and North Korea. Under Trump, what he has told so far is just the word "personal," not diplomacy. As a result, Republicans run out of past and ideas, just one man and his whims.

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