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Deciphering Donald Trump's national security policy: a return to the politics of fear?

"Tin-pot dictators of the world take note: All you have to do to get in bed with America is say the magic words 'radical Islamic terrorism.'"
14 Sep 2016 – 01:45 PM EDT
Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Crédito: AP Photo/Matt York

Whether one finds Donald Trump appealing or appalling, there is something about him on which everyone can agree – he has a way with words. Actually he has so many ways with words that getting a clear sense of his position on anything is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. The hapless Matt Lauer clearly demonstrated that in his recent interview of Trump.

Because of his ways with words, the media spends its time attempting to decipher Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks. Here are a few imponderable examples. He has a secret plan to defeat ISIS and knows more about the terrorist organization than the generals, but one of his first acts as president would be to order the military to come up with a plan in 30 days for victory over ISIS. He would sink an Iranian boat for any “ improper gesture” so he is apparently ready to go to war if their sailors give our sailors the finger.

And after getting his first intelligence briefing, he claimed he could read the briefers’ body language so well he could divine the fact that they were unhappy President Obama had ignored their recommendations. Perhaps with a few more briefings, Trump will figure out that intel analysts don’t give policy recommendations. They provide information and leave policy to the politicians.

With so many remarks that are as ridiculous as they are extemporaneous when Trump reads a prepared script from a teleprompter, the media usually finds it too boring to be newsworthy. That’s unfortunate because his carefully crafted statements are often as bad as spontaneous outbursts.

Take for instance a recent national security speech where he said the following: “We should work with any country that shares our goal of destroying ISIS and defeating Radical Islamic terrorism, and form new friendships and partnerships based on this mission.”

Tin-pot dictators of the world take note: All you have to do to get in bed with America is say the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

We have seen this movie before and it did not end well, especially for Latin America. During the Reagan administration, the ambassador to the United Nations was Jeane Kirkpatrick. An ardent anti-Communist, she gave her name to the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, which said the United States should embrace any autocrat that shared her antipathy for Communism. And the corollary was that any left-wing leader who would not be an ally in the Cold War had to be opposed and undermined even if elected.

That kind of thinking is what lead the Nixon administration to help overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile and to support Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator who took his place. It also inspired Oliver North, the convicted felon and Fox News commentator, to think selling arms to Iran to fund the Contras in Central America was a swell idea even if illegal.

The CIA also paid the Argentine army, that had just wrapped up murdering thousands of its fellow Argentines in its dirty war against terrorism, to train the Contras in its tactics. If the Reagan administration had been honest, it would have, at that point, added the United States to the official list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

The embrace of human rights violators required by the Kirkpatrick Doctrine was justified by the need to win the Cold War. While ISIS and other terrorists are a threat, the average American has as much chance of dying in a terrorist attack as they do from being killed by their furniture falling on them. To institute the Kirkpatrick Doctrine 2.0 would not only make a mockery of the values this country supposedly stands for, it would also be an absurd overreaction that would embroil us in more unwinnable wars. And it would inspire more terrorism than it eliminated. So no, we don’t need to be friends and partners with any country that claims it will help in the fight against ISIS.

Nonetheless there are those politicians who continue to shout that the jihadists are coming and that everyone should run for their lives. They even claim terrorism is a threat to the continued existence of America. Who knew the world’s only superpower could be eliminated by a few thousand fanatics thousands of miles away?

Since those same politicians have never put their lives on the line for their country, maybe they are simply incapable of calculating the risk of terrorism. Or perhaps they think they will win votes by using the fear of it to paralyze the brains of the voters.

Dennis Jett is a former American ambassador who joined Penn State's School of International Affairs after a career in the U.S. Foreign Service that spanned 28 years and three continents. His experience and expertise focus on international relations, foreign aid administration, and American foreign policy. He was dean of the International Center at the University of Florida for eight years.

Disclaimer: We selected this op-ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.

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