Donald Trump’s many foreign policy flip-flops

Story highlights

  • Seen in a less positive light, Trump changes positions based on a desire to please
  • Seen in the best possible light for Trump, these series of position changes are evidence of his flexibility of mind

Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump is winning kudos for the start of his nine-day foreign trip.

It’s some of the first positive press coverage he’s received in months. But it’s also based on a series of flip-flops — rhetorical and policy-centered — that have greased the skids for Trump’s trip to look like a success.
Let’s start with Trump’s speech on Sunday in Saudi Arabia. In it, he praised Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and described the war on terrorism in terms that could easily have come from the mouth of Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
That sort of rhetoric is VERY different from what Trump said on the campaign trail.
And, of course, he proposed the basic skeleton of what became the travel ban in December 2015 — calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He also said during the campaign he was open to the possibility of shutting down mosques in America and to the idea of creating a national Muslim database.
While Trump has worked to soften the language he’s used to describe the travel ban since then, he’s not scaled back, from a policy position, his views on the necessity of it. Which makes his language on Saudi Arabia over the weekend somewhat jarring.
Then there is the issue of where the American embassy in Israel should be located.
During the campaign, Trump was adamant about moving the embassy to Jerusalem. At a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2016, Trump called Jerusalem ‘the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” (The embassy is currently in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as key ground.)
Then, one day before his inauguration, Trump reiterated that promise in an interview with an Israeli newspaper, noting: “You know I’m not a person who breaks promises.”
Trump is no longer so gung-ho on the move. Just days before he jetted off on this foreign trip, Trump senior advisers made clear that he would not be immediately moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
“We don’t think it would be wise to do it at this time,” an official said. “We’ve been very clear what our position is and what we would like to see done, but we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”
And then, last but not least, NATO.
The international alliance came under massive criticism during the campaign from Trump. He cast it as “obsolete” and too dependent on American financial contributions for its continued existence.
After he won, Trump kept that drumbeat up.
“I said a long time ago that NATO had problems,” Trump told the Times of London and Bild, a German paper, in a joint interview days before his inauguration. “Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago. Number two, the countries weren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying.”
Trump, who will attend a NATO meeting in Brussels later this week, seemed to reverse course last month in a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“I said it was obsolete,” Trump said. “It’s no longer obsolete.”
He hung that flip-flop on the idea that NATO had taken his advice and begun to aggressively fight terrorism. But NATO has been engaged actively in Afghanistan for more than 10 years following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Seen in the best possible light for Trump, these series of position changes are evidence of his much-touted flexibility of mind. Unlike many politicians desperate to cling to their positions despite new evidence, Trump is the consummate dealmaker — always learning and altering his positions so as to put the country in the best place to “win.”
Seen in a less positive light, Trump changes positions based on a desire to please or based on the audience he is talking to. Bashing Islam played well to a segment of the Republican base during the primaries. Surrounded by leaders of a slew of Muslim nations in Saudi Arabia, it plays a lot less well. Ditto bashing NATO. Or promising to move the US embassy in Israel.
In advance of his trip, he and his administration, therefore, went out of their way to put his positions in line with where he was headed — virtually ensuring success. (While most Israelis favor moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, it is not typically regarded as a top-of-mind issue.)
Trump is, at root, a pleaser. He wants to be liked. In business, that worked — and worked well. In politics, it’s much harder to reconcile the various flip-flops with one another as we search for some semblance of a “Trump Doctrine.”
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