Redefining ‘America First’

By Brandon Brooks

One month before clinching the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump delivered a speech at the Center for the National Interest promising to institute a radical departure from conventional U.S. foreign policy. Proclaiming the United States’ current global strategy to be “a complete and total disaster,” Trump proposed an “America First” foreign policy doctrine, which would restore its competitive edge in global commerce and revise burdensome security agreements that robbed the country of billions of dollars each year.

In the time since his inauguration, now-President Trump has certainly succeeded in departing from traditional U.S. foreign policy norms, but what of “America First?” So far, his administration has refrained from addressing longstanding shortcomings in the United States’ global strategy and prioritized the interests of his support base over that of the country as a whole. Nowhere is this clearer than in the administration’s current Middle East foreign policy.

Consider Israel, for example. Over the last six decades, the United States has provided over $147 billion dollars in foreign assistance to Israel, the most to any country since World War II. Initially, such assistance was fairly reasonable. When the U.S. first began transferring arms to Israel in 1962, the latter was a young nation surrounded by hostile neighbors that were adamantly opposed to its existence. In the years since, Israel has emerged as a high-income country and its traditional regional adversaries have either formally recognized its right to exist or remain too weak to pose any legitimate threat to its national security.

Yet U.S. policy towards Israel has not acclimated to these developments. In 2017, Israel received over $3.1 billion in aid and was the only country to escape cuts under Trump’s proposed budget for the following fiscal year. And rather than distancing the U.S. from the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Trump administration decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, undermining bipartisan calls for a two-state solution and tarnishing the United States’ global image. One would be hard pressed to explain how either move aligns with an “America First” doctrine. Instead, it appears as if Trump sought to maintain his support among Evangelical Christians, a key support base known to sympathize with Israel.

Much the same could be said of the Trump administration’s policy towards Saudi Arabia. During his visit to the kingdom last year, President Trump signed a military arms deal providing up to $350 billion in equipment over the next 10 years and called on the global community to isolate Iran in response to its repressive governance and role in spreading violent extremism abroad.

However, these actions leave the United States in a bit of an ideological quandary. How can the U.S. claim to promote democracy and human rights abroad while supporting a country that deprives its citizens of these very rights? Iran’s government is certainly guilty of brutally suppressing political dissidents and promoting extremist ideologies abroad. But the same could be said of Saudi Arabia, which continues to spread Salafism – an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam – to other Muslim countries and repress human rights activists, religious minorities, and women.

Worse, providing military support to Riyadh signals a willingness to overlook its brutal actions in neighboring Yemen, where Saudi airstrikes led to civilian casualties in 2017. None of this is lost on Iranian officials, who cite this discrepancy to undermine U.S. credibility and refute criticisms of their own government’s actions.

A true America First foreign policy doctrine would hold recipients of U.S. military aid accountable for their actions and re-evaluate whether the United States’ current stances disproportionately benefit its allies at its own expense.

In regard to the Middle East, this would entail debating whether funds allocated as foreign assistance to Israel and Saudi Arabia could be put to better use  – be it re-investing in underfunded government programs at home, assisting in the reconstruction of Iraq, or helping to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

While the Trump administration still has the opportunity to right the course and institute a new Middle East foreign policy, proposing practical solutions to issues that prior administrations were reluctant to address, its current actions suggest it lacks both the integrity and resolve to do so.