Donald Trump flashed his non-interventionist foreign policy credentials on Sunday, staking out a firm position against establishment candidates who favor a more active role for the U.S. military in the Middle East.
On Meet the Press, Trump said that the Middle East would be a more stable place today if the dictators Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi were still in power.
Trump mentioned the countries in comparison to current efforts to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power.
“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there, it’s a mess,” Trump said on NBC.
“If you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there, it’s a mess. It’s going to be the same thing” in Syria, he said.
Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if the Middle East would be more stable with Gaddafi and Saddam in power, Trump replied, “Of course it would be.”
Trump, who leads the field of Republicans seeking the presidency in the November 2016 election in public opinion polls, has said he supports Russian efforts to fight Islamic State militants, even though Russia has backed Assad.
Trump said last week Assad might be replaced by someone worse if he were ousted.
Trump’s statement is one legitimate argument about “stability” in the Middle East — an ill-defined concept in a turbulent region. One can also make the argument that Hussein and Gaddafi were destabilizing influences in the Middle East by themselves and the difference between them being in power or out of power is the body count. They were murdering plenty of their own people while they were in power and Saddam threatened his neighbors, so the notion that “stability” would have been served if they remained is seductive but hardly probative.
Both arguments are academic. Arguing counterfactual outcomes to history is an exercise in futility. No one knows what would have happened if we didn’t fight a war with either Libya or Iraq. One or both leaders could have been assassinated. They might have been overthrown. The ingredients for civil war were present in both countries, making arguments of the type made by Trump interesting, but impossible to prove.
More to the point, Trump’s arguments go against the grain of Republican orthodoxy. In fact, Trump sounds positively Rand Paulian in his argument for non-intervention. Is this really the temper of Republican voters?
Perhaps not a majority of Republicans, but the American people are far warier of committing the military to adventures — especially in the Middle East. In this way, Trump has accurately taken the temperature of the voters and will no doubt benefit from the contrast with interventionist Republicans like Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush.