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Evaluating Trump's Foreign Policy From A Conservative Perspective


President Trump is a Republican who hasn't had a particularly conservative foreign policy. He called the Iraq War the single worst decision ever made. He's lauded Russia, praised North Korea and said he'll withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria. This week, he came back from Hanoi with no deal with Kim Jong Un. There's the prolonged humanitarian political crisis in Venezuela and shifting - are they staying or going - policies of U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan. Is this administration's foreign policy unraveling?

We're going to take stock with two foreign policy experts who are conservatives. Danielle Pletka is with the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: And Christopher Preble of the libertarian Cato Institute in our studios - thank you for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER PREBLE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's start with North Korea and you first, Danielle Pletka. Does flying halfway around the world to get nothing suggest the administration just isn't doing its homework?

PLETKA: Well, yes, frankly, it does. I mean, I think that a lot of people felt, let's say, tolerably comfortable with the idea that Donald Trump wanted to start things off with a person-to-person meeting with Kim Jong Un. But by the second meeting, it appeared that it was meeting for meeting's sake and that the North Korean leader was taking the president of the United States for a ride.

SIMON: Mr. Preble - Mr. Preble, sorry.

PREBLE: I don't think there's ever an argument against meeting, per se. I take Danielle's point, but there's also - it's also true that we don't have regular dialogue prior to this meeting last year. And so continuing that dialogue at some level seems to me like a good idea. I would hope...

SIMON: Just at some level - what about below that?

PREBLE: Right. Well, that's the point. Right, that's my point. So I do think that thinking that you can start this from the top down, that perhaps may be true, but you also need to have a working-level dialogue. And I would hope that that will continue even though this particular meeting in Hanoi did not produce any breakthrough.

SIMON: But did just having these two summits and President Trump's almost rhapsodic praise boosted Kim Jong Un's prestige?

PREBLE: I don't endorse the praise, but I don't - I also don't believe that meeting with a leader necessarily implies an endorsement of their behavior and their - the treatment of their people. The president, after all, has met with a number of other leaders who have horrendous human rights records, including, for example, our allies, the Saudis. So that by itself does not trouble me.

SIMON: Danielle Pletka, I want to get you to talk about Venezuela, if I could - President Maduro refusing to step down despite international and U.S. pressure. Do you see a discernible U.S. policy there?

PLETKA: Actually, I think Venezuela is a real success story for this administration and in a very conventional way, actually. You know, here we see that the administration actually did some homework. They built the foundations. They worked with our allies. They worked with the multilateral, in this case, the Organization of American States. They really have brought together, you know, a coalition of, at this point, dozens of countries that recognize the now constitutional leader of Venezuela, Mr. Guaido. And they are ratcheting up pressure in ways that are, I think, quite careful.

I recognize that this is going to be a hard slog. Maduro and his backers in Havana are very, very committed to hanging on. They have that exploited the Venezuelan people and the economy much to their personal financial advantage. And they don't want to let that go. But I do think the administration has actually shown a lot of skill in this area. I've been very impressed. And they've been quiet about it as well, which is something that we so rarely see from Donald Trump.

SIMON: I want to get you to talk about that, too, Mr. Preble, but let me insert would it help for the United States to give a pledge of no military intervention to assuage people who are concerned that that's where it's headed?

PREBLE: Well, I think people are concerned about it, and I think they should be concerned about that. The United States has a track record of using military force and violating the sovereignty of a number of countries, not just in this hemisphere but around the world. So I think that it is important to emphasize that there is a constitutional process that Juan Guaido is - has a legitimate claim. And I think it's equally important that the Lima Group, not just the Organization of American States but an organization - a loose coalition of states not led by the United States has endorsed Guaido is significant. But I think the United States could complicate things if it implies, as some have, that ultimately the United States is going to determine this by force.

SIMON: Let me ask you both and begin with you again, Danielle Pletka - has the United States abdicated a leadership role in the world? And has that - does that really assist the world at this moment?

PLETKA: That's a very tough question. You know, I mean, I firmly believe that the world is a better place when the United States leads. You know, the world is not a place where when we step back that nobody else steps in. There are plenty of eager players on the global stage, whether it's the Chinese with the rules that they like to promulgate or the Russians or even regionally whether it's the Iranians or others. You really do see that there are actual challenges to our global leadership.

The question of whether we've abdicated, though, is a - much more than a Trump question because this really began in the Obama administration. President Obama was much less committed to the American global role. And, you know, let's set aside these questions of exceptionalism that's obsessed, you know, the front pages but just less committed to an American leadership profile abroad...

SIMON: Leading from behind was the phrase I remember from Libya, yeah.

PLETKA: Yes, a most regrettable phrase for a most regrettable - a badly managed, badly led and badly concluded operation in Libya. So, you know, this has been a trend. And the one thing I think is absolutely clear, and I expect that Chris will disagree with me about this, but the one thing I think is clear is that without presidential leadership, the American people don't actually understand or want to sign up to anything that we do overseas except perhaps global trade. And even there now, we see a question.

SIMON: Christopher Preble.

PREBLE: Well, actually, Danielle and I agree on the importance of trade, and I think the president has taken a bad step in the wrong direction on that. But in terms of U.S. leadership, we have to remember where this all started. After World War II, the entire world was shattered, and the few countries that were capable of doing anything about it, one of them was the Soviet Union. And so in that context, I was pretty happy to see the United States take a leading role. But it's striking to me that Danielle mentions Russia and China and even Iran regionally but not any of the other countries in the world - of which there are roughly 190 other countries in the world - which might actually take a more leading role, at least in their own region. And, again, that's why I point back to what's happened in Venezuela and the response of other countries in the region. I just...

SIMON: Are you speaking of, let's say, for example, India and Southeast Asia?

PREBLE: Right, sure, of course, India or in Europe, there are still a number of important, powerful players. You look at the way that the other parties to the Iran nuclear deal are continuing to abide by that deal and try to move it forward. These are countries that have identified what their interests are, and they do not necessarily align with the United States.

SIMON: Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. You have a book out next month - "Peace, War, And Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy." Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; thank you both very much for being with us.

PREBLE: Thank you.

PLETKA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.