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Trump Reset? Sober Foreign Policy Address Gives Peek Into 'Trump Doctrine'

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, gave an outline of his worldview and foreign policy goals in an address in Washington Wednesday.
Evan Vucci
Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, gave an outline of his worldview and foreign policy goals in an address in Washington Wednesday.

Championing "stability" and protectionism, Donald Trump managed a sendup of the foreign policies of the last three American presidents, as well as the candidate he is likely to face this fall in a general election — Hillary Clinton.

"With President Obama and Secretary Clinton, we've had ... a reckless, rudderless and aimless foreign policy — one that has blazed a path of destruction in its wake," Trump charged in a sober foreign policy address at a hotel in Washington. He added, "[T]he legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray."

Trump derided what he saw as President Obama's "weakness," lambasted George W. Bush's decision to intervene in Iraq (though he did not name the 43rd president) and Bill Clinton's "total disaster" NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. He warned against what he called the "false song of globalism."

The speech was more a litany of what Trump doesn't think has worked rather than a prescription of specifics — he did not mention his wall with Mexico and only alluded to his call for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the U.S. But his 38-minute remarks did offer a peek into Trump's worldview, a window into a "Trump Doctrine" that is reflexively protectionist, against nation-building — underlined by the slogan "America First" — and reliant on a backbone of military strength.

It also gave Trump the opportunity to appear more serious and less bombastic. If there are two Trumps, as Ben Carson has said, this was "Presidential Trump." There were no "Lyin' Ted" references or mocking of John Kasich's eating habits.

Contradictions, there were a few

The Trump Doctrine did have some apparent contradictions:

Rethinking friends: He warned that NATO allies, who don't "pay their fair share," should be prepared to "defend themselves." Yet he pledged to "our friends and allies" that "America is going to be a reliable friend and ally again."

Stability vs. unpredictability: He vowed to focus on "creating stability in the world." Yet he implored, "We have to be unpredictable and be unpredictable starting now."

Critics would argue that retreating from NATO, calling for increasing nuclear weapons capability ("Our nuclear weapons arsenal — our ultimate deterrent — has been allowed to atrophy and is desperately in need of modernization and renewal") and threatening allies might have destabilizing effects.

Military spending vs. addressing debt: "We will spend what we need to rebuild our military," Trump said, blasting Obama for cutting back on military spending. "It is the cheapest investment we can make."

Military spending is the largest part of the federal budget, and yet Trump also said he could solve the nation's debt problem.

"In this time of mounting debt, no one knows how to address the debt, but I do," he boasted without specifics except talk of "waste."

A sign of how he might attack Clinton on foreign policy

Elections are choices. And Trump gave some clues as to how he might go after Clinton.

Trump's reference to "stability" follows American intervention in Iraq, the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya and the U.S. backing of rebels in an attempt to overthrow Syria's Bashar Assad.

It has left some across party lines, and in other countries, wondering what the U.S.'s role is and should be. President Obama was elected to end wars, not start them, and he has talked of a limited footprint. But he has, at times, been dragged into conflicts he'd rather not be in or thought he had left behind.

"We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama's line in the sand in Syria," Trump said Wednesday. "Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos, and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper."

Those comments happen to echo Russia's Vladimir Putin, who believes U.S. intervention in places like Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Syria were mistakes that had dangerous destabilizing effects.

Here's what Putin told Charlie Rose in September, for example:

"We are trying to prevent the creation of a power vacuum in Syria in general, because as soon as the government agencies in a state, in a country are destroyed, a power vacuum sets in, and that vacuum is quickly filled with terrorists. This was the case in Libya and Iraq; this was the case in some other countries."

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has used a similar line against Clinton for her more interventionist tendencies. Clinton advocated arming Syrian rebels early on and was in favor of toppling Gadhafi.

"I worry," Sanders said at a debate in December, "that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be."

It could be a preview to a Trump general-election attack. But Trump's position on intervention is not so clean cut. Remember, Trump has called for bombing "the s*** out of" ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and he has grudgingly said there might be a need for U.S. ground troops, as many as 10,000.

But there was none of that discussed Wednesday in his approach to fighting ISIS. Why?

"I have a simple message for them: Their days are numbered," Trump boasted. "I won't tell them where, and I won't tell them how."

Above all, Trump said — in a way only he can — that he would be cautious with sending troops off to war.

"I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary," Trump said, "and will only do so if we have a plan for victory — with a capital V."

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.