Donald Trump appears poised to roll to victory in South Carolina pushing an foreign policy agenda that's largely indistinguishable from President Obama's.
In a Republican primary in conservative South Carolina, that could prove significant, given assumptions about what GOP voters are looking for in a commander in chief and how the party's eventual nominee might stack up against his Democratic counterpart. The New York celebrity businessman's latest presumed foreign policy heresy came just this week, when he refused to side with Israel in the Jewish State's ongoing struggle with the Palestinians.
Asked by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough during a televised town hall from South Carolina about who's to blame for the failure of the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace Trump said: "You know, I don't want to get into it. I don't want to get into it for a different reason."
He continued: "I don't want to get into it for a different reason, Joe, because if I do win, there has to be a certain amount of surprise, unpredictability, our country has no unpredictability. If I win, I don't want to be in a position where I'm saying to you, and the other side now says: 'We don't want Trump involved, we don't want -' Let me be sort of a neutral guy, let's see what — I'm going to give it a shot. It would be so great."
Trump's comments came under heavy criticism Thursday from Republican foreign policy advisors.
"Mr. Trump's statement that he does not want to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian matter demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of America's relationship with Israel. He is closer to President Obama's view of the world than the views of the GOP base," said Robert C. O'Brien, a Los Angeles attorney who writes regularly on international matters.
"Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East," added O'Brien, who advised 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney but is neutral in the 2016 primary. "The next president of the United States must make it clear to the world, including Hamas and Hezbollah and their sponsors, that there is no daylight between America and Israel."
Aside from Trump refusing to lay out what his Middle East policy would be regarding the U.S.'s most important ally in the region, Trump's answer about being an honest broker between the two sides is out of step with most elected Republicans and the rest of the GOP presidential field. Since the George W. Bush presidency, the Republican Party has generally favored Israel's position in the conflict with the Palestinians and in any potential peace talks.
Trump holds a large lead in South Carolina heading into Saturday's primary, and outpaces his Republican competition in most other state and national polls. Nonetheless, his approach would align him more with the American political left.
President Obama and the Democrats regularly declare allegiance to Israel's security and join Republicans in supporting billions in aid to Jerusalem. But de-emphasizing the alliance, and advocating that the U.S. exhibit neutrality, is progressive. The policy could be expected to elicit jeers from Republican voters; Obama has taken heat from the right over his falling out with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, expressing undivided support for Israel is a guaranteed applause line on GOP trail.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, echoing the Republican field sans Trump, put it this way during a Wednesday evening town hall meeting that was hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper:
"We have abandoned our friends and allies [internationally,"] Cruz said. "Ripping to shreds the Iranian nuclear deal, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. Both of those are within the power of the president, but they're also powerfully symbolic. You know, moving the embassy to [Jerusalem] tells Israel, it tells all of our allies, it tells our enemies, America is back."
Trump has been consistent on Israel, delivering a similar message to the Republican Jewish Coalition during a candidate forum the group hosted last year. The real estate mogul's progressive approach to Israel fits with his skewering of George W. Bush for "lying" the U.S. into war with Iraq and blaming him for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Even Democrats have shied away from the latter critique, which has tended to exist only on the political fringe.
In tone, Trump sounds like the opposite of Obama. The reality television star is vowing to beef up the military, get tough with the Islamic State and block all Muslims from entering the U.S. But on policy, Trump doesn't line up as a conservative hawk in the tradition of President Ronald Reagan, but rather shares the president's non-interventionist leanings.
Obama often advocates for reducing the U.S. military footprint overseas so that Washington can focus on investing and rebuilding infrastructure "here at home." So does Trump. Trump has vehemently criticized Obama's deal with Iran to limit the country's nuclear weapons capabilities. But like Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, has said he would strictly enforce the agreement rather than pull the U.S. out of it, as some of his GOP competitors are promising to do.
Indeed, Trump has gone further than Obama in challenging the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that calls for the U.S. to play the role of guarantor of global security. It's Trump that has questioned the value of keeping U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and throughout the Asia Pacific to counter North Korea and a rising China. It's Trump who has questioned U.S. alliances in Europe and the Middle East.
And, Trump seems content to allow Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to exert his influence in the Middle East at the expense of the U.S. Indeed, where most Republicans have criticized Putin as a dictator who is not to be trusted, Trump has defended Putin as a strong leader whom he could get along with. The response from conservative foreign policy thinkers is indistinguishable from what they usually have to say about Obama.
"Trump continues to talk like a Democrat in the middle of the Republican primary," said Republican foreign policy advisor Richard Grenell, who served under George W. Bush but is neutral in the 2016 primary. "He is arguing that the U.S. should not support Israel for fear of looking like we are taking sides, he thinks Russia is trying to take out ISIS while they are propping up [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad and he doesn't know basic national security tools like the nuclear triad."