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Phyllis Bennis says Trump pulls back from the language of regime change, but threatens Iran and promises to make America great again

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. After sweeping victories in the primaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke on foreign policy in Washington, DC on Wednesday. The speech touched on a range of issues, including Israel, the Iranian nuclear deal, and engagement with China. Joining us now to discuss the speech is Phyllis Bennis. She is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She’s the author of many books, including her most recent book, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. And she’s also the author of Understanding Palestine-Israel Conflict, also a Primer. Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Always good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Phyllis, first give us a genreal thrust of his speech and approach to foreign policy. BENNIS: Well, it was actually very interesting hearing Donald Trump’s address on foreign policy. He had very much a kind of America-first theme, but with a very strong overlay of isolationism. He included, interestingly, one of his goals being to strengthen and promote Western civilization, not universal values, very explicitly. So that was a rather shocking if not surprising addition. He distinguished himself quite sharply from other candidates, I think particularly from Hillary Clinton, on the question of saying that war and aggression will not be my first instinct, as he put it. He said we need diplomacy, we need to operate, a superpower needs to operate with caution and restraint, and he repeated his opposition to the Iraq war, and said that that was a major problem that had actually helped Iran. So in all of those ways he was pulling back from the notion of regime change being a primary goal of what his administration would look like. But having said that I should say that he was much clearer on the problems of current foreign policy, he identified five major problems, and saying what the broad goals would be that he would have, also five. But very little on how he would accomplish any of that. So it was very much a these guys are doing it all wrong. I would hold America first, but I’m not going to tell you how I would do it. He said we will once again be strong, we will once again be loved, we will once again be a strong and reliable ally. How would we do this? That’s not at all so clear. PERIES: Phyllis, so Trump spoke about Palestine and Israel, and it was a bit of a departure from his past narrative. Let’s have a look. DONALD TRUMP: Israel, our great friend, and the one true democracy in the Middle East, has been snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity. Just a few days ago Vice President Biden again criticized Israel, a force for justice and peace, for acting as an impatient peace area in the region. President Obama has not been a friend to Israel. He’s treated Iran with tender love and care, and made it a great power. Iran has indeed become a great, great power in just a very short period of time, because of what we’ve done. All of the expense and all at the expense of Israel, our allies in the region, and very importantly, the United States itself. PERIES: Phyllis, Trump’s comments in the past have indicated that he would not take sides on the Israel-Palestine issue, for example. But at the AIPAC speech and here in this address, he departed from that narrative, and he positioned himself differently. Tell us more about that. BENNIS: Well, in the, in the speech here he was very clear that Israel is one of our most important allies, it’s one of our longest allies, it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. He went through all the tropes about why Israel is the only important player in the region. And he essentially claimed that President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He talked about how the U.S. has not helped Israel, has not treated Israel well, and on the other hand it has treated Iran with kid gloves, he said, with loving kindness. With great disdain, I might add, he said that. So there is this sense that he’s returning to a more traditional position of traditional candidates, which is to embrace all things Israel in the U.S. political arena, rather than his earlier quite independent statement that he would, as you said, not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinan conflict. PERIES: And also, another big issue was ISIS. Let’s have a look at what he said. TRUMP: And then there’s ISI. I have a simple message for them: their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must–. [Applause] We must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything, we’re sending troops, we tell them. We’re sending something else, we have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now. But they’re going to be gone. ISIS will be gone if I’m elected president, and they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly. PERIES: What is this notion of unpredictability he’s talking about, and is what he is preaching here at all achievable about ISIS? BENNIS: Well, there’s no way to know if it’s achievable, because there’s no way to know what it is. You know, he’s saying, I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do, just know they will be gone. Well, every president, every secretary of defense, every chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, every commander of CENTCOM, has said the same thing, and none of them have been able to pull it off. There’s no indication, Sharmini, and this is crucial, I think, that he has any idea of dealing with ISIS other than a military approach. And as we all know, you can’t go after terrorism militarily. It doesn’t work. We’ve been at war with terrorism for 15 years, and terrorism is doing just fine. There’s no indication that Donald Trump has a different proposal. He says what they are doing is wrong. Well, okay, I agree with that. But he has no strategy that he’s putting forward of what he would do differently. He did acknowledge, and this is important, that U.S. actions in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, did help to unleash ISIS, as he put it. But he still had no strategy for what to do about it. In the past, for instance, he said, well, we will deny them access to oil. But then in this same speech, which was supposed to be his definitive speech, he talks about how ISIS now controls or is getting millions of dollars from oil in Libya. Well, ISIS is not getting any money from Libyan oil because it doesn’t have any Libyan oil. It has money that it’s getting from Syrian oil. But if he doesn’t know the difference between Syria and Libya, we’re all in serious trouble. PERIES: So, Phyllis, Trump’s speech was flagrantly absent of substance and content and specificities. Given all of that, are you concerned about the general thrust of what he’s saying? BENNIS: I’m very concerned about it. I think there’s a different kind of concern with a candidate who makes a commitment ahead of time to her or his administration focusing on war, as some other candidates have done. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has staked out a war presidency as her goal. Regime change is top of her agenda. A so-called no-fly zone in Syria is top of her agenda, unlike Bernie Sanders, for instance, who opposes a no-fly zone. In the case of Trump, we didn’t hear him say we want a no-fly zone anywhere. We didn’t hear any actual strategy. And in fact, some of his rhetoric, as I indicated earlier, is rather isolationist, saying I will not be the first to use military force as my first choice. But without providing any sense that he has an alternative strategy, I’m very concerned that when the first crisis breaks in a new, the worsening of the situation in Syria, perhaps, or a new escalation in, in Libya, or perhaps something somewhere else in another continent, even, any humanitarian crisis, a human rights crisis, anything with the so-called CNN factor or Twitter factor operating where there’s a call for the U.S. to, quote, do something, I’m afraid that a President Trump, isolationism aside, would immediately turn to the military because frankly he doesn’t have any knowledge, it doesn’t seem, of what a diplomatic solution would look like. He can talk all he wants about we need diplomacy, but he doesn’t know what that means. He’s said nothing about what it would look like, who he would bring on board. Says we have to have different people. Well, I kind of agree with that, that people who are in the White House and the State Department now have a lot of failures under their belt. But without knowing who he would bring on board to recommend decisions for a presidency under Trump, I think this is very, very dangerous, this kind of vague ISIS will be gone, but I’m not going to tell you how. It reeks of the Nixon-era we’re going to end the war in Vietnam. We have a secret plan, a secret plan to end the war. Well, the secret plan turned out to be escalation. Do we know that that’s not Trump’s secret plan, as well? We simply don’t know. PERIES: Phyllis Bennis, I thank you so much for joining us. As always, on point. Just steps away from where Trump just spoke. Thanks for joining us. BENNIS: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.