The US needs to focus on fixing itself rather than on “nation-building” abroad, Donald Trump told the Guardian in an exclusive interview. The Republican presidential frontrunner then gave two examples of exceptions to his philosophy: in Kosovo in the 1990s, and in the conflict against Isis today.
The real-estate mogul and former reality TV star has long questioned the use of military force abroad to promote democracy, and has vocally condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But in laying out his foreign policy during a wide-ranging conversation on Monday, Trump said despite his hesitations about military intervention, “there are certain cases where you see things going on, atrocities going on, that are horrible … Isis is one of them”.
While Trump made clear that he was willing to deploy American military power in some instances – “If there’s a problem going on in the world and you can solve the problem” – he continued to question most US interventions, including what he described as an ill-considered Obama administration policy in Syria.
“The United States owes $19tn,” he said. “We have to straighten out our own house. We cannot go around to every country that we’re not exactly happy with and say we’re going to recreate [them].
“It hasn’t worked,” Trump said. “Iraq was going to be a democracy. It’s not gonna work, OK? It’s not gonna work and none of these things will work.”
Referring to Iraq, he said: “We’re nation-building. We can’t do it. We have to build our own nation. We’re nation-building, trying to tell people who have [had] dictators or worse for centuries how to run their own countires.
“Look what’s happened in Iraq. We got rid of Saddam Hussein. I don’t think that was a helpful thing. Iraq is a disaster right now and it’s going to be taken over by Iran and Isis, so I think we have to focus on ourselves.
“We have to have a great military – a strong military, have to take care of our vets, big league – but we have to focus on ourselves.”
Asked about Bill Clinton’s support for intervention in Kosovo in order to prevent ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, however, Trump allowed: “It’s OK, sure.”
Addressing Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, which has so far disproportionately targeted rebel-held areas with no Isis presence, Trump expressed confidence that Vladimir Putin would eventually target the Islamic State.
“He’s going to want to bomb Isis because he doesn’t want Isis going into Russia and so he’s going to want to bomb Isis,” Trump said of the Russian president. “Vladimir Putin is going to want to really go after Isis, and if he doesn’t it’ll be a big shock to everybody.”
However, Trump did note the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, pointing out in reference to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad that Putin “is an Assad person” and “the United States doesn’t like Assad”.
He went on to condemn the Obama administration for “backing people who they don’t know who they are”, and to warn that rebels backed by the United States “could be Isis”.
“Assad is bad,” Trump said. “Maybe these people could be worse.”
The Obama administration has provided some arms and training to rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and other moderate groups fighting Assad and vetted by the CIA. Aid to rebel groups has reportedly been increased in recent weeks as Russia has intervened on behalf of the Assad regime, although a separate program to arm and train “vetted” rebels was ended this month after it only trained 54 fighters despite an expenditure of $500m.
Trump has long been suspicious of rebel groups fighting Assad. In remarks on the campaign trail last month, he expressed his concern that many Syrian refugees “could be Isis” and pledged to deport any refugees admitted to the United States by the Obama administration if he was elected. “If I win, they’re going back,” he told a raucous crowd in New Hampshire.
For all of the Republican frontrunner’s confidence and bombast in the Guardian interview in New Hampshire this week, there remained one foreign policy problem that even Trump wasn’t sure he could solve.
Trump said of the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians: “If we had the right leader in this country, possibly something could happen but obviously that is not an easy one.”
He remained optimistic when confronted on his potential involvement with the Middle East: “I would love to see something happen, I would love to be involved in that,” Trump said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I think that maybe there is an answer to it, but it’s a complicated answer, there’s no question about it. But it would great if it could be done.”
In the short term, Trump sounded his strong support for the state of Israel. “We have to stay with Israel,” Trump told the Guardian. “Israel has been our one reliable partner in the Middle East. Israel has been terrific to us. Obama has treated Israel horribly. We have to stay with Israel and stay with them big time.”
For policy decisions, he said, “I’d really call up Bibi [Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu], who is a friend of mine and I’d call up some people and be very dependent on what Israel wants. You know if they really want certain things and they are deserving of certain things.”
Trump also registered his admiration for infrastructure in other parts of the world and his worry that the United States was lagging. “We have to spend money on mass transit,” Trump said, delving into domestic policy. “We have to fix our airports, fix our roads also in addition to mass transit but we have to spend a lot of money.”
The Republican frontrunner noted: “China and these other countries, they have super-speed trains. We have nothing. This country has nothing. We are like the third world but we will get it going and do it properly, and, as I say, make America great again.”
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