Conservatives say they already see glimpses of President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” combining with President Trump’s own motto of “America first” and a dash of unpredictability into an as-yet-to-be-defined “Trump doctrine” for foreign policy — but they express absolute faith in Mr. Trump to avoid nation-building, eradicate the Islamic State and keep adversaries guessing.
Mr. Trump told grass-roots activists at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference he plans to build up the nation’s military, saying he hopes the U.S. never has to use it but that “nobody’s going to mess with us.”
“Nobody will dare question our military might again. We believe in peace through strength and that’s what we will have,” he said.
Connie Dunn, 66, of Charlotte, North Carolina, said Mr. Trump’s overseas priorities also sound like his stated goal to put America first.
“It doesn’t sound like he absolutely wants to go to war all the time — he’s not a hawk. But on the other hand, I don’t think he thinks we’re a nation-building country anymore. And so if it’s America first, I’m good,” Ms. Dunn said.
Mr. Trump has railed against the military adventurism characterized by the George W. Bush administration, but also against what he saw as mismanagement by President Barack Obama, who allowed the Islamic State to grow in strength.
He told CPAC the Middle East is in “much worse shape” than it was 15 years ago, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“If our presidents would have gone to the beach for 15 years, we would be in much better shape than we are right now, that I can tell you,” he said.
Robert Baird, 71, a small business owner from Leesburg, Florida, said he can appreciate such an anti-interventionist attitude.
“I’m not into nation-building,” Mr. Baird said. “You go over there and you spend a trillion dollars trying to reverse how they’ve thought for 10,000 years and you’re wasting your money. You’re not going to change an ideology overnight.”
Among other criticisms, Mr. Trump has slammed Mr. Obama for telegraphing his moves to the enemy, such as announcing plans to abide by date-certain withdrawals of troops from places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“How stupid is that? So everybody in the Middle East said well, we’ll wait [until] he’s gone and we’ll do what we want and that’s exactly what happened,” said Geraldine Davie, 76, a retired teacher from Springfield, Virginia.
Ms. Davie said if you’re the head of a household, you’re not going to just tell your kid you have $100,000 saved for their college education.
“No, no, no — you say, ‘Wait, let’s work this out. Where do you want to go? This is what I’ll contribute. What are you going to contribute?’ So you make them part of the responsibility. That’s what Trump is trying to do now, I believe,” she said. “Everybody’s got to step up and be responsible. America can’t carry the burden alone like under Bush.”
Mr. Trump has said he supports NATO but that Western countries also need to be paying their fair share into the group.
He also has said he likes to be a little unpredictable, perhaps somewhat of an offshoot of President Richard Nixon’s “madman” strategy of trying to get communist leaders to think he was too irrational to reasonably forecast what he might do.
“I think his unpredictability is keeping them on edge and on their toes,” Teresa Adams, 64, a retired public health worker from Washington, D.C., said of foreign countries. “But I don’t think he’ll blow it.”
Ms. Davie also said she hopes Mr. Trump can reverse a globalist, “citizen of the world” sentiment she said characterized the Bush family, Mr. Obama and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Go to meetings, but know who you are. You are the most powerful, richest country on the earth. And don’t pretend that you’re one of those other countries. You’re definitely not,” she said.