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Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.
Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.

JOHN IBBITSON

Trump wouldn't be the first U.S. president to balance a hawkish team with opposing viewpoints Add to ...

One thing that Donald Trump might have in common with Franklin Roosevelt – and there’s a comparison you wouldn’t expect – is a fondness for incorporating competing points of view into his administration.

The president-elect has chosen an ultra-hawkish team to take charge of national security: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney-general; retired lieutenant-general Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and possibly retired marine-general James Mattis for secretary of defence. All share the “clash of civilizations” approach to Islam, as put forward almost 30 years ago by conservative intellectuals Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

Those men believed, as Mr. Trump’s team believes, that Islam is more ideology than religion, and hostile to the West. They can be expected to take no prisoners – and to interrogate with extreme measures the ones they do – in protecting their homeland from what they see as a radical Islamist menace to the Judeo-Christian faith and capitalism.

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Such views do not take into account the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who bear no animus toward the United States – Indonesia comes quickly to mind, and Malaysia and Jordan and the Gulf states and Bangladesh and Muslim Americans and Muslim Canadians and we could go on. As well, an us-against-them attitude could become self-fulfilling, by radicalizing Muslims at home and abroad.

Mr. Trump knows all that, but doesn’t care. He aims to confront the bogeyman of radical Islamist jihadi terrorism – or whatever it’s called – and that’s all there is to it. But Mr. Trump also met with Mitt Romney on the weekend, who is rumoured to be under consideration for secretary of state. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee did everything in his power to keep Mr. Trump from becoming his successor. “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” he said back in March. “… He’s playing the American public for suckers … His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe.”

Mr. Romney would agree to work in a Trump administration, one assumes, only if he believed he could act as a moderating influence. This is a risky game. Colin Powell left George W. Bush’s administration angry and embittered, a secretary of state who felt he had been deceived by radical neoconservative elements within the administration over the situation in Iraq.

Mr. Romney would take the job, one assumes, only if he felt Mr. Trump would give him real authority, and this might not be as strange as it sounds. Mr. Roosevelt also stacked his administration with contradictory voices – radical economic reformers versus cautious pragmatists, war hawks versus isolationists. He was a master at playing both sides, keeping his options open, and choosing only when he was ready to choose.

In considering Mr. Romney, Mr. Trump might be seeking a secretary of state who will reassure NATO and other allies, act as a brake on the more reckless tendencies of others in cabinet, and add a veneer of centrist stability to what otherwise is shaping up as a radically right-wing administration.

This would mirror Mr. Trump’s choice of pragmatist Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, for chief of staff as a counterweight to chief strategist Stephen Bannon, former editor of the ultra-conservative Breitbart News. The incoming president might not only be willing to tolerate internal conflict, he might be hoping for it, leaving him to pick the winner when the time is right.

Of course, even if a Romney appointment calms rattled nerves in Berlin and Seoul, there is the question of containing Russia, which Mr. Romney may be more eager to do than Mr. Trump, while dealing with the reality of Chinese power, which Mr. Trump might be more willing than Mr. Romney to defy.

This could lead to an alienated and frustrated Mitt Romney resigning in protest, but Mr. Trump might consider this an affordable risk.

Richard Nixon allowed (even encouraged) his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to battle for control of foreign policy against frustrated secretary of state William Rogers. Ronald Reagan coped with powerful internal rivalries within his administration by pretending they didn’t exist.

Mr. Trump and his advisers could be considering a two-track foreign policy – a hard line in the Middle East and against threats to the homeland, with a more conventional and conciliatory approach to allies and antagonists in Europe and Asia. And if those two tracks come into conflict – well, that’s for down the road.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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