According to Gerson, Trump's "simplistic" foreign policy "assumes that the current order in oppressive countries can be indefinitely preserved — as long as it is not destabilized by meddling outsiders." Neos like Gerson believe to the contrary that "the instability of oppressive governments emerges from within," and that international indifference to sovereign oppression eventually destabilizes the international community as a whole.
[Oppressive governments] prevent the diffusion of choice and power, which is the source of economic and social success in the modern world. Monopolizing power encourages cronyism, corruption, resentment and discontent. Strongmen can succeed for a time by feeding hatred of enemies, real and imagined. But this is the path of arrogance, mediocrity and insurrection. In such societies, a few eyes and mouths open — often resulting in imprisonment or house arrest. These are the dissidents whom Trump seems intent on betraying and discouraging. The message is thereby sent that the United States values the good opinion of strongmen more than the dignity and liberty of the people they rule. This is resented, and remembered.
In the Middle East context that most interests Gerson -- the column criticizes Trump for supporting the Egyptian government that took power after the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by a coup d'etat -- this theory helps account for the rise of al-Qaeda and explains its strategy of attacking the U.S. for propping up oppressive regimes in the region. In the more specific context of Syria, Gerson incorporates what I've called the Obama Doctrine while implicitly criticizing Obama himself for his limited application of the doctrine. It was Obama's own opinion that Syria's tyranny was the necessary and sufficient cause of the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad. Gerson clearly agrees with that assessment, but thinks that the U.S. had a strategic responsibility, which Obama largely failed to live up to, to shore up Syria's liberal democratic opposition with words if not also with deeds. Gerson's column appears as the Trump administration is again threatening to attack Syria over the use of chemical weapons, over the opposition of his supposed authoritarian buddies in Russia, so what exactly Trump is doing wrong? His, apparently, is a sin of omission. He is thought either incapable or unwilling to articulate a utopian vision of a liberal democratic (much less secular) world order built with U.S. support. Gerson fears instead that Trump would sacrifice the liberal democratic aspirations of millions of people around the world to the more self-interested objectives of his war on terror, but also fears that the sacrifice will be in vain, as he predicts implicitly that thwarted reformers will continue to lash out at America, whether they take power eventually or not.
Gerson acknowledges that "The United States must find common interests on a daily basis with governments that it finds oppressive and unjust." At the same time, he insists that "it is also in our national interest to hold up an ideal that speaks to current dissidents and future leaders — who are often one and the same." In other words, if the U.S. doesn't stand up for liberal democracy against tyranny, tyrants will only be replaced by radicals who will most likely end up tyrants themselves and enemies of the U.S. While Donald Trump may not be the smartest guy in any room, I'd bet that he's never fallen for the neo idea that democracies never fight each other, much less the idea that ideas won the Cold War. His career as an international businessman probably has immunized him to dreams of global harmony while reinforcing the idea that competition is eternal. He probably doesn't stake American power on our being on the "right side of history" or any similar idea. That may be why his foreign policy has baffled most observers so far. It seems to have more to do with tests of will or strength than with promoting American ideals, while Trump may be learning on the job what American interests actually are. Only gradually will Trump, his diplomatic corps and his military advisers show whether they mean to interact with other nations, or the international community as a whole, any differently than their neo predecessors have. So far, the international community, with some isolated exceptions flattered by the President, doesn't like what they've seen, but we may not really have seen anything yet. For the moment Trump is stepping into to battles started by his predecessors. The real test of his foreign policy may be whether or not he starts something of his own.