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Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, delivers a speech in Portland, Oregon, in March 2019.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, delivers a speech in Portland, Oregon, in March 2019. (John Rudoff/Sipa USA)

PARIS -- Many of the people who voted Donald Trump into the Oval Office did so because they wanted a businessman's approach to Washington splurging. Voters were sick of bottomless spending for which they saw little in return. But there's a difference between the executive decisions that a CEO makes for the greater good of the company and its shareholders and the decisions made by the godfather of a mob, which primarily benefit him personally.

This is a critical difference that separates successful nations from failed ones.

It's no secret that to do business in many of the world's poorer countries, one has to grease the palms of those in charge. Want access to a country's mining rights? You'll have to put together a package deal that includes military hardware and mercenaries to help the government protect itself from its own citizens, plus some personal bribes that government officials can stuff into offshore accounts. Typically, the world only sees the end result, which is perpetual failure. It's hard to achieve excellence when money is used by cronies to protect their positions within a system, to the exclusion of anyone who may be more competent but less fortunate.

America isn't immune to the concept of pay-to-play. One of the most egregious examples can be found at the top of the diplomatic food chain. Traditionally, about 33 percent of U.S. ambassadorships have gone to political appointees and donors. In some cases, such as under Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the percentage has been even less. Under Trump, the number of ambassadors appointed through political or donor patronage has spiked to 44 percent.

Trump's ambassador to the European Union , Gordon Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee, is one such example. Sondland is now a central figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Witnesses allege that Sondland took instructions directly from Trump in pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce an investigation into Former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for Trump releasing foreign aid to Ukraine. Someone who earned an ambassador post for reasons other than tossing money at Trump may not have found himself in this position.

Foreign aid is another area where Trump has applied a purely transactional lens, leading to a problematic personal turn. It's entirely within Trump's purview to determine that America shouldn't be tossing its money into a giant pit of corruption, and that's exactly what Ukraine has been, despite (or perhaps even because of) all the aid that the U.S. has thrown at it.

Trump reportedly believed that Ukraine was rife with corruption and was reluctant to give the country any weapons or aid. He should have permanently halted all weapons and aid transfers. Instead, it seems that Trump may have tried to use Ukraine to derive a personal political benefit. In doing so, he sold out his own vision of U.S. foreign policy that voters entrusted him with carrying out.

Trump has made a spate of other foreign policy decisions that are now open to scrutiny as a result of his transactional nature being perceived as self-dealing. For example, Trump had announced a planned drawdown of U.S. troops in the Middle East -- a move long overdue. Yet he approved the deployment of 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. Trump justified undercutting his own drawdown policy by telling us that Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay for it. Trump recently told Japan that he wants to hike Tokyo's bill for a U.S. troop presence from $2 billion to $8 billion, and he wants South Korea's annual payment for troops to jump from $1 billion to $5 billion.

In light of what has come out at the impeachment inquiry, people will reasonably wonder whether Trump is factoring himself and his own interests into this new approach to foreign policy. The U.S. military isn't supposed to be a mercenary force, for sale to the highest bidder.

It makes a mockery of the whole concept of defense and warfare to have U.S. troops permanently hanging out in foreign countries where there are no active threats to either an ally or to American national security. If the only value that the president can see in the continued deployment of American soldiers overseas is as a cash cow for the U.S. government, then it's time for a change in plans. Bring the troops come home so they can contribute their skills to help grow the American economy.

Trump's instincts on foreign policy are often spot-on. What's wrong, however, are his instincts for personal profit, which have the potential to derail his good ideas.

( Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and host of an independently produced French-language program that airs on Sputnik France. Her website can be found at www.rachelmarsden.com.)

(c) 2019 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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