Republican foreign policy was once defined by clashing world views. Now it’s defined only by loyalty to the president.
At first glance, the recent drone strike ordered by President Trump against an Iranian general would seem to return Republican foreign policy to the George W. Bush era. Several elements of the attack reflected the approach to the world defined by Mr. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney: a belief in the efficacy of military force, the validity of pre-emptive attack and the determination to avoid seeking approval from congressional leaders. But on closer examination, such comparisons fail. In his foreign policy, Mr. Trump represents something wholly new.
The president’s recent actions underscore the fact that the Republican Party has no guiding principles; it has only Mr. Trump, who demands loyalty to himself as its leader. Nor does the party leadership have senior figures with long experience in foreign policy who might challenge Mr. Trump’s thinking. The Republican Party, which once served as home for a variety of clashing philosophies about foreign policy, has lost its moorings.
Consider the party’s history in recent decades and the contrast with where the party stands today. Over the past half-century, the Republicans had been loosely split between two approaches for dealing with the world. One was the traditional, alliance-centered internationalism that had held sway, for example, under President George H.W. Bush. The other was the hawkish unilateralism of the party’s neoconservatives, who had gathered strength during the Reagan administration.
During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell carried forward, if imperfectly, the ideas of internationalism; Vice President Cheney embraced many of the views of the neoconservatives. These two schools of thought came into acrimonious conflict over Iraq, Israel, North Korea and other issues.
Now, under Mr. Trump, the Republican Party has been transformed in such a way that neither internationalists nor neoconservatives hold influence in the White House. Mr. Trump has weaved, wavered and reversed course on foreign policy based on his views of the moment, and as he has, the Republicans have followed. The factional disputes that characterized the Bush years have been replaced by a single question: Are you loyal to President Trump or not?
There is no one to challenge Mr. Trump now. In contrast, consider the era of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell. Those two men were the most durable figures at the top of America’s foreign policy apparatus from 1988 to 2008, encompassing the end of the Cold War and its aftermath.
During those 20 years, Mr. Powell served for nine years under four American presidents as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. Mr. Cheney served for a total of 12 years as secretary of defense and vice president. The Trump administration has nothing comparable; indeed, not one of the senior leaders in the current administration, including the vice president, secretary of state and defense or national security adviser, has been involved at the top ranks in any previous administration.
Even the more experienced officials Mr. Trump initially appointed to senior foreign-policy jobs, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and the former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had spent less previous time in senior Washington positions than veterans of previous Republican administrations (who also included figures such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates). And even these older hands — the “adults in the room,” as they were often called — left the Trump administration within two years.
Determined, experienced advisers can sometimes deflect a president’s worst instincts and ideas. While doing book research in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I ran across the astonishing fact that in the fall of 1988, well after the Iran-contra scandal was behind him, President Reagan secretly tried to revive efforts to pay Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and to forge a new relationship with Iran.
“We have billions,” Mr. Reagan told Mr. Powell, his national security adviser. But Mr. Powell was adamantly opposed to the idea and made sure it didn’t happen. (In the early 2000s, he was less strongly opposed to the idea of going to war in Iraq, the venture strongly supported by Mr. Cheney.)
It is tempting for liberals to assume that all their opponents on the political right are alike, or stem from the same source — and that therefore, Dick Cheney somehow led to Donald Trump. But that’s not correct; Mr. Trump’s origins, outlook and style are quite different from those of Mr. Cheney.
Mr. Cheney’s rise to power — indeed, his very persona — was based on a preoccupation with government processes and a familiarity with the national-security bureaucracies (call them the “deep state”) that Mr. Trump so often disdains. Mr. Cheney has at times voiced disapproval of some of the linchpins of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, such as his dealings with Russia and North Korea. John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, represented the last link in the top ranks of the Trump administration to the determinedly hawkish policies advocated by Mr. Cheney.
As for Mr. Powell, it is at this point hard even to recall how or why he identified himself as a Republican. Yet at the time the Cold War was ending, the Democrats were calling for a “peace dividend” that included substantial cuts in the defense budget, and Mr. Powell, working closely with Mr. Cheney, labored hard, and for the most part successfully, to resist those efforts.
Mr. Powell’s eventual alienation from the Republican Party was a result of the same forces and dynamics that would eventually propel the rise of Mr. Trump: nativism and hostility toward immigrants and racial minorities. When Mr. Powell appeared before the Republican National Convention in 1996, he made a plea for diversity and tolerance.
“The Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious as a Mayflower descendant,” he told the delegates then. That speech was greeted by a smattering of boos. In 2008, when Mr. Powell announced he could not support the Republican presidential nominee (even though it was his old friend John McCain), Mr. Powell specifically cited the mood of Republicans who had claimed that Senator McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, was a Muslim.
The Trump Republicans long ago abandoned Mr. Powell and virtually everything he stood for — and while it may seem less obvious right now, they have cut loose from Cheneyism, too. We can see the party’s absence of ideas or strategy in the current policies on the Middle East and North Korea.
The drone strike came alongside Mr. Trump’s purported effort to lessen America’s involvement in the Middle East. His personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Vladimir Putin of Russia might appear to be in line with Mr. Powell’s emphasis on diplomacy — but under Mr. Trump, what has counted so far is only the word “personal,” not the diplomacy. As a result, the Republicans are left with no past and no ideas, merely a single man and his vagaries.