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 The factional disputes that characterized the Bush years have been replaced by a single question: Are you loyal to President Trump or not?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.
Elliott Abrams was once an innocent child. And then he decided to spend the rest of his life covering up brutal atrocities and defending right-wing dictatorships.
Elliott Abrams once said the animating force behind his and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was that the world is “an exceedingly dangerous place.” And this is true, largely because men like Elliott Abrams exist in it.Last month, Abrams was tapped by Trump to serve as his special envoy to Venezuela, to essentially help steer the Trump administration’s slow-burn effort to topple that country’s government — or as Mike Pompeo put it, “restore democracy” in the country.
It should go without saying that the idea the Trump administration is pursuing regime change in Venezuela for the sake of democracy and human rights is as laughable as calling Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a surprise party gone wrong. But in case you need to explain this to politically confused friends and relatives, here are eight good reasons why the appointment of Abrams, in particular, makes a mockery of any such high-minded rhetoric.
1. He was knee-deep in human rights atrocities
Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is that Abrams’ chief claim to fame is his role in Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, for which he earned the nickname, “contra commander-in-chief.” The contras were the brutal right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians throughout the decade, cutting a swath of torture, rape, and murder aimed at everyone from the elderly to children. Their methods were similar to those of right-wing paramilitaries in the other countries of the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which were supported by the Reagan administration. If you have the stomach to read about them, there’s no shortage of sources that outline their barbarity.
To Abrams, however, they were “freedom fighters,” their work in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” and he mocked critics of Reagan as people forced to “run the risk” of arguing that such groups were “doing something wrong and ought to stop it.” He himself had no illusions about what it is that the contras were doing. “The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” he said in 1985.
This “micromanagement” at one point also involved Abrams secretly delivering military equipment to the contras under the guise of humanitarian aid. As commentators have noted, this is particularly relevant now, when the Trump administration attacks Maduro for refusing to let humanitarian aid from the US into Venezuela.
2. He covered up brutal acts of terror
Key to Abrams’ role under Reagan was playing down and denying the copious human rights abuses being committed by the forces and governments he and the administration supported.
As Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar pointed out in her grilling of Abrams earlier this week, part of the Reagan administration’s “fabulous achievement” in El Salvador was the horrific El Mozote massacre, which took place shortly before Abrams took up his post. In his attempt to convince the Senate to certify that El Salvador’s government was improving its human rights record — a precondition for receiving US aid — Abrams testified that the massacre had been “publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” and was “being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” He claimed he had sent military officers to investigate the reports, and that the massacre couldn’t be confirmed.
Another incident was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on the orders of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, one of the administration’s partners in the country. “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool,” said Abrams. In fact, two such cables existed. Abrams would later insist that any criticism of the Reagan administration’s activities in El Salvador were simply “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.”
Meanwhile, as Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt embarked on a campaign of genocide in the country, Abrams said he had “brought considerable progress” on human rights. He defended Reagan’s lifting of a military aid embargo on Montt’s government, claiming the slaughter of civilians was “being reduced step by step” and that it was “progress” that had to be “rewarded and encouraged.”
3. He’s an unrepentant liar
Abrams told Omar that it is “always the position of the United States” to protect human rights, including in Venezuela, and he stressed the US didn’t want to arm anti-Maduro forces. Besides his well-documented record of doing exactly the opposite, Abrams’ words are even less relevant when you consider his history of outright lying.
We’ve already seen how Abrams regularly lied to cover up or play down abuses by the right-wing forces he supported. This practice would ultimately land him in trouble when he misled Congress about the Iran-Contra affair with statements that ranged from outright lies (“we’re not in the fund-raising business”), to lawyerly parsing of the truth (“I said no foreign government was helping the contras, because we had not yet received a dime from Brunei,” he would write later).
Abrams would forever maintain he did nothing wrong, later writing a sanctimonious book that painted himself as the victim of an unjust, vindictive system that had criminalized “political differences.” “This kind of prosecution is something new in America, and it is wrong,” he wrote, before bleating about the “bloodsuckers” and “filthy bastards” who wanted to do him in.
Abrams rained ire upon Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal: “You, Walsh, eighty years old, and nothing else to do but stay in this job till the grim reaper gets you. Is this your idea of America?” Abrams insisted the independent counsel law under which Walsh (along with Watergate prosecutor Archibold Cox) served was unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld it 7-1, with even the conservative chief justice Rehnquist affirming (Scalia dissented). It didn’t matter anyway, because the late George H. W. Bush pardoned him.
Abrams managed the trifecta of showing contempt for the truth, the constitution’s separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances, all in one fell swoop. There’s no reason to believe any of his assurances now.
4. He hates democracy
Abrams has also shown a lifelong contempt for the very thing he’s now meant to be advancing: democracy.
When the Uruguayan military government imprisoned Wilson Ferreira, the country’s most popular politician and a fierce liberal opponent of its rule, Abrams defended the Reagan administration’s meek response, which the New York Times had called “stunning.” Abrams explained that “the transition [to elected government] itself is more important than the immediate situation of any individual politician.” Abrams had earlier insisted there was no evidence the Uruguyan military was stifling political freedom, even as it
- closed newspapers,
- arrested its opposition, and
- continued to ban political leaders, among other things.
Around this same time, Abrams was one of a number of Reagan officials who supported Oliver North’s call to pardon Honduran general Jose Bueso Rosa, despite his having received a relatively lenient sentence. Rosa had been convicted after being caught in Florida plotting to overthrow the Honduran government.
In 2002, Abrams reportedly “gave a nod” to the military coup that attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to remove the democratically elected Hugo Chavez from power. The Observer, which broke the story, called Abrams “the crucial figure around the coup.” Abrams has had his eye on toppling Venezuela’s government for some time.
When Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, Abrams, then the point man for George W. Bush’s Middle East policy, helped implement a scheme to nullify the results by fomenting a Palestinian civil war which, they hoped, would remove Hamas from power. When the plan backfired, with Hamas emerging victorious and in full control of Gaza, Abrams accused Hamas of staging a “coup.”
5. His only political principle was anticommunism
Abrams’ disregard for democracy is part and parcel of his general philosophy, which views left-wing governments uniformly as threats to be stamped out.
Abrams, who once told a reporter that he’s “been a counterrevolutionary for a long time,” cut his teeth opposing student protesters at Harvard in the 1960s. He believes the idea that human rights extend past the political and into the economic realm to be “nonsense” and “old Soviet bromides.” As such, he viewed defeating the Soviet Union as the greatest US priority, telling one interviewer that “the greatest threat to human rights is the Soviet Union, not Guatemala or the Philippines.”
In 1984, Abrams quite candidly explained to Policy Review that his human rights policy was one of double standards: fierce opposition to communist rights abusers, and coddling of oppressors friendly to the US.
“Liberalization for purposes of letting out steam always involves line drawing,” he said. “How much steam should you let out? At what point do you risk anarchy and destabilizing the regime?” He went on to explain that “the line drawn varies from country to country,” and that “even a highly imperfect regime may well give a much better prospect of democratization than would the Communist regime that might follow.”
In other words, no matter how brutal or outright fascist a government, it was by default preferable to a communist one, a philosophy he applied in obvious ways to his work in the Americas. It was also evident in his treatment of Cuba, whose prisons he denounced in 1984 as “barbaric” and whose leader, Fidel Castro, he labeled “oppressive” and accused of “betrayal.” He attacked human rights groups, politicians, reporters, and church groups who praised Cuba as “apologists” who “will never take off their rose-colored glasses” and had spent “years defending tyrants” and “years obfuscating the truth.”
At literally the same time he was doing this, Abrams publicly defended Turkey, a key regional ally, from criticism of its human rights record. Abrams praised Turkey, which had recently been pilloried in an Amnesty International report for widespread torture of its people, for “extraordinary progress,” charging that “some who criticize Turkey’s human rights situation have no interest in human rights in Turkey or anywhere else,” but “simply use this issue as a weapon with which to attack a vital member of the Western alliance.” He dismissed Amnesty’s claims as “false history,” criticized human rights groups for “an appalling shallowness of analysis” that ignored social, political, and historical context, and charged that the Turkish people “resent the activists’ shrill and uninformed criticisms of their country.”
As Abrams had earlier said, “the line drawn varies from country to country.” If you played nice with the Reagan administration, your human rights record was tempered by nuance and context, and it was getting better anyway. And if you didn’t, you were beyond redemption.
6. He dislikes journalists and accountability
Abrams no doubt sympathized with Turkey’s rulers because he himself had first-hand experience dealing with pesky journalists and human rights groups.
He said critics of Reagan’s support of the contras would have “blood on their hands,” and accused human rights groups of having communist sympathies. He hopped aboard the Reagan administration’s McCarthyite attempt to shame congressional critics into giving him a blank check in Latin America, claiming that there was an “elaborate and skillful” campaign by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to “manipulate Congress and the press.” When the GAO released a report alleging contra corruption that was inconvenient for the administration’s attempts to secure aid, Abrams dismissed it as a “smear campaign” cooked up by Democrats.
While Abrams didn’t have a police state at his disposal, that didn’t prevent him from lobbing heavy-handed broadsides against reporters he didn’t like. He refused to be questioned by or debate certain journalists he perceived as critical. Most infamously, from 1986 to 1987, Abrams accused left-wing Colombian journalist Patricia Lara of being a “Cuban agent” and “an active liaison” between Colombian terrorist organization M-19 and “the Cuban secret police.” In October 1986, Lara was stopped by New York immigration officials and imprisoned, before being sent back home, without explanation.
Abrams claimed to have “concrete evidence” that Lara was “heavily engaged” with M-19, but when challenged to reveal evidence, claimed it was based on “intelligence information” that he couldn’t reveal. The Colombian Defense Ministry, then battling M-19, categorically denied they had any such information, and assigned her a bodyguard because Abrams’ accusation had put her in danger. The country’s foreign minister said “we don’t know where the US government obtained” such information.
Abrams also granted a “meritorious honor” award on the Office of Public Diplomacy, a government body responsible for waging an illegal domestic propaganda campaign, in which Iran-Contra architect Oliver North was closely involved, that disseminated Abrams’ preferred narrative about the region. Abrams praised it for “setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy” and countering the “formidable and well established Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan propaganda apparatus.”
7. He’s a fan of regime change
Like any neoconservative worth his salt, Abrams has an abiding faith in the US government’s ability to simply remove world leaders it dislikes at will. (He’s also continued the neocon tradition of never personally fighting in any war, avoiding Vietnam thanks to a hurt back that happened to clear up once the war was over.)
When Abrams wanted to remove former ally Manuel Noriega from power in Panama, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan wrote, he threatened sanctions, then actually imposed sanctions, then established a Panamanian government-in-exile on a US military base. Abrams finally called outright for the US military to topple Noriega, in an op-ed titled “Noriega Respects Power. Use It,” which is what George H. W. Bush ultimately did. It was a chilling preview of where US policy on Venezuela may now be heading if Maduro stays in power.
Reflecting on the mistakes of Reagan’s Latin American policy in 1989, Abrams’ regret was that it hadn’t been more forceful. “You can make a very good argument that after the successful rescue mission in Grenada the president should simply have said, ‘Look, we have to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, we cannot have a Communist government in Nicaragua,’ and done whatever we needed to do to get rid of it, including a naval blockade or possibly even an invasion,” he said.
In 2007, Abrams blessed Bush’s plan to launch a covert operation to destabilize Iran’s government. Two years later, he mused about what should happen if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. “Responsible leadership cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “Preventing it through military action perhaps is the second worst decision we could make. The only worse one being to say it’s all right now, it’s acceptable, we will not act.” But this wouldn’t involve regime change or the killing of civilians, he stressed; just a strike on nuclear facilities. Iran, Abrams warned, was one to three years away from developing a nuclear weapon.
In 2013, Abrams told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the US had to get militarily involved in Syria. Why? Because “a display of American lack of will power in Syria will persuade many Iranian officials that while we may say ‘all options are on the table,’ in reality they are not — so Iran can proceed happily and safely toward a nuclear weapon.” Two years later, he said at a Council of Foreign Relations event that Netanyahu had two options: either strike Iran right then, or wait two years and see if an administration willing to take a tougher line, or sanction an Israeli strike, would be elected. Abrams, it seems, got his wish.
8. He’s beloved by the Right
In case anyone still believes the fiction that “anti-Trump” conservatives actually oppose Trump, Abrams is a living reminder that there’s no daylight between Trump and the establishment Right that pretends to dislike him.
Abrams was once an “anti-Trump” Republican who signed a letter opposing his candidacy in 2016. He tutored Paul Ryan in foreign policy when he was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and served on Marco Rubio’s so-called National Security Advisory Council in 2016. It’s no surprise the Florida senator, long viewed as an establishment-friendly, “sensible” conservative alternative to Trump, is now all but directing Trump’s Latin American policy, sounding virtually indistinguishable from Abrams.
Abrams has now served in every Republican administration since he first entered government bar one. In between, he’s worked at the Heritage Foundation (whose head of Latin American policy just called him “a patriot and dedicated voice for repressed communities”), helped found “anti-Trump” Bill Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, was a fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and was a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US government’s arm for foreign political meddling.
Meanwhile, just look at who came to Abrams’ defense after his grilling by Rep. Omar. The National Review — which not long ago put out a much-celebrated “Against Trump” issue whose purpose, according to its editor, was to say, “He’s not one of us. He’s not a conservative, and he’s not what conservatism is” — just published an editorial calling Abrams “one of the wisest, most experienced foreign-policy heads in this country,” and “a steadfast advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
A former Bush administration official and current Harvard professor defended Abrams as “a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country.” The newly rebranded neocon Max Boot, who very publicly proclaims he’s seen the error of his ways and broken with the ugliness he now sees in the GOP, deemed him “a leading advocate of human rights and democracy.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the Right; the Center for American Progress’ vice president of National Security and International Policy called him “a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy” who simply “made serious professional mistakes.”
That someone like Abrams, who’s now leading Trump’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, is warmly embraced by the coterie of establishment and “never-Trump” conservatives should tell you everything you need to know about these groups.
As shocking as it is to write this sentence, it must be said: Donald Trump did something right.
He finally noticed the abyss once he was right on top of it, calling off a retaliatory strike on Iran after belatedly learning, he said, that 150 people could die.
“I didn’t like it,” Trump told Chuck Todd. “I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
And thank God — and Allah — that he stumbled out just as he stumbled in.
It’s breathtaking that Washington’s conservative foreign policy mandarins would drag us back into Mideast quicksand when we haven’t even had a reckoning about the lies, greed, self-interest and naïveté that led U.S. officials to make so many tragic mistakes in the region.
We sweep in with oblivious swagger, with most Americans not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, assuming we’re going to swiftly kick butt in an asymmetrical cakewalk. And then we end up stalemated and playing into our enemies’ hands, with hundreds of thousands dead and a $5.9 trillion bill for the post-9/11 wars — not to mention that Trumpworld has ended up deeper in the murderous House of Saud’s embrace.
The president blundered into the crisis by canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, tweet-taunting about the “end of Iran” and hiring the hirsute Iran warmonger John Bolton. And our president is such a mercurial blowhard, he could screw it all up again before this column even hits The Times home page.
I’ve been at this treacherous juncture before with presidents. Once the gears in Washington get going, once the military-industrial complex is “cocked & loaded,” once the hawks around you begin Iago-whispering that if you don’t go forward, you’ll be unmanned, it’s awfully hard to reverse course.
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld steamrollered W. into the forever war in Iraq by playing on his fears of being a wimp if he pulled back once the Pentagon had moved troops, carriers, covert agents and B-2 bombers into the Persian Gulf. The Saudis told W. that Saddam was not sitting on a cache of W.M.D.s, and was simply blustering like any Arab despot would, but W. dreaded being labeled a wimp, as his father had been in his first presidential campaign.
By Friday morning, Republicans were already painting Trump as a scaredy-cat and Iran as a feral cornered cat.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and Iraq war veteran, told MSNBC that the idea we could now negotiate with Iran “has the potential of inviting a look of weakness.”
Cheney came back to haunt us in the form of his dagger-tongued daughter Liz, the Wyoming House member, who said Trump’s inaction “could in fact be a very serious mistake.” She lobbed the nastiest insult she could think of, comparing Trump to Barack Obama.
Even “Fox & Friends,” which can always be counted on to fluff Trump’s ego, raised doubts. Brian Kilmeade warned: “North Korea’s watching. All our enemies are watching.”
But maybe something new could work with the impossible child-man in the White House: positive reinforcement.
That was very smart, Mr. President, not to tangle with the Persians, who have been engaged in geopolitics since 550 B.C., until you have a better sense of exactly what is going on here. Listen to your isolationist instincts and your base, not to batty Bolton. You don’t want to get mired in a war that could spill over to Saudi Arabia and Israel, sparking conflagrations from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond.
Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and you are a terrible negotiator with a good hand.
Trump told Todd that he thought the Iranians shot down a $130 million drone to get his attention because they wanted to talk. (Like when a little kid flicks a paper airplane at your head, but more expensive.) A rare case of Trump’s bloated ego working to our advantage.
It is not hard to imagine Bolton and Mike Pompeo conjuring a Tonkin specter, with a drone or U.S. plane buzzing Iranian airspace to provoke Iran to respond, so we can start a war. It’s also not hard to imagine the two uber-hawks doing this without Trump understanding what’s going on. And it’s certainly easy to think that Trump might not be leveling with us about how this went down.
At least, unlike W. — another underinformed president — Trump is not a captive of the neocons. He has outside advisers, after all: Fox News anchors.
It’s hard to believe that the man standing between us and another world war is Tucker Carlson, late of “Dancing With the Stars.”
But we must count on Carlson, who, The Daily Beast reported, has been calling Trump directly to counteract Sean Hannity, who has been cheerleading on air for a strike, threatening Iran: “You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you.”
Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear: “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” He compared the warped intelligence Bush officials used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion with the “misplaced certainty” exhibited by Pompeo over iffy evidence that Iran attacked a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Carlson also cogently noted that Bolton is goading Trump because, for him, a war with Iran would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”
Donald “I always attack back … except 100x more” Trump has always been a faux tough guy. In this case, the faux caused a pause — and that was a good thing.
There was always a yin-yang thing to conservatism. Its hard-headedness and philosophical realism about human nature and the limits it imposes on utopian schemes appealed to some and repulsed others. For those who see politics as a romantic enterprise, a means of pursuing collective salvation, conservatism seems mean-spirited. As Emerson put it: “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.” That’s what Ben Shapiro is getting at when he says “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The hitch is that the reverse is also true: Feelings don’t care about your facts. Tell a young progressive activist we can’t afford socialism and the response will be overtly or subliminally emotional: “Why don’t you care about poor people!” or “Why do you love billionaires!?”
.. What Is Neoconservatism?
Here’s the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia page for neoconservatism:
Neoconservatism (commonly shortened to neocon when labelling its adherents) is a political movement born in the United States during the 1960s among liberal hawkswho became disenchanted with the increasingly pacifist foreign policy of the Democratic Party, and the growing New Left and counterculture, in particular the Vietnam protests. Some also began to question their liberal beliefs regarding domestic policies such as the Great Society.
.. The first neocons were intellectual rebels against the Great Society and the leftward drift of American liberalism (The Public Interest, the first neocon journal, was launched in 1965. It was dedicated entirely to domestic affairs, not foreign policy). Unable to reconcile the facts with the feelings of liberalism, a host of intellectuals decided they would stick with the facts, even if it meant that former friends and allies would call them mean for doing so.
.. The Harrington essay that cemented the term “neoconservatism” in American discourse was titled “The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics.” In other words, the original neoconservative critique wasn’t about foreign policy, but domestic policy.
.. According to William F. Buckley, the neoconservatives brought the rigor and language of sociology to conservatism, which until then had been overly, or at least too uniformly, Aristotelian. The Buckleyites (though certainly not folks like Burnham) tended to talk from first principles and natural laws and rights. The neocons looked at the data and discovered that the numbers tended to back up a lot of the things the Aristotelians had been saying... The idea that neoconservatism was primarily about foreign policy, specifically anti-Communism, further complicates things. Part of this is a by-product of the second wave of neoconservatives who joined the movement and the right in the 1970s, mostly through the pages of Commentary. These were rebels against not the welfare state but détente on the right and the radical anti-anti-Communists of the New Left (National Review ran a headline in 1971 on the awakening at Commentary: “Come on In, the Water’s Fine.”) Many of those writers, most famously Jeanne Kirkpatrick, ended up leading the intellectual shock troops of the Reagan administration.
It is certainly true that the foreign-policy neocons emphasized certain things more than generic conservatives, specifically the promotion of democracy abroad. In ill-intentioned hands, this fact is often used as a cover for invidious arguments about the how the neocons never really shed their Trotskyism and were still determined to “export revolution.” But for the most part, it can’t be supported by what these people actually wrote. Moreover, the idea that only neocons care about promoting democracy simply glosses over everything from the stated purpose of the First World War, the Marshall Plan, stuff like JFK’s inaugural address (“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”), and this thing called the Reagan Doctrine... And then there are the Joooooz. Outside of deranged comment sections and the swampy ecosystems of the “alt-right,” the sinister version of this theory is usually only hinted at or alluded to. Neocons only care about Israel is the Trojan horse that lets people get away with not saying the J-word. Those bagel-snarfing warmongers want real Americans to do their fighting for them. Pat Buchanan, when opposing the first Gulf War in 1992, listed only Jewish supporters of the war and then said they’d be sending “American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown” to do the fighting. Subtle... In his memoir, Irving Kristol, “the Godfather of the Neoconservatives,” argued that the movement had run its course and dissolved into the conservative movement generally.So today, neoconservatism has become what it started out as, an invidious term used by its opponents to single out and demonize people as inauthentic, un-American, unreliable, or otherwise suspicious heretics, traitors, or string-pullers. The chief difference is that they were once aliens in the midst of liberalism, now they are called aliens in the midst of conservatism. And it’s all bullsh**... The editor of American Greatness, a journal whose tagline should be “Coming Up with Reasons Why Donald Trump’s Sh** Doesn’t Stink 24/7” opens with “Neoconservatism is dead, long live American conservatism” and then, amazingly, proceeds to get dumber... A bit further on, he asserts that “for years, neoconservatives undermined and discredited the work of conservatives from Lincoln to Reagan . . .” This is so profoundly unserious that not only is it impossible to know where to begin, it’s a struggle to finish the sentence for fear the stupid will rub off. Does he have in mind the Straussians (Walter Berns, Robert Goldwin, et al.) at that neocon nest the American Enterprise Institute who wrote lovingly about Lincoln at book length for decades?
And what of the scores of neoconservatives who worked for Ronald Reagan and helped him advance the Reaganite agenda? Were they all fifth columnists? Or perhaps they were parasites attaching themselves to a “host organism,” as Buskirk repugnantly describes Kristol?
He doesn’t say, because Buskirk doesn’t rely on an argument. Save for a couple of Bill Kristol tweets out of context, he cites no writing and marshals no evidence. Instead, he lets a wink, or rather the stink, do all of his work. He knows his readers want to hear folderol about neocons. He knows they have their own insidious definitions of what they are and crave to have them confirmed. Bringing any definition or fact to his argument would get in the way of his naked assertions and slimy insinuations... American Greatness ran a piecefloating the idea that Trump’s “covfefe” tweet just might have been a brilliant piece of historically and linguistically literate statecraft. That’s actually plausible compared to the idea that Trump is Moses saving conservatism from a “a purified strain of backward idolatry.”
.. Who is in conflict with the best principles of America: the magazine that for 23 years lionized the founders, Lincoln, and Reagan or the website that rationalizes literally anything Donald Trump does — from crony capitalism to denigrating the First Amendment to paying off porn stars — as either the inventions of his enemies or a small price to pay for national greatness? Not every contributor to American Greatness is dedicated to the art of turd polishing, but that is the site’s larger mission.
.. Trump’s sense of persecution is as contagious as his debating style. Facts are being subordinated to feelings, and the dominant feelings among many Trumpists are simply ugly. And even those who have not turned ugly see no problem working hand in hand with those who have. And how could they, given who they herald as their Moses.
With the closing of the Weekly Standard, an influential publication that many considered a respectable, center-right, alternative to more pro-Trump outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, and the continued ostracization of “Never-Trump conservatives” from the Republican Party, many wonder who, if anyone, will carry the torch of prudential conservatism while President Trump occupies the White House.
Just last week, a group of prominent intellectuals and political figures including Maryland Gov.
- Larry Hogan,
- Bill Kristol and
- David Frum
gathered for a conference at Washington’s Niskanen Center titled “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.” The underlying assumption of the conference: It’s time for moderate conservatives to regroup and reconsider their relationship to a Republican Party that has been overrun by populists, nationalists and demagogues.
As someone who runs an organization founded at the time of the Iraq War with the aim of changing the direction of American conservatism, I can sympathize with their efforts, but I fundamentally disagree on their diagnosis of the problem. In the long run, both the conservative movement and Republican Party will be better off for having had Donald Trump shatter the combination of neoconservatism and Reaganism that held the political right captive and blinded since the end of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was the statesman that America needed for his time, but the clock had run out on many of his policy prescriptions and it took a “hurricane,” as the Niskanen Center conference described it, like Trump to wake up conservatism — and America.
.. I need not provide an exhaustive list, as Time magazine’s October cover story by Sam Tanenhaus, “How Trumpism Will Outlast Trump,” did a good job surveying the landscape that includes thinkers such as
- Julius Krein at American Affairs,
- Daniel McCarthy at Modern Age,
- Yuval Levin at National Affairs,
- Michael Anton at Hillsdale College and
- David Azerrad at the Heritage Foundation.
.. What does this new program for the right entail if not a return to the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush years? It’s time for Republicans to embrace a “Main Street” conservatism that prizes solidarity over individualism and culture over efficiency. America needs a foreign policy that serves our vital national interests by securing the safety and happiness of the American people. This means putting an end to the regime-change and nation-building experiments that have devastated Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya; ending U.S. support for the Saudis’ involvement in the Yemeni civil war; reclaiming our national sovereignty; and prioritizing diplomacy over intervention
.. On domestic issues, especially when our country is bitterly divided along partisan lines, we must decentralize both political and economic power to bring it closer to the people. This would allow local and state governments greater flexibility to address their unique problems, letting California be California and Texas be Texas.
.. Regarding the problem of economic concentration, conservatives should stand up to the crony capitalism that has protected big banks and defense contractors, and revisit antitrust enforcement to prevent corporate monopolies from stamping out competition and entrepreneurship. And finally, conservatives should adopt a cultural platform with a renewed focus on civic education; implementing economic and social policies that strengthen families, such as paid family leave and an increase in the child tax credit; promoting vocational training as a dignified alternative to traditional universities; and working toward an immigration policy that better balances economic and cultural concerns.
.. When searching for a prudential conservatism today, it’s best to ignore the advice of those who brought us the Iraq War, the hollowing out of our industrial base and our broken immigration system. The future belongs to conservatives who take Middle America seriously and actually care about the systemic problems that drove the Rust Belt into the arms of then-candidate Trump.
it’s really hard to stomach Never Trump neoconservatives who now complain about Republican tribalism, cults of personality, and blind loyalty to the current president—because virtually all of them used to engage in and endorse the very same behavior.
.. George W. Bush-era hawks thrived by capitalizing on a popular Republican president, corralling the Right accordingly and ostracizing conservatives who dared step out of line. In a story about President Trump’s enduring support within his party, The New York Times gave a useful comparison on Saturday: “Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is now about 90 percent…the only modern Republican president more popular with his party than Mr. Trump at this point in his first term, according to Gallup, was George W. Bush after the country united in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
.. If conservatives now behave as though failing to defend Trump is tantamount to treason, the early 2000s weren’t much different.
.. Unlike the polarized national divide over Trump, the post-9/11 period saw an America overwhelmingly support Bush and the Iraq war.’
.. The entire war on terror narrative—the Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, the demotion of any constitutional or limited governmentagenda—became the new popular definition of conservatism at that time, and blind loyalty to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was expected of everyone on the Right.
.. In his now infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” essay at National Review, Frum declared conservatives Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak, libertarians Lew Rockwell and Justin Raimondo, and others on the Right who opposed the Iraq war as persona non grata.
.. “They began by hating the neoconservatives,” Frum wrote. “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.” He continued: “War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen—and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
Talk about tribalism.
.. today’s leading Never Trumpers—who didn’t rigidly enforce the party line, which was made all the easier by a Republican base enthralled by their president almost exclusively on the basis of his foreign policy agenda. This disposition permeated talk radio and Fox News and the entire American Right, with fealty to Bush as its core.
.. When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008, the libertarian GOP congressman’s popularity exploded precisely because he challenged the war on terror party line directly, beginning with an explosive exchange with Rudy Giuliani over foreign policy at a 2007 Republican primary debate. Virtually every Republican who ran for president in 2008 and many of their supporters tried to paint Paul as a Republican imposter—someone whose refusal to back Bush-Cheney and question his party made him ineligible for membership in the GOP. Unquestioning fidelity to the righteousness of Bush’s war ran so deep that even in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, many of the candidates hesitated to bring themselves to admit that Iraqhad been a mistake, despite the rest of the country and world having come to that conclusion years prior.
.. Show me the Trumpiest Deplorable in a red MAGA hat you can find, and I’ll show you his Saddam “Insane”-hating, Bush Country—We-Gotta-Fight’em-Over-There-So-We-Don’t-Have-To-Fight’em-Over-Here—predecessor from a decade prior.
Now that John Bolton has finally ascended from the limbo of the green room to the Valhalla of the White House, we need to settle the first question of his tenure: Is he a “neocon” or a “paleocon”?
.. Foreign policy conservatives can be grouped into four broad categories. The first group, the genuine paleocons, are the oldest and least influential: Their lineage goes back to the antiwar conservatism of the 1930s, and to postwar Republicans who regarded our Cold War buildup as a big mistake
The last paleocon to play a crucial role in U.S. politics was the Ohio Republican Robert Taft, who opposed NATO and became a critic of the Korean War. Pat Buchanan tried to revive paleoconservatism in the 1990s; The American Conservative magazine and the Cato Institute carry the torch in intellectual debates. But the tendency’s only politically significant heir right now is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
.. even Paul, wary of the label, would probably describe himself instead as a realist, linking himself to the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush — internationalist, stability-oriented, committed to the Pax Americana but skeptical of grand crusades
.. neoconservatives, a group best defined as liberal anti-Communists who moved right in the 1970s as the Democratic Party moved left, becoming more hawkish and unilateralist but retaining a basic view that American power should be used for moral purpose, to spread American ideals.
.. Thus neoconservatives despised the Nixon White House’s realpolitik; they cheered Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communism; they chafed under George H.W. Bush’s realism and backed humanitarian interventions under Democratic presidents; and most famously they regarded the Iraq War as a chance to democratize the Middle East.
.. they became the natural scapegoats …
… Even though some of the most disastrous Iraq decisions were made by members of the fourth conservative faction, the pure hawks, the group to which John Bolton emphatically belongs.
The hawks share the neocons’ aggressiveness and the realists’ wariness of nation building; they also have a touch of paleoconservatism, embracing “America First” without its non-interventionist implications.
.. The default response to any challenge should be military escalation, the imposition of America’s will by force — and if one dangerous regime is succeeded by another, you just go in and kill the next round of bad guys, too.
.. Donald Trump’s vision, though, promised a different combination, mixing a revived paleoconservatism — hence his NATO skepticism, his right-wing “come home, America” pose — with a realist desire for a Russian détente and a hawkish attitude toward terrorism.
.. Trump made his antipathy to neoconservatives obvious, and they returned the sentiment: The most anti-Trump voices on the right belong to the democracy promoters of the Bush era.
In Trump year one, the paleocon-ish elements in his circle — Steve Bannon, most prominently — were sidelined by H. R. McMaster and James Mattis, and Trump ended up with a realist-leaning foreign policy run by businessmen and generals, with Nikki Haley occasionally sounding neoconservative notes at the U.N.
.. But Trump didn’t get along with McMaster and Rex Tillerson — and he clearly thinks he might like hawks better. So now we have an administration in which both paleoconservatism and neoconservatism are sidelined, and straight-up hawkishness is institutionally ascendant as it has rarely been in modern presidencies — save in the Peak Cheneyism following 9/11.
.. Mattis’s military form of realism might have a restraining influence over Trump, and Trump’s bluff and bluster might not readily translate into okaying the war-on-all-fronts strategy that Bolton has tended to endorse.
But a foreign policy team managed by hawks, untouched by neoconservative idealism and cut loose from Trump’s paleocon tendencies, seems more likely than not to give us what the hawkish persuasion always wants: more wars, and soon.