An Anti-Neocon Revolution in GOP Foreign Policy?

Kevin MacDonald


One of the big stories coming out of the Trump campaign is the intense hostility he is getting from the neocons, a major part of which is that they would be out of luck when it comes to positions in a Trump administration.

But that implies a huge vacuum in the area of foreign policy for Republicans. After all, neocons have dominated the GOP foreign policy establishment since the Reagan Administration and achieved unrivaled power in the George W. Bush administration.

But with the Trump campaign, the neocons are on the outside looking in, which is a major part of why they are defecting to Hillary or plotting a third party candidacy — anything to derail Trump. (Bill Kristol keeps plugging away. In his latesthe claims that even obscure Congressmen would be good candidates to run against Trump, although of course he would love it if Mitt Romney took up the cause. So would Jennifer Rubin. Their desperation is showing.)

Given that there is a real possibility that Trump could win, it must have occurred to the people surrounding the Koch brothers that, even though they would much prefer a free market libertarian-type conservative, there is now an opening for some fresh ideas for Republican foreign policy. In any case, the Charles Koch Institute sponsored a conference of foreign policy experts which, given that the Koch brothers are well-known to be Republicans, could only be interpreted as a repudiation of the neocons, likely with the aim of providing the basis for a refurbished GOP foreign policy establishment. No neocons were invited. And just as significant are some of those who were invited, including some very well-known names high on the neocon hate list. 

Titled “Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy,” the conference was officially devoted to evaluating the idea of scaling back “the global engagement of the U.S. military”:

It’s important to consider the costs of this forward posture and how it impacts our strategic independence and financial future. A more constrained notion of grand strategy might not only cost less—it may well avoid unpleasant and unintended consequences abroad while strengthening America’s moral standing at home. The goals and aspirations of our current grand strategy are long overdue for a vigorous national debate.

Constrained views of U.S. foreign policy are not exactly what neocons want to hear. Summaries of the talks and other material available at the Charles Koch Institute website suggest a full-scale assault on basic neocon foreign policy views — including especially the idea that the creation of democratic states is a moral imperative.

Zack Yost: “Weighing the Hubris of Nation Building“: Discusses the ideas of Chris Preble, who gave a presentation at the conference, showing the difficulties faced when foreign powers attempt to build nations: “Nations aren’t built by foreign governments; they are built by their citizens.”

Both John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of The Israel Lobby fame gave presentations — provoking a horrified reaction by the usual suspects (discussed below). Walt gave the keynote address, “Challenging the Status Quo: An Alternative Approach to U.S. Foreign Policy.” A video of Walt’s contribution to a June, 2015 panel discussion at the CKI gives a flavor of his approach, basically rejecting interventionism whether as advocated by neoconservatives or liberal interventionists. “It is a total failure. It has not made us safer, it has not made us richer, it has not advanced the cause of freedom” (see also his May 26 critique of a recent neocon policy paper from The Center for a New American Security[1]). Among the many negative consequences for this policy, he mentions that it has eroded civil liberties at home, increasing surveillance, torture, etc. He rejects isolationism. We should continue to trade and counter “direct threats.” But he says the U.S. should stop trying to remake the world. “Stop believing that the whole planet is a nail that has to be constantly pounded by the mighty American hammer.”

Also on the 2015 panel discussion was Will Ruger, Vice President of Research and Policy at the CKI, and organizer of the recent conference. Ruger rejects the siege mentality of being constantly under threat. As a continental superpower, the U.S. needs to retain dominance in sea and air power but can afford a restrained foreign policy — ideas also reflected in Walt’s 2016 presentation. Humanitarian crises are horrible but often there is no direct U.S. interest in meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. The U.S. can safely pursue a policy of restraint and avoid entanglements that the Founding Fathers warned us against.

Mearsheimer’s talk resonates with Trump’s comments on NATO, stating that the U.S. should withdraw from NATO and that the NATO expansion towards Russia was a bad idea. “Astoundingly, we considered giving all member countries [of NATO] an Article 5 guarantee that we would treat an attack on any one of them as though it were an attack on us. Mearsheimer argued that this is bad geopolitics and said that NATO is being treated as a means of spreading democracy and economic integration instead of as the military alliance it actually is.”

Barry R. Posen reflected Trump’s assertion that other nations must bear more of the costs of their own defense. “Posen believes the next president would benefit by having an ambassador to NATO who can pressure the Europeans to bear more of the cost, since the current strategy is under-resourced.”

Although anathema to neocons, there can be little doubt that this general approach to foreign policy fits well with what Trump has been saying. Pat Buchanan summarized Trump’s views well (“At Last, America First“), focusing, as do the CKI panelists, on the failures of interventionism:

Can anyone argue that our interventions to overthrow regimes and erect democratic states in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have succeeded and been worth the price we have paid in blood and treasure, and the devastation we have left in our wake?

George W. Bush declared that America’s goal would become “to end tyranny in our world.” An utterly utopian delusion, to which Trump retorts by recalling John Quincy Adams’ views on America: “She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

To the neocons’ worldwide crusade for democracy, Trump’s retort is that it was always a “dangerous idea” to think “we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming Western democracies.” …

Military intervention for reasons of ideology or nation building is not an Eisenhower or Nixon or Reagan tradition. It is not a Republican tradition. It is a Bush II-neocon deformity, an aberration that proved disastrous for the United States and the Middle East.

Given a foreign policy so completely at odds with neocon proclivities, it is not surprising that there has been some retaliation, including the usual charges of “anti-Semitism.” One obvious opening for the “anti-Semitism” charge was the invitations to Mearsheimer and Walt, whose work on the Israel Lobby has been smeared as the worst example of ant-Semitism since the Protocols, and Charles Freeman who has had his own run-ins with the Israel Lobby (e.g., referring to the “special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government — in this case, the government of Israel”)

The main response of the neocon media flak machine has been to slander the conference as consisting of a bunch of crackpots completely out of the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy thinking — despite the fact that conference presenters were affiliated with a variety of prestigious universities. Eli Lake at Bloomberg titled his piece “Koch Brothers Give a Megaphone to the Anti-Israel Fringe” (see Yakov Hirsch’s dissection of Lake’s propaganda masquerading as a news story).

Lake dismisses Mearsheimer and Walt on the basis that they were attacked by Abe Foxman, who, as everyone knows, is a professional foreign policy expert well-known for his balanced and nuanced views on Jewish issues and Israel. Who could quarrel with that? And he notes that Mearsheimer wrote a blurb for “notorious Holocaust denier Gilad Atzmon” — also a stretch. As I noted in my review of Atzmon’s The Wandering Who?,  “Atzmon is not so much a Holocaust denier as someone who denies the metaphysical status that the Holocaust has achieved—its uniqueness, its being beyond questioning, and its historical transcendence—all of which have made it into an enormously powerful weapon for achieving Jewish interests and in particular for making Israel’s behavior beyond reproach”; and I note that Atzmon’s views have much in common with Peter Novick’s scholarly The Holocaust in American Life.

I realize that there’s a lot of competition for most fanatical, most ethnocentric, most blindered pro-Israel writer, but Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post has to be on anyone’s short list (see Brenton Sanderson’s “The Pathetic Apologetics of Caroline Glick“). In her “The Koch Brothers Meet the Crackpots” she worries about cracks in the Republican support for Israel.

First Glick complained about Ann Coulter and her famous tweet during a GOP debate as candidate after candidate professed their fealty to Israel:  “How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?” But far worse was the Koch conference:

The Rubicon has been crossed. Serious Republican figures this week legitimated some of the most marginal figures in the US foreign policy landscape, to the detriment of US Jewry and Israel. In so doing they placed a question mark on the future of Republican and conservative support for Israel and on the position of American Jewry in American society. The Koch brothers’ first foray into foreign affairs involved an embrace of the most radical and dangerous anti-Semites in the US foreign policy community.

Led by Mearsheimer and Walt, the disparate band of experts that Ruger assembled share but one common position. …

That common position is hatred of Israel. All of them oppose the US alliance with Israel, and to varying degrees, maintain the bigoted view that Jews who support Israel have undue and malign influence on US foreign policy.

In other words, they are anti-Semites.

Besides the egregious presence of Freeman, Mearsheimer and Walt, Glick complained about Prof. Andrew Bacevich from Boston University and Prof. Michael Desch from Notre Dame. “Both men have made public statements claiming that Israel controls US foreign policy to the detriment of American interests.” As usual with the Glicks of the world, no need to provide any arguments.

For Glick, this was nothing less than a conference of “anti-Semitic crackpots” reminiscent of one of the prime Jewish bogeymen from American history, Charles Lindbergh:

Through his coalition, Lindbergh and his colleagues prevented the US from challenging the Nazis throughout the 1930s and blocked US entry into World War II for more than two years.

Make no mistake about it, the Trump candidacy is anathema to neocons and the rest of the Israel Lobby. Even though Trump has made positive statements about the U.S. alliance with Israel and has a number of prominent Jews involved in his campaign, his views on foreign policy are obviously much more in tune with the Koch Institute conference than with neocon orthodoxy. Critically, as I noted elsewhere, “Trump has given no indication that he would appoint any neocons to his administration. And, unlike George W. Bush, Trump is not a babe in the woods, ready to be dominated by a coterie of neocons. This would mean that the neocons would be deprived of their primary power base, with no choice but to defect to the Democrats (whence they came).”

So this is Armageddon for the neocons. They will continue to fight until the bitter end.

But the good news is that we can look forward to a Trump administration with Mearsheimer or Walt as Secretary of State, or at least, along with Freeman, in important foreign policy positions. I can dream, can’t I?


[1] The neocon flavor of this group is obvious: “The composition and conduct of this latest CNAS study are precisely what one expects, as are its conclusions. The co-chairs were former Clinton-era State Department official James Rubin and the ubiquitous neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan. The team members included boldface foreign-policy names such as Michele Flournoy, Robert Zoellick, Kurt Campbell, Stephen Hadley, James Steinberg, Eric Edelman, and a number of others. The witnesses invited to testify at the group’s working dinners were equally unsurprising: Stephen Sestanovich, Elliot Abrams, Dennis Ross, Victoria Nuland, Martin Indyk, and a few more familiar faces. The only potentially contrarian witnesses were Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group and Vali Nasr of John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, but even they are hardly outside the mainstream.”

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