Anti-interventionism in the age of revolt
April 30, 2016
The reaction to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s much-awaited foreign policy speech from the Washington elites was all-too-predictable: they sneered and snickeredthat he had mispronounced “Tanzania.” The more substantive criticisms weren’t much better: perpetual warmonger Lindsey Graham, whose presidential bid garnered zero percent in the polls, tweeted “Trump’s FP speech not conservative. It’s isolationism surrounded by disconnected thought, demonstrates a lack of understanding threats we face.” For Graham, anything less than starting World War III is “isolationism” – a view that gives us some insight into why his presidential campaign was the biggest flop since the “new” Coke. This is the party line of neoconservatives who have long dominated Republican foreign policy orthodoxy, to the GOP’s detriment. Neocon character assassin Jamie Kirchick, writing in the European edition of Politico, put a new gloss on it by claiming to detect a Vast Kremlin Conspiracy as the animating spirit behind the Trump campaign.
Which just goes to show that having Roy Cohn as your role model can lead one down some pretty slimy rabbit holes. I guess that’s why the editors of Politico put Kirchick’s smear piece in the European edition, where hardly anyone will read it, saving a more reasonable analysisby Jacob Heilbrunn for the US version. (Although, to be sure, a piece by neocon-friendly Michael Crowley limns the same McCarthyite theme inPolitico’s magazine.)
Heilbrunn is the editor of The National Interest, publication of the Nixon Center, which has been a sanctuary for the outnumbered – but now rising – “realist” school of foreign policy analysts. The Trump speech was sponsored by TNI, and Heilbrunn gave a very interesting if somewhat defensive explanation for the motives behind their invitation to Trump, succinctly summarizing its significance:
“His speech did not deviate from the themes he has already enunciated and it showed that he is willing to go very far indeed. Nothing like this has been heard from a Republican foreign policy candidate in decades. Trump doesn’t want to modify the party’s foreign policy stands. He’s out to destroy them.”
This is why the Republican Establishment hates Trump: it’s no accident that the same neocons who lied us into the Iraq war and profited personally and professionally from that disastrous adventure are now in the vanguard of the “Never Trump” brigade. As Heilbrunn points out:
“This is why perhaps his most significant statement was: ‘I will also look for talented experts with new approaches, and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.’ What Trump is talking about is dispensing with an entire wing of the GOP that has controlled the commanding heights of foreign policy over recent decades.”
This is my favorite part of Trump’s peroration. Here he is openly telling the neocons, who have inveigled themselves into every administration since the days of Ronald Reagan, that they will be kicked to the curb if and when he takes the White House. Which is why they areeven now returning to the Democratic party, channeling the long departed spirit of “Scoop” Jackson – and good riddance to them. If ever a group of failed ideologies deserved their comeuppance it is this gang, which led the nation into the Middle East quagmire and steered the GOP to a series of humiliating defeats.
Pledging to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy,” Trump started out by saying he would “invite new voices and new visions into the fold.” And while I think Heilbrunn’s somewhat overstates the case, it is certainly true that what follows is something we haven’t heard from a Republican frontrunner is quite a long time. Adopting a campaign slogan that has the neocons and their left-wing internationalist enablers in a lather, Trump reiterated his theme of “America First” – a phrase with a long and largely misunderstood history in the annals of American conservatism, and one which he gives new life and new meaning.
Trump gives us a capsule history of US foreign policy, from World War II to the end of the cold war, that is light on nuance but true in essence: we “saved the world” twice, and then crashed on the rocks of hubris and miscalculation:
“Unfortunately, after the Cold War, our foreign policy veered badly off course. We failed to develop a new vision for a new time. In fact, as time went on, our foreign policy began to make less and less sense. Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.
“They just kept coming and coming. We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.
“We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.”
A more perceptive summary of the post-Soviet post-9/11 policies that have led us to the disaster would be hard to imagine: indeed, Trump’s critique parallels what we have been saying on this website ever since its founding in 1995. To hear it coming from a Republican candidate for President who is not Ron Paul is astonishing: and that it is being said by the GOP frontrunner, who spoke these words after winning every county in five Northeastern states, is simply breathtaking.
I’ve covered Trump’s views on NATO in this space, but in this speech he gives us a new perspective. He is constantly bewailing the fact that Obama’s America projects weakness – a standard Republican line – but here he makes clear that he’s not just talking about how our enemies perceive us, but also how our alleged friends see us
“Our allies are not paying their fair share, and I’ve been talking about this recently a lot. Our allies must contribute toward their financial, political, and human costs, have to do it, of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so.
“They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us. In NATO, for instance, only 4 of 28 other member countries besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense. We have spent trillions of dollars over time on planes, missiles, ships, equipment, building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia.
“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.”
Billions of dollars in “defense” spending are tied up in NATO contracts: the power and prestige of Washington’s foreign policy “experts” are inextricably linked to maintaining the Atlanticist bridge that binds us to our free-riding European client states. And now the candidate most likely to win the GOP presidential nomination is threatening to take it all away from them. No wonder they hate his guts and will do anything to stop him.
A major push by the neoconservatives and their left-internationalist allies in the Clinton camp has been a campaign to demonize the Russians and restart the cold war. Trump made it clear he is having none of that:
“We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. We have serious differences with these two nations, and must regard them with open eyes, but we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests.
“Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries.
“Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great – not good, great – for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find out.”
While much attention is paid to the Middle East, the real threat to peace is the possibility of a standoff between Washington and Moscow. A new arms race is in the works, and the threat of nuclear conflict – which Trump correctly says is the biggest threat of all – looms larger by the day. That Trump seeks a rapprochement with Russia is a very big plus – and a major reason why the War Party has mobilized against him.