This is how the Beltway establishment, Republicans and Democrats alike, think about American foreign policy:
America’s role is to lead the world. Be it under the slogan of America’s “benevolent global hegemony,” the neoconservative version, or “the indispensable nation,” the neoliberal variant, the party in power scarcely matters. Anything that happens across the globe is potentially a critical American concern.
Except for Donald Trump.
When he launched his 2016 presidential bid, Trump drew from the central message of non-interventionist thought: America was not imbued with a unique moral innocence in foreign policy. Many of our interventions have had terrible results. We don’t win wars anymore; we have increasingly pressing problems at home — evident in such measures as a shocking decline in the life spans of working-class Americans.
No one knew who wrote his speeches or if he consulted with any experts on foreign policy. He didn’t speak as if he had read non-interventionist thinkers like George Kennan or Andrew Bacevich — it’s really quite unlikely he has ever heard of them. But nonetheless, his message was clear: We needed to focus on America, not countries abroad.
And so someone like me came to support and vote for Trump for foreign policy reasons alone. As a founding editor of the American Conservative, I had been working to lay the groundwork for a more realist, less military interventionist Republican candidate for 15 years, without obvious success. I had once been a neoconservative, believing seriously in anti-communism and writing for the neocon magazine Commentary. The end of the Cold War eventually changed me.
I voted for Trump for antiwar reasons. But President Trump’s precipitous military strike on a Syrian airbase makes me and others doubt whether the prudent non-interventionist thoughts he expressed in the campaign mean what we hoped they did.
How American force turned me away from neoconservatism
Not until several years after the Cold War ended did I recognize I no longer believed in an interventionist, neoconservative-type foreign policy. During the 1970s and ’80s I had evolved from a liberal antiwar college student to a Commentary-reading and -contributing anti-communist Reaganite. Events after the collapse of the Soviet Union would slowly undo that mindset.
During the first Iraq War in 1991, I wrote some very hawkish unsigned New York Post editorials without much conviction and was relieved by the speed of our apparent victory.
But my belief in the need for continued American hegemony was beginning to falter. In that period, conservative thinkers such as Pat Buchanan were starting to break from the establishment view. I recognized that men I looked up to, like Sen. Daniel Moynihan or Kennan, were warning of the dangers of expanding NATO eastward. The danger of that is it would antagonize and humiliate Russia, and give us formal treaty defense obligations we weren’t likely to be ready to fulfill.
It wasn’t until we started the 1999 bombing of Serbia, ostensibly to stop the Serbs in power from ethnic cleansing, that my mind began to change. I began reading antiwar.com and slowly dipping into the literature of American isolationism, digesting small bits of it. Was it really necessary to antagonize Russia and China, and kill Serbs, a traditionally pro-American people, to sort out the eternal skirmishes in the Balkans?
I recognize that the Serbia bombing has proved successful in some sense — Serbian nationalism was thwarted — and the consequences of an independent Kosovo have thus far proved manageable. But one could already see in embryo some of the problems arising from the combination of America’s unchallenged military dominance and self-righteousness.
By 2000, I had already split with my neoconservative comrades and worked on Buchanan’s third-party campaign, which had an anti-American imperialism platform. I helped prepare a speech for Buchanan — which he delivered before a small audience in Washington, DC — on the costs of the sanctions we were imposing on Iraq.
This was far from the establishment view at the time. Madeleine Albright had said on CBS that “the price is worth it” for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children in order to restrict Saddam Hussein’s access to international commerce. Though she later apologized for the statement and said it was taken out of context, it clearly articulated her priorities — a statement to remember whenever the Beltway establishment pulls out its violins over dead children.
When 9/11 happened a year later, I was prepared to be skeptical when the neoconservatives responded by proposing wars against countries that had no real connection to the attackers. However bad Saddam Hussein was, he was by no means an al-Qaeda zealot seeking to create a Muslim caliphate. He far preferred to get along with America. Nor was Shiite Iran, whose people spontaneously mourned the 9/11 attacks like no one else in the Muslim world, a genuine enemy to us. But nonetheless, we rode into war with Iraq on a bipartisan consensus.
The Republican Party has never come to terms with the dismal intellectual and institutional failures that produced the Iraq War. Not just the incorrect perceptions about Saddam’s nuclear program, which appears to me to be clearly the result of hawks shaping intelligence to fit preconceived conclusions — but the whole idea that it could be a plausible American strategy to impose “democracy” on the Middle East was never rooted in reality. Nor was the belief that the Middle East’s leaders and peoples would accept indefinitely an Israeli regional nuclear monopoly, or that Palestinians deserved to be stateless.
These views are not shared, at least not in considered fashion, by much of the Republican electorate, but they are very popular among the Beltway hawks who staff the think tanks and many of the right-wing magazines, and thus provide the default position for any Republican running for office. The idiosyncratic Ron Paul rejected them, and so, with less edge, did his son Rand.
But the same people who reduced Iraq to chaos and set the Middle East aflame remained at the center of GOP foreign policy thought — writing the memos and speeches for John McCain and Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and John Kasich and pretty much everyone else. America’s role is to lead the world — it was what many Republican voters have grown accustomed to hearing.
Donald Trump’s candidacy offered a welcome alternative to that
When Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2016, I found myself surprised by how bold and, often, how cogent his foreign policy perspectives seemed. Who would have thought the political figure who could shift the Republican Party United States towards a more realist foreign policy, recognizing that the most serious threats to American greatness didn’t come primarily from foreign states, would be a New York real estate loudmouth?
Yet Trump did it. In hawkish South Carolina, of all places, he called out the Iraq War crowd in scathing terms, accusing George W. Bush of lying about Saddam’s nuclear weapons program and bluntly describing the war as “a big, fat mistake” — and won the primary! His very brassiness seemed to transform the debate more than all the learned essays about the perils of American hubris.
Significantly, his victory coaxed mainstream Republican conservatives who had long suppressed their misgivings about neoconservative foreign policy out of the closet. Suddenly arguments plausibly made at the American Conservative were being spouted on Fox News. For an intervention-skeptical conservative, it was almost too good to be true.
Trump, of course, would never be mistaken for dove. He promised a tougher war on ISIS, and was obviously and sincerely pro-Israel. But unlike all the other candidates, except Bernie Sanders, he spoke about the limits of American power, and genuinely seemed to recognize them.
It’s too early to tell, but the Syria strikes could lead to a dangerous reversal
It is, one can grant, too early to conclude that Trump’s realism was a mirage, that his realist and isolationist supporters deluded themselves because they were a bit too hungry, too desperate even, for a political figure to represent them. But the launching of Tomahawks on Syria certainly raises the prospect not that Trump set out consciously to delude his supporters, but that he lacks the core convictions and knowledge that would enable him to stand up to the Beltway military-industrial “America is No. 1” complex, which is almost invariably interventionist.
The missile strike may not mean that much; it may turn out, in a way, fine. It’s not a terrible thing for a realist power to growl and show its fangs from time to time, and America is party to an agreement under which the Assad regime removed its chemical weapons. If Assad did indeed deploy such weapons — and the evidence doesn’t look overwhelming to me, and those who claim it is are not disinterested — he should feel our anger.
But it could also signal that Trump’s skepticism about intervention, which rested on the shallowest intellectual foundation to begin with, could evaporate very quickly in the face of rising poll numbers (the American people like their military!) and the pleasures of a strange new respect garnered from the likes of Elliot Abrams and Fareed Zakaria. The Trump White House has been hammered unmercifully by the establishment for treating Putin as a non-enemy, a stance that Kennan would approve; how it must feel like relief when the pounding abates somewhat.
Of course, the problem is what happens next. Assad’s forces, supported by Russia and Iran, were winning. Some observers, including me, believe the war was close to ending. Possibly some partition or federation would ensue — reflecting the fact that many Syrians will never be reconciled to Assad’s rule. On the other hand, many Syrians —including all of the country’s 2.2 million Christians — would be relieved and happy. Others may just welcome the peace, the chance to rebuild their country and their lives. Franco’s victory in Spain’s civil war, as savage a conflict as Syria’s, might never have been fully accepted, but it may have been better than the alternative.
The United States does not have a better solution. If our actions somehow bring about the Assad regime collapse, and Russia allows this, rather than counter-escalating, the result will look something like today’s Libya — a failed state, or worse, with newly empowered Islamists running wild and Christians fleeing or subject to genocide. What will be our policy then?
One looks at the Trump White House and wonders who might be asking these questions. Probably no one. There are certainly no non-interventionists of genuine foreign policy stature who have Trump’s ear. Into the vacuum have moved Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, bright, conventionally wisdomed, yuppie New Yorkers who have never had to formulate or defend a complicated foreign policy position in their lives.
They couldn’t, of course. But they can distill and echo the conventional wisdom of privileged New York elites, which is very much like the conventional wisdom offered by a Madeleine Albright or a Dick Cheney. And Trump, battered relentlessly by a Washington establishment he cannot tame as easily as a GOP primary field, now inclines to it. So I now fear this presidency could go as badly as Bush’s — or, because Trump, unlike Bush, has no channels open to the tempering counsel of the sort expressed by smart foreign policy thinkers, worse, far worse.
Do I regret my Trump vote? Not yet: none of his close GOP rivals were better, and Hillary Clinton would likely seek confrontations everywhere, without apology. With Trump, there still remain grounds to hope that some of the foreign policy common sense expressed in the campaign will prevail.
But I certainly didn’t vote for the foreign policy preferences of Jared and Ivanka, or a policy driven by whatever images on TV happened to move the president. The Syrian strike and the administration’s words to justify it significantly weaken the case for believing Trump will actually improve things.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of the American Conservative. A former editorial page editor of the New York Post, he is the author of Ex-Neocon, a book of essays written from 2001 to 2014. Find him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9.