On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul published a curious op-ed on the conservative website Rare. In it, he lays out the case for why President Donald Trump shouldn’t let Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan and Bush administration official who is reportedly Trump’s pick for deputy secretary of state, into his administration.
“I hope against hope that the rumors are wrong,” Paul writes. “Abrams would be a terrible appointment for countless reasons.”
Paul has a solid case. In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from his role in covering up the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1997, the DC Court of Appeals publicly censured Abrams for giving false testimony to Congress on three separate occasions.
But ethics complaints aren’t really what’s driving the senator’s opposition to Abrams. Paul, the Senate’s sole libertarian, is mostly worried that Abrams, a committed neoconservative, would push Trump’s foreign policy in a more interventionist direction.
Now, there’s nothing odd about a senator giving policy advice to a president. But what’s weird is that Paul isn’t just offering policy advice based on Trump’s foreign policy views — he’s actually trying to define Trump’s foreign policy view for him.
And Paul isn’t the only one doing this — indeed, there seems to be a broader effort on the part of the GOP to help define Trump’s foreign policy. Trump’s foreign policy ideas are so scattershot and confused, and his advisers so deeply divided, that nobody is actually sure what he’s going to do. So some high-ranking Republicans like Paul are attempting to fill in the blanks, developing their own vision of a “Trump foreign policy” and trying to shape the administration in ways that fit their definition of what the president wants.
It’s Trump’s Washington now. But nobody seems to agree on what that means.
Rand Paul’s version of Trump’s foreign policy
If you just read the Rare op-ed, Trump’s foreign policy philosophy is very clear. It’s basically the same non-interventionism as Rand Paul’s.
“President Trump has repeatedly stated his belief that the Iraq War was a mistake,” Paul writes. “One of the things I like most about President Trump is his acknowledgement that nation building does not work.”
Paul contrasts this vision with that of neoconservatives like Abrams, who believe in the use of force to spread democracy and aggressively confronting hostile states like Iran.
“Neoconservative interventionists have had us at perpetual war for 25 years,” Paul says. “They’re wrong and they should not be given a voice in this administration.”
If Paul’s characterization of Trump’s foreign policy outlook is correct, then appointing Abrams really would seem like a self-undermining move. Abrams has repeatedly made the case for bombing Iran; in 2011, he argued that the problem with Obama’s approach to Libya was that it was too timid.
“Elliott Abrams is a neoconservative too long in the tooth to change his spots, and the president should have no reason to trust that he would carry out a Trump agenda rather than a neocon agenda,” Paul writes.
If you see Trump as kind of principled non-interventionist, then Abrams’s appointment really does seem like a betrayal of Trumpian ideals. But if you listen to Tom Cotton, one of Paul’s Republican colleagues in the Senate, you get a completely different sense of what a “Trump agenda” is.
Tom Cotton’s version of Trump’s foreign policy
Just a day before Paul’s op-ed published, Cotton gave an address at the conservative American Enterprise Institute outlining what he saw as the core principles of Trump’s foreign policy. Cotton is perhaps the Senate’s most prominent neoconservative, one of the few remaining unapologetic defenders of the Iraq War.
And sure enough, in Cotton’s telling, Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is a lot like his ideas.
“‘America first’ doesn’t mean ‘America only,” Cotton said. “We’ve always needed allies and partners to protect our interests; we always will. We don’t have them because it’s in their interest, though it is; we have them because it’s in our interest.”
Trump’s “healthy nationalism,” as Cotton terms it, involves confrontations with foreign dictatorships hostile to American interests — a hallmark of neoconservative foreign policy views and the opposite of what Rand Paul thinks.
“It’s high time we recognized our adversaries are engaged in global geopolitical competition and we started competing ourselves,” the senator explained. “We don’t have to respond in kind to every provocation, but we do have to respond. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea might produce a response on the Korean Peninsula or South Asia. Russian provocations in the Middle East could bring pain for Russia in Europe.”
A White House with this foreign policy would be one in which Elliott Abrams is right at home. “I’m a great fan of Tom Cotton,” Abrams himself told Washington Jewish Week in 2015.
Paul and Cotton might both be right
The weirdest thing about all of this, though, is that Cotton and Paul are both picking up on genuine strands of Trump’s foreign policy.
Trump has criticized the Iraq War and the Libya intervention. He’s also argued that the US should have stolen Iraq’s oil and intervened more forcefully in Libya. Trump has suggested cooperation with Russia in Syria, but has blasted Obama for being soft on Iran, Russia’s ally in supporting the Assad regime. He has criticized regime change, but also called for the US to send more troops to topple ISIS’s empire in Syria and Iraq.
There are some consistent themes in Trump’s foreign policy views, like his hostility to trade and transactional view of American alliances. But on the critical policy issues of military intervention, where Paul and Cotton disagree the most, he’s been all over the map. There’s something in Trump’s ideas that every strain of conservative could like.
Trump’s foreign policy team is deeply divided on these sorts of issues. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn advocates cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria, while Defense Secretary James Mattis is a major hawk on both Iran and Russia (he publicly contradicted Trump’s line on Russia during his confirmation hearings). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is mostly a cipher; his former job, CEO of Exxon Mobil, didn’t exactly lend itself to making decisions on war and peace.
The result, then, is that nobody really knows what foreign policy is going to look like over the next four years. So influential Republicans like Trump and Cotton are trying to marry their own ideas to Trump’s, dressing them up in his past statements and preferred slogans. They seem to think that’s the best way to wield influence in Trump’s Washington — better, at any rate, than publicly disagreeing with Trump in the areas where they disagree.
That’s a reasonable theory, given the president’s preference for flattery and deep hostility to anyone who criticizes him. But the truth is that nobody knows how well it will work. The Abrams nomination, given Paul’s increasingly vocal opposition, could end up becoming something of an early test.