2016 election, alliances, Bernie Sanders, China, Cold War, Donald Trump, economics, foreign policy establishment, free-riding, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Iraq war, ISIS, Middle East, NATO, neoconservatives, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Republicans, Russia, special interests, think tanks, Trade
You don’t need to have any regard for Donald Trump to appreciate the black humor of Washington’s Republican foreign policy establishment (or at least lots of it) launching a campaign to brand him an incompetent and a menace in international affairs.
Last Wednesday, about 100 “GOP national security leaders” released a letter they signed stating their “core objections” to the possibility that the Republican front-runner will win the White House. The first reaction that any reasonable person should have is “If these are the leaders, who are the followers?” I worked professionally in the foreign policy field for decades and still keep up with it actively. And many of the signatories are completely unknown even to me. Apparently even a glorified briefcase carrier for a fourth-level political appointee in George W. Bush’s administration qualifies.
The second reaction is much more obvious: Many come from the Republican party’s neoconservative wing. Based on its record, their credibility has fallen how deeply into the toilet? Nor is this question based solely on the second Iraq war. After all, I personally favored the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and still believe that the invasion was justified – though of course the occupation was a (largely foreseeable disaster). But these ostensible experts and intellectuals have failed on numerous other major grounds as well.
As made clear by their indictment of Trump, their ranks include champions of the laudable but transparently looney idea that the United States can and should spend considerable amounts of time and effort spreading democracy to and engaging in nation-building in regions and countries (like Iraq) that have no tradition of accountable government and no experience with un-coerced cohesion. More recently, they’ve propounded the equally nutty notion that Middle Eastern countries can be turned into an effective anti-ISIS force that will handle most of the ground fighting to boot.
They’ve long supported U.S. trade and international economic policies whose effects have included enriching increasingly belligerent China and showering it with advanced, defense-related technologies. For nearly as long they’ve favored the expansion of the NATO alliance right up to Russia proper’s borders – which can’t have helped improve relations between Washington and Moscow over the last decade. In fact, even decades after the Cold War ended, they have remained tightly wed to U.S. defense commitments to flagrantly free-riding allies – which also often rip off Americans shamelessly on trade and other fronts. In fact, they have never displayed the slightest genuine inkling that domestic economic strength is the key to any successful American foreign policy strategy, however interventionist or restrained.
But there are two more fundamental problems with these figures, along with the non-neocons among them, that have translated directly into weaknesses and blunders that have plagued American diplomacy since the early post-World War II years. And please keep in mind: Many of these conclusions come straight from my first-hand experience working closely with these folks during my four-year stint as Associate Editor of FOREIGN POLICY magazine.
First, unlike the original Cold War U.S. foreign policymakers – who were certainly not beyond legitimate criticism – most of the current crowd lacks any meaningful experience in the private sector. Its members have never built or even run viable businesses, or invented anything worthwhile. As a result, they have never been judged by standards like successes that create tangible, enduring rewards and widespread benefits, or failures that exact painful, lasting costs.
Instead, most have brought themselves to the attention of decision-makers by rising through the ranks of academe or, worse, its ersatz Washington version – the think tank world. And the skills needed to stand out in these realms – turning a neat phrase or fashioning a catchy soundbite, identifying and courting prospective patrons, manipulating an all-too-gullible national media, and perhaps most important, creatively regurgitating stale dogma that promotes special interests – have nothing to do with keeping the nation as a whole secure and prosperous. They’re entirely about personal advancement in what I’ve called a Washington culture that coddles failure.
In other words, these figures are overwhelmingly foreign policy careerists. And since their working experiences as a rule have been so tightly confined to the bubble worlds of the Beltway or college campuses, they have almost never needed to encounter the obstacles continually erected by stubborn reality to the best laid plans of mice and men. Which is why they typically lack the wisdom and judgment best guaranteed to navigate them.
Not surprisingly, then, these 20th and 21st century version of renaissance courtiers deserve credit for no meaningful achievements whatever. Indeed, the degree of safety and prosperity that the nation has enjoyed during their tenures has been due almost entirely to the wealth and power it has amassed over the centuries, along with the inherent security created by favorable geography. If today’s foreign policy establishment can be said to have accomplished anything, it’s taking practically any opportunity available to squander the nation’s built-in advantages.
Not that I want to leave readers with the impression that out-of-control careerism is confined to the Republican wing of the foreign policy establishment. Its Democratic wing has been at least as unimpressive. And you can be sure you’ll be hearing from it if Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders starts posing a greater threat to Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes.