New York Times (Opinion)
By Jacob Heilbrunn
March 10, 2016
There they go again. The neocons who led the George W. Bush administration into Iraq are now touting a fresh crusade to save American democracy — and the Republican Party — from an authoritarian foe: Donald J. Trump.
Their campaign began with an impassioned essay in The American Interest last month by Eliot A. Cohen, a former Bush State Department official, who depicted Mr. Trump as symptomatic of the broader “moral rot” of America. Then, in an open letter, more than 100 hundred Republican foreign policy mavens, including neocons such as Mr. Cohen and Robert Kagan, as well as more traditional Republican foreign policy figures like the former World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick, announced they were “united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.”
Now, in a last-ditch effort, leading neocon thinkers have established what they call the National Security Advisory Council to support Senator Marco Rubio. And many are announcing that if push comes to shove, they will support Hillary Clinton over Mr. Trump. Indeed, in the magazine Commentary, the neoconservative historian Max Boot wrote, somewhat hyperbolically, that Mr. Trump is “the No. 1 threat to American security” — bigger than the Islamic State or China.
The neocons are right that a Trump presidency would likely be a foreign policy debacle, not least because of his unpredictable personality and penchant for antagonizing foreign leaders and publics. But they are wrong in asserting that he is somehow a danger to the traditional principles of the Republican Party. On the contrary, Mr. Trump represents a return to the party’s roots. It’s the neocons who are the interlopers.
The extent to which the neocons and their moralistic, crusading Wilsonian mission overtook the Republican foreign policy establishment, beginning in the 1970s, was so nearly complete that it can be hard to remember that a much different sensibility had previously governed the party, one reminiscent of Mr. Trump’s own positions: wariness about foreign intervention, championing of protectionist trade policies, a belief in the exercise of unilateral military power and a suspicion of global elites and institutions.
Consider the 1919 League of Nations debate, the crucible in which much Republican foreign policy was forged. In leading the charge against United States membership in entering the league, the Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge argued that intervening abroad would undermine American security: “If you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her power for good and endanger her very existence.”
By the 1920s, the Republicans took Lodge’s logic a step further. So-called mossback Republicans supported the punitive Immigration Act of 1924, which included provisions barring Asians and restricting African immigrants. The party also backed protectionism: In June 1930 Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which worsened the Great Depression and stoked nationalism around the world.
The party’s embrace of outright isolationism culminated in opposition to aiding Britain once World War II began in 1939. Liberal Republicans like Henry Stimson and Frank Knox were drummed out of the party at the 1940 convention for joining the Roosevelt administration, the first as secretary of war and the second as secretary of the Navy. At the same time, The Wall Street Journal editorial page argued for “realism” toward Hitler, who, it assured its readers, had “already determined the broad lines of our national life for at least another generation.”
After World War II, the right remained suspicious of militarism. It denounced Harry S. Truman’s sweeping alliances in Europe. In 1950, Herbert Hoover created a national uproar when he declared that America had to acknowledge limits to its power. Meanwhile, Senator John W. Bricker of Ohio proposed constitutional amendments aimed at destroying the president’s ability to conclude foreign treaties. And in 1951, another Ohio senator, Robert A. Taft, announced, “The principal purpose of the foreign policy of the United States is to maintain the liberty of our people.”
One can hear echoes of this Republican past in Mr. Trump’s own positions. His animating credo on foreign policy seems to be to farm out the heavy lifting to other countries whenever possible. Speaking on “The Hugh Hewitt Show” last August, he made his distaste for intervention clear: “At some point, we can’t be the policeman of the world. We have to rebuild our own country." Since then, to the consternation of the party establishment, he has also forthrightly denounced the Iraq war, declaring that the Bush administration’s case for it was based on a “lie.”
The Trump doctrine, if that term can be employed, is reminiscent of basic foreign policy realist tenets. In fact, as Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution first pointed out in Politico, Mr. Trump has a “remarkably coherent and consistent worldview.” Mr. Trump, you could even say, is a spheres-of-influence kind of guy: Europe should take care of Ukraine, Russia should handle Syria. “When I see the policy of some of these people in our government,” he said on MSNBC this month, “we’ll be in the Middle East for another 15 years if we don’t end up losing by that time because our country is disintegrating.”
At the same time, he’s rejected the idea of repudiating the Obama administration’s Iran deal, and says that it’s important to remain “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — two points that strike at the heart of Republican neocon orthodoxy. And he seems to have little use for alliances: He’s demanding that countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia pay more for the United States to defend them. At the same time, he’s ready to slap high tariffs on Japan and China — something that could trigger a global depression.
Mr. Trump’s position can resemble realism on steroids. At bottom, he doesn’t want America to lead the world; he wants the world to get out of its way. Even many die-hard realists are unwilling to follow him: Last Friday his sinister advocacy of torture, which he has since disavowed, prompted not only neocons but prominent realists like Andrew J. Bacevich and Richard Betts to sign a letter called “Defending the Honor of the U.S. Military from Donald Trump” in Foreign Policy.
None of this seems to antagonize the Republican base, which appears less ideological on taxes and foreign policy than the party elite. Once George W. Bush and the neocons led us into Iraq, it was probably only a matter of time before the neocons were called to account. Maybe the surprising thing isn’t that the party is starting to morph back into its original incarnation, but that it took this long.
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