Everyone expected another street brawl, but the Republican presidential debate was … well, presidential.
The issues were actually discussed and debated, and foreign policy came to the forefront early on. When Social Security came up, three of the candidates said we needed to make cuts, raise the retirement age, and declared the system was inevitably going bankrupt, Donald Trump was the only one to dissent. He said he would leave the system as it is, and went into his usual song-and-dance about cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse.” When called on it by Dana Bash – who pointed out that experts estimate waste accounts for about $3 billion, leaving a $147 billion shortfall – Trump replied that they say this because:
“Because they don’t cover most of the subjects. We’re the policemen of the world. We take care of the entire world. We’re going to have a stronger military, much stronger. Our military is depleted. But we take care of Germany, we take care of Saudi Arabia, we take care of Japan, we take care of South Korea. We take – every time this maniac from North Korea does anything, we immediately send our ships. We get virtually nothing.
“We have 28,000 soldiers on the line, on the border between North and South Korea. We have so many places. Saudi Arabia was making a billion dollars a day, and we were getting virtually nothing to protect them. We are going to be in a different world. We’re going to negotiate real deals now, and we’re going to bring the wealth back to our country. We owe $19 trillion. We’re going to bring wealth back to our country.”
This is really quite remarkable. What Trump is saying is something Ron Paul used to say: that we could avoid national bankruptcy if only we would ditch the Empire. Unlike Paul, Trump – who is no libertarian – doesn’t oppose Social Security in principle: far from it, he pledges to leave it untouched. The point, however, is that he is focused on the crisis in this country, and sees our overseas entanglements as an albatross hung around our necks.
He topped this with an attack on the military contractors:
“They have a fantastic lobby. They take care of all of the senators, the Congressmen. They have great power and they don’t bid out. The military is never properly bid. When we go out to military bids, it’s not properly bid. And the people that really sell us the product are oftentimes the product we don’t want, only because that particular company has political juice, OK?”
This really underscores the corruption at the heart of the system. Recalling Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex (that was the original formulation, which Eisenhower edited out of his speech), Trump exposed the real situation in this country: a government of completely bought-off politicians.
However, things went downhill from there. Trump’s answer about his “Islam hates us” statement was vague, and troubling. His original statement, to Anderson Cooper, was ambiguous, albeit bristling with hostility. It was, in short, Jacksonian, i.e. typical of the classical “isolationist,” who is loath to engage in foreign adventurism, but is positively ferocious and certain to overreact when aroused. The shadow of the 9/11 attacks stills hangs heavy over America, and the recent attack in San Bernardino conjured that Jacksonian ferocity and helped fuel Trump’s campaign.
Rubio had the best line: “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.” He went on to point out that Muslim-Americans are part of this country, and many serve in the military. However, he also said “We’re going to have to work with the Saudis. We’re going to have to work with the Gulf kingdoms. We’re going to have to work with the Egyptians to defeat, for example, ISIS.” Yet it is the Saudis and the Gulf emirates that are main generators of terrorist ideology in the region: it is they who are funding and organizing the terrorist legions who have decimated Syria. It is the Saudis who have funded Wahabist propaganda and the building of extremist mosques from Bangladesh to Bosnia. Work with them? We should be holding them to account.
Cruz’s answer was positively sinister: after taking the opportunity to attack Trump’s profession of neutrality when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and declaring that – unlike Trump – he’d “rip up the Iran deal on my first day as President,” he declared:
“Let me give you an example of a Muslim for example, we ought to be standing with, President el-Sisi of Egypt, a president of a Muslim country who is targeting radical Islamic terrorism.”
Stand with a ruthless dictator who has jailed thousands without trial, including journalists, wrecked the economy, and destroyed any hope of establishing democracy? When, later on, the clueless Jake Tapper – formerly of Salon.com – tried to pin support for despots on Trump, Cruz’s enthusiasm for the Egyptian variety didn’t come into the equation. Tapper, of course, has a longstanding hatred for Trump.
Cruz went on to declare: “The Ayatollah Khomeini wants nuclear weapons to murder us” – getting both the name of the Ayatollah and the facts about Iran’s stance wrong. When and where did anyone in Iranian leadership say they want nuclear weapons, let alone to “murder us”? Lying Ted, as Trump calls him, was at it again. Getting on yet another neoconservative hobbyhorse, he attacked Trump on Israel:
“Donald has said he wants to be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. As president, I will not be neutral. And let me say this week, a Texan, Taylor Force. He was an Eagle Scout, he was a West Point graduate, he was an Army veteran. He was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist this week in Israel, and I don’t think we need a commander in chief who is neutral between the Palestinian terrorists and one of our strongest allies in the world, the nation of Israel.”
Hugh Hewitt, the fake “journalist” who started out as a pro-war propagandist during the Bush years, took up Cruz’s rant from that point, asking Trump “Do you still want to stay neutral when the Palestinian authority is inciting these attacks?”
Trump reiterated his oft-stated stance after prefacing it with a long disquisition on how “pro-Israel” he is, including a reference to his Jewish daughter and son-in-law:
“I think if we’re going to ever negotiate a peace settlement, which every Israeli wants, and I’ve spoken to the toughest and the sharpest, they all want peace, I think it would be much more helpful if – I’m a negotiator. If I go in, I’ll say I’m pro-Israel and I’ve told that to everybody and anybody that would listen.
“But I would like to at least have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral as to them, so that we can maybe get a deal done. Maybe we can get a deal. I think it’s probably the toughest negotiation of all time. But maybe we can get a deal done.”
It would’ve been easy for Trump to avoid trouble, pledge allegiance to Tel Aviv, and forget about it: but he’s a stubborn man, and once he gets an idea in his head – for good or for ill – he sticks to it. That may not always be such a good thing, but I this case it certainly is. I think here is where Trump is at his most “presidential”: unlike the others on that stage, he really does see himself as President of these United States, and – taking on that role – he realizes that brokering such a deal would greatly advance American interests, not to mention cement his role as the deal-maker of the century.
In response, Lying Ted was back on the attack, fibbing his head off with the assertion that the Palestinian Authority is in a “unity government” with Hamas. That unity government collapsed in 2015, and shows no signs of being reconstituted. In reality, there never even was a “unity government” – the actual ministers in the government did not belong to either Hamas or the Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority. Instead, it consisted of technocrats whose job it was to pave the way for new elections in both the occupied territories and Gaza. Naturally, none of the moderators called Cruz on it: certainly Hewitt, who probably does know the facts, had no interest in doing so. And of course both Dana Bash and Jake Tapper are tools who know when to keep their mouths shut.
Rubio tried to outdo Cruz with a “pro-Israel” diatribe, explicitly ruling out any prospect of negotiating a peaceful settlement of this long-festering conflict because “there is no one to negotiate with.” He repeated Cruz’s assertion that the “unity government” still exists: so much for his much-touted foreign policy expertise! Repeating the Likud party line that an independent Palestine “will be used as a launching pad” for attacks on the Jewish state, Rubio separated himself from every American President from Bill Clinton onward – including George W. Bush – in ruling out a negotiated settlement leading to a two-state solution.
Getting back to Trump, the real estate mogul talked about his many Jewish friends in New York City who want such a deal to become a reality, and reiterated his stance: “Some believe it’s possible. It may not be, in which case we’ll find out. But it would be a priority if I become president to see what I could do.”
On this issue, Trump towered over the others: he came across as someone the audience could imagine as our next President. When history beckons, Trump’s instinct is to grasp it by the hand.
The next question from the ridiculously biased Hewitt revealed answers from all the candidates that rule them all out as supportable in any way.
“Just this week,” averred Hewitt, “the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, essentially said it’s going to take a lot more troops on the ground to fix – to end the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq.” Turning to Cruz, he asked:
“From the beginning of this campaign, you have said you will follow the judgment of military commanders in the Pentagon. So here’s the commander saying we need a lot more troops on the ground. Will you follow that advice and inject Americans again into what is in essence is metastasizing Sunni-Shia civil war?”
To begin with, Hewitt is a bigger liar than Cruz: Gen. Austin said no such thing. Here is what he did say:
"’Clearly there are things that we will want to do to increase the capability a bit, to be able to increase the pace of operations, and that will require some additional capability. We have gone through and done some analysis … to see what types of things we need to provide. And we have made those recommendations.’
“While Austin declined to share the recommendations in the hearing, he said additional US military personnel could help develop better intelligence on the ground, potential provide more advise-and-assist teams and help with some logistics. ‘We could increase some elements of the Special Operations footprint,’ he explained.”
Lying Ted claimed that we’re fighting with one hand tied behind our back, and said we aren’t arming the Kurds (we are). He never challenged Hewitt’s assertion that Gen. Austin is recommending “a lot more” troops on the ground, although he probably knows it’s incorrect. Instead, he reversed his previous reluctance to commit to grounds troops in Syria and went along with Hewitt’s fictional account of what “the generals” supposedly want.
Worst of all was Trump, who fell right into Hewitt’s ambush:
“HEWITT: Mr. Trump, more troops?
“TRUMP: We really have no choice. We have to knock out ISIS. We have to knock the hell out of them. We have to get rid of it. And then come back and rebuild our country, which is falling apart. We have no choice.
“HEWITT: How many…
“TRUMP: I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000. We have to knock them out fast. Look, we’re not allowed to fight. We can’t fight. We’re not knocking out the oil because they don’t want to create environmental pollution up in the air. I mean, these are things that nobody even believes. They think we’re kidding. They didn’t want to knock out the oil because of what it’s going to do to the carbon footprint. We don’t fight like we used to fight. We used to fight to win. Now we fight for no reason whatsoever. We don’t even know what we’re doing.
“So, the answer is we have to knock them out. We have to knock them out fast. And we have to get back home. And we have to rebuild our country which is falling apart.”
Of course Trump has no idea what Gen. Austin actually said at that congressional hearing, and Hewitt knows he doesn’t. And Trump’s answer to the question – really a complete reversal of his previous position that we should let the Russians take care of ISIS – underscores both the weaknesses and the strengths of “isolationism,” American style.
It isn’t pacifism, that’s for sure. What Trump represents – in his crude, inconsistent way – is the traditional American antipathy for getting involved in overseas adventurism. And yet once we are involved, the American isolationist wants to win. Blinded by the illusion that a quick victory is possible, he forgets his objections to the interventionist regime-change panacea once his Jacksonian fury is provoked. Trump’s critique of our present policy – “Now we fight for no reason whatsoever. We don’t even know what we are doing” – could apply equally to his own inchoate vision.
And yet we should note that his answer to Hewitt was framed in “isolationist” terms: he was careful to reiterate that “we have to get back home. And we have to rebuild our country which is falling apart.” In Trump’s view, foreign wars are a diversion from his main task of reversing the decline he sees all around him. What he doesn’t realize is that such diversions are the main reason for that decline.
What’s significant about Trump is his fundamental aversion to the internationalist consensus that has long dominated both parties. What’s dangerous about him, however, is that he could easily be diverted into another Middle Eastern war, as evidenced by his answer to Hewitt’s question. He simply can’t be trusted.
This ambiguity translates into all the other issues that came up at Thursday’s debate. On the Cuban issue and the Iranian deal, Trump went into his usual song-and-dance about “making a better deal,” going so far as to say he would close the US embassy in Cuba until such a mythical deal can be made. On the Iranian issue, he denounced the deal made by the Obama administration and went further by saying that he would not only police it but also predicting that the Iranians would be unlikely to keep to it and that it would “probably” be annulled.
Much of this is political maneuvering: Trump was in his “unifier” mode, as he has been lately, and he is eager to cut another one of his famous “deals” – this time with the GOP Establishment. So he’s trimming his “isolationist” sails, albeit not enough to alienate his constituency and appear weak. What it all boils down to is that we can’t know what he would actually do in office – and that is a deal breaker, as he would put it, for anyone who is looking for a fundamental shift in our foreign policy of global intervention.
Speaking of Trump’s constituency, this is the real value of his candidacy. Trump, the man and the candidate, is beside the point: the real gold mine here, which most anti-interventionists (and libertarians) have overlooked, is that Trump’s anti-internationalist rhetoric is one of his main attractions. He has touched a deep nerve in this country, which no one has managed to match, in large part because he realizes that things can’t go on as they have – and that our overseas empire is dragging us down into an irreversible decline.
So in that sense the amazing success of his candidacy – against all odds – is cause for optimism. What the rise of Trumpism shows is that the sentiment is there, the support exists for a foreign policy that puts America first. There is, however, a great big caveat. As that bitter old “isolationist” Garet Garrett put it some seventy years ago:
“No doubt the people know they can have their Republic back if they want it enough to fight for it and to pay the price. The only point is that no leader has yet appeared with the courage to make them choose.”
Donald Trump is not that leader. Yet his candidacy may very well pave the way for such a leader to emerge. In spite of his many flaws and inconsistencies, he has succeeded in breaking the neoconservative monopoly on what constitutes Republican foreign policy orthodoxy – and, what’s more, his success at the polls has exposed the neocons as generals without much of an army. These accomplishments have been pointedly ignored by all too many anti-interventionists, both leftists and libertarians, who are more concerned with convincing themselves and their little sectarian circles of their own moral purity than with taking advantage of Trump’s demolition of the War Party.
Libertarians are particularly blinded by dogmatism when it comes to Trump. What most of them don’t understand is that Trump’s broad foreign policy prescription – stop subsidizing our “allies,” stop policing the world – if carried out would objectively roll back the size, scope, and expense of Big Government in this country, regardless of Trump’s intent. That’s because our empire not only requires a huge expenditure of tax dollars but also erodes our civil liberties due to the “blowback” we must be on guard against constantly. Trump is terrible on such issues as Apple’s refusal to submit to the government’s demands to unlock its technology to permit surveillance. Yet the chief consequence of his broadly “isolationist” foreign policy would be to eventually debunk the alleged need for such surveillance.
Libertarians have traditionally treated foreign policy as a subsidiary issue, something to be tacked on to the usual litany of free market and civil libertarian concerns most “libertarian-ish” politicians and publicists invoke. The reality, however, is that a noninterventionist foreign policy is central to the philosophy of libertarianism, and this is proved by the history of this country, which has experienced a “Great Leap Forward” in the power and reach of government with every war. If the last twenty years haven’t taught us that lesson, then one can only wonder when and if libertarians will ever learn it.
I’ll end this with a prediction: Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee. I don’t care how many delegates he amasses: for all his inconsistencies, he still represents a deadly threat to neoconservative domination of the GOP, and the party elite isn’t going to let him have “their” GOP. Doug Wead, a longtime libertarian and strategist for both the Ron Paul and Rand Paul campaign, here outlines the many ways in which the Establishment can – and, in my view, will – steal the nomination from under Trump’s nose. Wead knows the nuts and bolts of the Republican party machinery all too well, and I don’t believe Trump and his campaign managers have a clue about what they are up against.
In a sense, this is the best outcome we could hope for: by stealing the nomination away from Trump, the elites will de-legitimize not only the Republican party but also the illusion of electoral politics and American “democracy.” People will wake up to the fact that the game is rigged – and that’s when our not-so-wise rulers will begin see that they’re in some really serious trouble.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.