Michael Anton and the Limits of Trumpism

Donald Trump’s appointments have provoked a uniform level of hysteria from his “progressive” opponents – “the Resistance” routinely goes to Defcon 1 in response to the President’s every tweet. Yet the virulence of their denunciations has an especially sharp edge to them when it comes to the foreign policy realm. Mike Flynn was portrayed as a Russian agent who received his orders directly from the Kremlin: Rex Tillerson was interrogated by Little Marco until our new Secretary of State vomited up the requisite anti-Russian noises. H. R. McMaster, who succeeds Flynn, has apparently been given a break on account of his spotless record as both a soldier’s soldier and a fearless truth-teller – his 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, is a merciless indictment of the Vietnam war – but no doubt they’ll find something to pin on him before this piece is posted. One appointee, however, has received a peculiarly vicious treatment at the hands of the NeverTrumpers, on both the right and the left, and that is Michael Anton, the new Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council. Anton hits on the reason for this in the opening paragraph s of his recent article in American Affairs, the newly-inaugurated theoretical journal of high Trumpism:

“In a year of upset political apple carts, none were rattled harder, or lost more fruit, than traditional notions of American foreign policy. Donald Trump shocked a lot of people over a lot of issues. But no anti-Trump Republican economists orchestrated elaborate letters, with hundreds of signatories, to swear they would never serve in a Trump administration. No dissident Republican trade negotiators ostentatiously switched parties and vowed to support Trump’s opponent. Nor did Republican immigration experts flood the cable networks to renounce and denounce their party’s nominee.

“Yet all of the above – and more – happened with respect to foreign policy. The specific reasons why Republican foreign policy operatives chose to denounce Trump’s plans may never be clear. We shall instead explore what we think they had in mind.”

Anton may be feigning ignorance of the reasons for this furious assault by the mandarins of GOP foreign policy orthodoxy, or he may be genuinely baffled, but it is clear from the content and tone of his essay what motivates his many critics on both sides of the political spectrum. This bipartisan hostility to Trumpian foreign policy, and by extension to Anton, is exemplified by a recent profile of Anton in The Intercept, a left-wing site, that quotes approvingly the objections of neoconservatives such as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, and neoconservative pundits Bill Kristol and Ben Shapiro, and comes complete with a photograph of none other than Charles Lindbergh and America First Committee founder R. Douglas Stuart. Author Peter Maas, one of the more hebephrenic Trump haters, writes:

“In an effort to justify the ‘America First’ slogan that Trump was beginning to use, the article [by Anton] argued that the anti-Semitic ‘America First Committee’ of the early 1940s, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II and was supported by Charles Lindbergh, had been ‘unfairly maligned’ and was just an ‘alleged stain’ on US history.”

To good liberals like Maas and the editors of The Intercept, the scare quotes adorning the name of an organization that included Norman Thomas, Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, and Gore Vidal is sufficient to dismiss it as Hitler’s Fifth Column – in much the same way as anyone who questions the crazed Russophobia of the NeverTrumpers is maligned as a Russian “agent of influence.” For Maas & Co., World War II was the Good War, and anyone who questions that canonical assumption of modern liberalism is “anti-Semitic” and probably a closet Nazi. That Maas goes on to equate Anton’s views with those of Carl Schmitt, the Nazi ideologist, is just more of the same smear-mongering that is now a routine part of a our political discourse.

But what does Anton really believe – and why do neoconservatives and our neo-McCarthyite “liberals” attack him in identical terms?

They do so for the same reason the foreign policy Establishment – including our politicized “intelligence community” – has the knives out for Trump himself. As Anton puts it:

“Nearly all opponents of President Trump’s foreign policy, from conservatives and Republicans to liberals and Democrats, claim to speak up for the “liberal international order.” A word may have been different here or there (e.g., “world order”) but the basic charge was always the same. Whether voiced by Fareed Zakaria and Yascha Mounk on the left, Walter Russell Mead in the center, Eliot Cohen and Robert Zoellick on the right, or Robert Kagan on the once-right-now-left, the consensus was clear: Trump threatens the international liberal order.”

So what is the “liberal international order” (heretofore LIO), anyway? And why is it a Good Thing? Even daring to ask these questions, as far as Washington’s foreign policy mavens are concerned, is an unforgivable heresy. And so Anton is condemned out of his own mouth from the very beginning: like Trump, he is challenging a dogma that has been the basis of American foreign policy since the end of World War II, and that has our elites in a panic.

The LIO, as defined by Anton, is the hegemonic position of the victorious powers in World War II, excluding the Soviet Union and mainland China. More specifically, it is the network of international institutions that have imagined and implemented the policies that have brought us to our present condition: the UN, NATO, the European Union, the World Bank – in short, the favored instruments by which the Davos crowd seeks to impose their worldview on the rest of us. Anton likens this worldview to a religion:

“Celebrants of the LIO seem to think that no explanation of its utility or value is necessary. Affirmation is enough because its goodness is self-evident. Trump’s implicit questioning of that order therefore sounds blasphemous. And clerics tend to confront blasphemy not with patient clarification but with strident denunciation.”

While opining that the priestly status of the foreign policy establishment “is not necessarily a bad thing” – “priests,” he snarks, “can be useful” – he nevertheless indicts this particular conclave of the faithful as hopelessly decadent in the sense that

“The arrangement becomes a problem when the elite forgets or at least can no longer articulate the original rationale for the policies it still advocates. That is the situation American foreign policy has faced since the end of the Cold War, if not before – a situation Trump pointed out in often pungent language.”

Like any priesthood, the ecclesiastics of globalism defend their sacerdotal prerogatives out of pure self-interest:

“[I]t is important to understand that they will look down on any heterodox analysis – simplistic or complex, old or new, factually detailed or broad-brush – and they will dismiss these analyses in seemingly contradictory terms. This one is too detailed, stuck “in the weeds,” and misses the forest for the trees, while that one is too vague and high-level and lacks specifics. The only common thread is that the priesthood is protecting its guild.

“And make no mistake: the foreign policy establishment is very much a guild. This fact is true in the prosaic sense. The priesthood operates and draws income from the LIO’s constituent institutions. It’s also true in the higher sense that the language and ideas of the LIO are the intellectual framework of all foreign policy discussion – the water in which fish do not know they swim.”

As Americans found themselves having attained the status of a superpower, in 1945, albeit a reluctant one, the elements of the foreign policy of the Founders were still what they always were: in Anton’s parlance, these are the pursuit of “peace, prestige, and prosperity.” I find his elucidation of these elements to be maddeningly vague, particularly the latter two. While peace is clearly the absence of war and of any threat to the continental United States and our (vaguely defined) “interests” abroad, what is “prestige”? Anton defines it in terms of its opposite, which he avers is “contempt”:

“Contempt and its opposite, prestige, are elusive qualities in international politics. Yet everyone knows them when they see them. When the Iranians seized ten American sailors in January 2016, and held them hostage for propaganda photos, those sailors – and our entire country – were being treated with contempt. Being insulted like this and passively accepting the insult increases the contempt felt for us by other nations. This was of course but a small example. A graver example is the contempt engendered by fighting two of the world’s weakest and poorest countries for a decade and not being able to win – and, worse, winning and then casually throwing the victory away.”

While Anton doesn’t shy away from challenging the foreign policy dogmas that have held sway since 1945, he backs down when it comes down to specifics. What was an American gunboat doing in Iranian waters in the first place? Wouldn’t Tehran’s failure to act induce contempt for Iran and demolish its prestige in the eyes of the world? Apparently, the road to avoiding contempt is a one-way street.

Worse, we are told that, contrary to what the headlines tell us, we really did “win” in Iraq (and Afghanistan!) but then indulged our taste for self-abasement by “casually throwing the victory away.”

This is the official mythology of the Trump administration, and it is beyond nonsensical. If Iraq was a “victory,” then, as King Pyhrrus is reputed to have said after battling the Romans: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” Trump has underscored the consequences of our Pyhrric “victory” many times, most recently in his CPAC speech:

“In the Middle East, we’ve spent as of four weeks ago, $6 trillion. Think of it. And by the way, the Middle East is in – I mean, it’s not even close, it’s in much worse shape than it was 15 years ago. If our presidents would have gone to the beach for 15 years, we would be in much better shape than we are right now, that I can tell you. Be a hell of a lot better. We could have rebuilt our country three times with that money.”

Of course, Trump also says that we left too early – another of the many contradictions of Trumpism, which are loyally reflected in Anton’s essay.

I’ll lightly pass over Anton’s view of how US foreign policy must ensure our prosperity: he says we must prevent the creation of “cartels,’ when in reality no cartel has ever succeeded in enforcing its strictures – someone always breaks away in order to pursue that universal human desire, the ability to profit. He also says we must ensure that no “undue pressure” is brought to bear on our trading partners, and that we must maintain the delivery of “strategic” resources, but these are just vague enough to merit our ignoring them. After all, he never names these “strategic” resources, and since fracking has made us much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil this seems like another of those archaic conditions Anton is so eager to challenge.

Anton takes the default conservative view of the cold war era by averring that the LIO was necessary in order to defeat the Soviet Union. In spite of the general American desire to “return to normalacy,” as he puts it, the enormous exertion of economic and military resources in order to stop Soviet “expansionism” was legitimate because it stayed within the tripartite framework supposedly established by the Founders: the preservation of peace, prestige, and prosperity. One could point out that he has this wrong: that the Soviet Union had long ago abandoned its official ideology of world revolution – shortly after exiling Leon Trotsky – and, in practice, carried out a foreign policy dedicated to defending socialism in one country. Yet that would be jousting at windmills, since a) that argument is, today, largely irrelevant, and b) it only delays us getting to the really interesting part of Anton’s worldview. This is where he passes into heretic territory: when he points out the reification of this globalist strategic orientation into an essentially religious conception long after its usefulness has expired:

“The LIO was not an end, but a means to preordained ends. Its contemporary defenders have forgotten – or never quite understood – this aspect of the LIO. They treat the LIO as the end, as the sempiternal embodiment of American interests, when in fact its creation was a response to the challenges of a particular time. Are those challenges permanent and unchanging? Some may persist, but the world looks a lot different today than it did in 1945. So why must the instruments of American foreign policy be preserved in amber?”

To be clear, Anton does not propose abandoning the LIO, but merely looks forward to its “intelligent reform.” Significantly, he says that the reorientation of the institutions that make up the LIO “certainly does not require its expansion into the establishment of a universal and homogenous state, as some imagine.”

This is significant because the phrase “universal and homogenous state” refers to a concept advanced by Francis Fukuyama in his famous essay, “The End of History,” in which this is put forward as the inevitable result of history’s “unfolding,” in the Hegelian sense. All of human history, said Hegel, points toward this “unfolding,” and at the end of the cold war – when Fukuyama’s essay was published – this view exemplified the triumphalism of certain neoconservative intellectuals, who nevertheless opined that History (capitalized!) needed a little nudging. In response, Charles Krauthammer embraced Fukuyama with the qualification that we’d have to make an effort to push History forward, presumably under the aegis of American military power: he looked forward to the creation of a Western super-state encompassing North America, Western Europe, and Japan. Such was the neoconservative globalist vision as the Berlin Wall fell.

Here Anton – who served in the George W. Bush administration, and supported the Iraq war – is throwing down the gauntlet in front of his former comrades in that troublesome little sect known as the neoconservatives, and crossing over to the other side of the barricades, where the banner of “America First” is fluttering in the breeze.

So how does he intend to “reform” the LIO?

On trade, he says:

“The LIO elevates ‘free trade’ – really, phonebook-thick agreements that regulate every aspect of trade, mostly to America’s disadvantage – to holy writ. It does so for political reasons as well as ideological ones, such as the often-inappropriate invocation of David Ricardo. The office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has been composed entirely of true believers in the free trade doctrine for several decades. But the world economy has changed significantly since 1945, to state the obvious. In certain cases, at least, the conditions underlying that period’s commercial policy orientation (and the theoretical impulses behind it) no longer apply. The Trump administration is right to be skeptical of free trade ideology and to revisit trade policy based on core interests and commercial realities.”

The political reasons he references are not specified, so I’ll do it for him. Take our trade policy toward Japan: we give them unfettered access to our markets in exchange for – what? What no one, including Anton, tells us is that the price they pay is military occupation. The same is true for South Korea. US troops occupy the soil of both of these “allies,” which are really protectorates. We pay for their defense, while they extract from us an unfair trade advantage. The result has been the de-industrialization of “flyover country,” an unsustainable “defense” budget  – and the election of Donald J. Trump as the forty-fifth President of these United States.

On our alliances: while NATO is “far from irrelevant today,” Anton says,

“But it is reasonable to ask: What is the alliance for once its original purpose has evaporated? If it can be reformed to better address the threats of our time – terrorism, mass illegal migration – all to the good.”

Key word: “if” – because perhaps it cannot be reformed. An intriguing possibility that Anton fails to address, but which I will address with the certainty that its members have lived so long under the umbrella of American generosity that they are unwilling, and perhaps even incapable of changing the terms of the original contract. In which case, the deal is off.

Anton goes on to write:

“We must also ask: Why is it in our strategic interest to push that alliance’s borders ever outward? What do we gain by pledging American blood to defend places where it would take us a 48-hour airlift to mount a forlorn defense with one regiment? In what way does committing to impossible things enhance prestige?”

Given this, we can expect that the entry of, say, Montenegro – a “country” with a population equal to that of San Francisco, and a “army” of a few thousand – into NATO will be opposed by the Trump administration. And on the issue of NATO expansion, Anton is unequivocal:

“The case for continued expansion of the LIO seems feeble indeed and has recently been taken to absurd extremes. One school of thought – let us call them the ‘neocons’ – holds that since democracy is ‘our team,’ and that team’s overall health improves when its prospects are expanding, then surely it is in our interest to democratize the world. No?

“No. That is to say: America would likely be better off if the world were more democratic than it is, given that democracy correlates highly with friendliness or at least non-opposition to American interests, whereas ‘authoritarianism’ (or, to be more precise, ‘tyranny’) correlates highly with opposition and even hostility to American interests. But in some regions, democracy also correlates highly with instability, which breeds war and chaos that are antithetical to American interests. In others, the rhetoric and mechanism of democracy are used – one man, one vote, once – to squelch robust democracy and impose a tyranny worse than what preceded the ‘democracy.’”

This represents a complete break with the Bush era foreign policy of the GOP. It is an explicit rejection of the perverted Trotskyism of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural, in which he pledged “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” and his even more effusive peroration before the National Endowment for Democracy, in which he declared the launching of a “global democratic revolution.” This is why legions of Bush era foreign policy “experts” and Bush administration officials signed a series of open letters denouncing Trump and all his works: after all, he had disdained their proudest “achievement” – a disastrous war that we are still paying for, in blood and treasure – and implicitly challenged the justification for it by declaring that “they lied.” Yes, they lied – and the man who called them on it is now sitting in the Oval Office. For that, the neocons will never forgive him – just as we will never forgive them.

Yet we would be making a grievous error if we mistook Anton’s – and Trump’s – “America First” foreign policy for anti-interventionism. Anton is quite clear about this:

“I would ask careful readers to please note that, for all the criticism of the foreign policy establishment, nothing here has specifically criticized the LIO per se. It served our interests well in the times and places for which it was built. It remains superior to most alternatives, including paleo-isolationism and neocon overreach. Confusion may arise from the implicit conflation of the LIO with the latter. It is not an outrageous error to make, precisely because the neocons have expended a lot of effort since the end of the Cold War to meld the two in the public mind, beginning with the so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine strategy paper drafted in the Pentagon in 1992 and continuing in 2014 with Robert Kagan’s New Republic think piece ‘Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.’”

At the core of Anton’s critique of the LIO is the failure of its advocates to recognize reasonable limits. America has neither the necessity nor the means to “maintain a liberal order in every corner of the globe” even if that were a worthwhile goal (“which it isn’t”). “We have to choose. What do we choose and on what basis?”

Anton asks the question, but – oddly – he fails to answer it. If the LIO must be restricted, geographically, then where – and on what basis – do we draw the line? He makes a go of arguing that countries where democracy has no history, and liberalism is unknown, are not likely candidates – but then doesn’t that rule out Syria, where US troops are now fighting? And what about Iraq, hardly a bastion of liberal democracy? Yet the Trump administration shows every indication that they intend to maintain and expand our endless “war on terrorism” in both of those unfortunate countries.

Anton argues that the overreach of the neocons led to:

“A growing awareness of the disconnect between the instrumental policies of that [international] order and its overriding purpose. In restoring a sense of the core objectives behind the LIO’s institutions, Trump actually shows a greater regard for it.”

Far from being a critic of the LIO, Trump is here portrayed as its savior! A neat trick, I must admit, but it won’t work for the reasons given above: Anton has no answer to those who ask “Why must we spend $6 trillion in the Middle East when our own country is falling apart at the seams?” The President rightly says we could’ve rebuilt our country twice over for that amount: how will Anton refute him?

No, we are not Trumpians, that much is clear from Anton’s essay. Indeed, he is quite explicit:

“Trump’s campaign was driven by the basic awareness of ordinary citizens that American peace, prestige, and prosperity were not being served by our foreign policy. Among the many reasons to be hopeful about President Trump’s foreign policy is that he seems to understand that correcting the errors of the neo-interventionists does not require adopting those of the paleo-isolationists.”

Ah yes, the “paleo-isolationists” – that’s us! We, of course, are the real America Firsters, those who recognize that the problem with US foreign policy isn’t just a simple case of “overreach,” but of megalomania. After all, a stated desire to impose a “world homogenous state” on the globe isn’t an ideology so much as it’s a pathology – and a deadly dangerous one when it is married to the mightiest military machine the world has ever seen.

If Anton thinks he will “save” the country from “paleo-isolationism,” he is very much mistaken. For the truth of the matter is that he has failed to recognize that rulers, by their very nature, are incapable of recognizing and respecting the limits of power: they always seek to expand their domain. This is why NATO has continued to expand well beyond the time when it had any real defensive function. This is why the “wise men” who lorded over the LIO didn’t – and couldn’t – stop the very concept from bloating out into an inflated and unsupportable Imperium. This is why the seemingly reasonable demand for the maintenance of American prestige ballooned into an untenable and ungodly hubris.

Men are human beings: they always go overboard. They are constantly testing the limits of their power – and, in the process, starting wars they can neither justify nor win. This is the immutable truth that “paleo-isolationism” is founded on. The good news is that, having challenged the LIO, Trumpism has paved the way for our eventual triumph. The bad news is that, in the process of trying to chart a middle path, the Trump administration may lead us into more of the bloody and cruel wars that Trump campaigned against.

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.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].