The reaction to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s much-awaited foreign policy speech from the Washington elites was all-too-predictable: they sneered and snickered that he had mispronounced “Tanzania.” The more substantive criticisms weren’t much better: perpetual warmonger Lindsey Graham, whose presidential bid garnered zero percent in the polls, tweeted “Trump’s FP speech not conservative. It’s isolationism surrounded by disconnected thought, demonstrates lack of understanding threats we face.” For Graham, anything less than starting World War III is “isolationism” – a view that gives us some insight into why his presidential campaign was the biggest flop since the “new” Coke. This is the party line of neoconservatives who have long dominated Republican foreign policy orthodoxy, to the GOP’s detriment. Neocon character assassin Jamie Kirchick, writing in the European edition of Politico, put a new gloss on it by claiming to detect a Vast Kremlin Conspiracy as the animating spirit behind the Trump campaign.
Which just goes to show that having Roy Cohn as your role model can lead one down some pretty slimy rabbit holes. I guess that’s why the editors of Politico put Kirchick’s smear piece in the European edition, where hardly anyone will read it, saving a more reasonable analysis by Jacob Heilbrunn for the US version. (Although, to be sure, a piece by neocon-friendly Michael Crowley limns the same McCarthyite theme in Politico’s magazine.)
Heilbrunn is the editor of The National Interest, publication of the Nixon Center, which has been a sanctuary for the outnumbered – but now rising – “realist” school of foreign policy analysts. The Trump speech was sponsored by TNI, and Heilbrunn gave a very interesting if somewhat defensive explanation for the motives behind their invitation to Trump, succinctly summarizing its significance:
“His speech did not deviate from the themes he has already enunciated and it showed that he is willing to go very far indeed. Nothing like this has been heard from a Republican foreign policy candidate in decades. Trump doesn’t want to modify the party’s foreign policy stands. He’s out to destroy them.”
This is why the Republican Establishment hates Trump: it’s no accident that the same neocons who lied us into the Iraq war and profited personally and professionally from that disastrous adventure are now in the vanguard of the “Never Trump” brigade. As Heilbrunn points out:
“This is why perhaps his most significant statement was: ‘I will also look for talented experts with new approaches, and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.’ What Trump is talking about is dispensing with an entire wing of the GOP that has controlled the commanding heights of foreign policy over recent decades.”
This is my favorite part of Trump’s peroration. Here he is openly telling the neocons, who have inveigled themselves into every administration since the days of Ronald Reagan, that they will be kicked to the curb if and when he takes the White House. Which is why they are even now returning to the Democratic party, channeling the long departed spirit of “Scoop” Jackson – and good riddance to them. If ever a group of failed ideologues deserved their comeuppance it is this gang, which led the nation into the Middle East quagmire and steered the GOP to a series of humiliating defeats.
Pledging to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy,” Trump started out by saying he would “invite new voices and new visions into the fold.” And while I think Heilbrunn’s somewhat overstates the case, it is certainly true that what follows is something we haven’t heard from a Republican frontrunner is quite a long time. Adopting a campaign slogan that has the neocons and their left-wing internationalist enablers in a lather, Trump reiterated his theme of “America First” – a phrase with a long and largely misunderstood history in the annals of American conservatism, and one which he gives new life and new meaning.
Trump gives us a capsule history of US foreign policy, from World War II to the end of the cold war, that is light on nuance but true in essence: we “saved the world” twice, and then crashed on the rocks of hubris and miscalculation:
“Unfortunately, after the Cold War our foreign policy veered badly off course. We failed to develop a new vision for a new time. In fact, as time went on, our foreign policy began to make less and less sense. Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.
“They just kept coming and coming. We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.
“We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.”
A more perceptive summary of the post-Soviet post-9/11 policies that have led us to disaster would be hard to imagine: indeed, Trump’s critique parallels what we have been saying on this web site ever since its founding in 1995. To hear it coming from a Republican candidate for President who is not Ron Paul is astonishing: and that it is being said by the GOP frontrunner, who spoke these words after winning every county in five Northeastern states, is simply breathtaking.
I’ve covered Trump’s views on NATO in this space, but in this speech he gives us a new perspective. He is constantly bewailing the fact that Obama’s America projects weakness – a standard Republican line – but here he makes clear that he’s not just talking about how our enemies perceive us, but also how our alleged friends see us
“Our allies are not paying their fair share, and I’ve been talking about this recently a lot. Our allies must contribute toward their financial, political, and human costs, have to do it, of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so.
“They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us. In NATO, for instance, only 4 of 28 other member countries besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense. We have spent trillions of dollars over time on planes, missiles, ships, equipment, building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia.
“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.”
Billions of dollars in “defense” spending are tied up in NATO contracts: the power and prestige of Washington’s foreign policy “experts” are inextricably linked to maintaining the Atlanticist bridge that binds us to our free-riding European client states. And now the candidate most likely to win the GOP presidential nomination is threatening to take it all away from them. No wonder they hate his guts and will do anything to stop him.
A major push by the neoconservatives and their left-internationalist allies in the Clinton camp has been a campaign to demonize the Russians and restart the cold war. Trump made it clear he is having none of that:
“We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. We have serious differences with these two nations, and must regard them with open eyes, but we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests.
“Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries.
“Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great – not good, great – for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find out.”
While much attention is paid to the Middle East, the real threat to peace is the possibility of a stand off between Washington and Moscow. A new arms race is in the works, and the threat of nuclear conflict – which Trump correctly says is the biggest threat of all – looms larger by the day. That Trump seeks a rapprochement with Russia is a very big plus – and a major reason why the War Party has mobilized against him.
When it comes to the Middle East, Trump is proposing a new turn:
“Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength. Although not in government service, I was totally against the war in Iraq, very proudly, saying for many years that it would destabilize the Middle East. Sadly, I was correct, and the biggest beneficiary has been has been Iran, who is systematically taking over Iraq and gaining access to their very rich oil reserves, something it has wanted to do for decades.
“And now, to top it off, we have ISIS. My goal is to establish a foreign policy that will endure for several generations. That’s why I also look and have to look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war. We have to look to new people.”
Out with the neocons – and in with a new foreign policy that promotes peace, prosperity, and the radical idea that we have to put American interests first. Trump was explicitly making an appeal to anti-interventionists when he said:
“The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends and when old friends become allies, that’s what we want. We want them to be our allies.
“We want the world to be – we want to bring peace to the world. Too much destruction out there, too many destructive weapons. The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem that we have today in the world.
“To achieve these goals, Americans must have confidence in their country and its leadership. Again, many Americans must wonder why we our politicians seem more interested in defending the borders of foreign countries than in defending their own.”
And then there’s this:
“No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and our enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must start doing the same. We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down and will never enter.”
Now I can imagine some libertarians will cringe at the idea that the nation-state is a foundation for any kind of happiness, but they fail to put this in context: we’re talking here about a nation-state founded as a result of a victorious American Revolution – the only successful libertarian revolution in history.
Which brings us to the darker side of Trumpian nationalism, with its all its contradictions – some of them potentially fatal.
Like all nationalism, Trump’s is ambidextrous: the American variety is usually inward-looking, with its European cousin mostly expansionist-minded. And yet it can be bellicose when it perceives a threat, a characteristic that fits neatly with Trump’s public persona. There are certain advantages to this: as one of my Twitter followers put it, “For better or for worse, Trump’s anti-interventionism works because he doesn’t project sympathy for the enemy.” Opponents of America’s wars have been regularly subjected to the argument – a smear, really – that they’re working on behalf of America’s enemies. About Trump the War Party can make no such accusation.
Yet this immunity also confers contradictions, and Trump’s speech is rife with them. He has said he opposes sending ground troops to Syria to fight ISIS, and yet he insists ISIS will be defeated during his presidency – although he’s unwilling to say just how. We’re too “predictable,” he avers, but don’t the American people have the right to know what his plan is?
He wants to “rebuild” the military – as if a country that spends 40 percent of all the money spent on “defense” worldwide requires it. Yes, he says he wants to ensure US military “dominance” so that no one will ever dare to attack us – and therefore we’ll never have to actually use our military – and yet if one is constantly preparing for war, then war will surely come. Trump, like Ron Paul, is constantly talking about our huge national debt: unlike Paul, however, he wants to “invest” in the military because it’s the “best” investment and he’s vowed to spare no expense. Suddenly the debt is conveniently forgotten.
Trump rightly points to the power of modern weaponry – specifically, nuclear weapons – as the biggest threat to our security, and yet in his speech he called for ramping up and “modernizing” our nuclear deterrent. This project, already undertaken by the Obama administration, involves miniaturizing nukes and therefore making them more “usable” – a dangerous development indeed.
Trump rails against the Iran deal: it’s a “bad deal,” the “absolute worst,” he insists. And yet Iran has abided by it, to the letter. War has been avoided: and he himself has said he wouldn’t rip it up, as his rival Ted Cruz has vowed. While saying we shouldn’t go abroad seeking enemies, his fearmongering over the alleged threat from Iran tells a different story. The reality is that there’s no evidence Iran is seeking to build a nuclear arsenal: our own intelligence community has confirmed this. Yet to listen to Trump, you’d think they’re about to nuke the Trump Tower. So there’s another contradiction – and they’re adding up.
His fearmongering over Iran is tied to his pandering to Israel, which he glorifies as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” In Trump’s world, Israel is blameless: its occupation of the West Bank, its merciless attacks on defenseless Gaza, its apartheid-like domestic regime – all this ignored. While it’s true that he says he would be “evenhanded” in trying to negotiate a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how seriously can we take this pledge when his pro-Israel rhetoric is so over-the-top? Indeed, he attacks the Obama administration for its supposedly ill treatment of Israel, and yet they are just trying to be as evenhanded as he says he wants to be.
American nationalism is a schizophrenic creature: on the one hand, it is pacific, inward-looking, and benign. On the other hand, it can be vengeful, aggressive, and malevolent. Like Trump himself, it is often unpredictable. And therein lies the danger – and the opportunity.
Nationalists of the Trumpian sort see America as an exceptional nation, but unlike the aggressive nationalists of the neoconservative variety they don’t believe the American system can be exported, and certainly not by force of arms. As Trump put it in his speech:
“Finally, I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or wants, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.”
This rejection of catholicity is the core of the nationalist insight: it accounts for their views on immigration as well as their noninterventionist foreign policy. Trump weaves these strands into a pattern of thought that is challenging – and displacing – the militant universalism that unites both neoconservatism and modern liberalism.
For all his faults as a candidate, Trump is forcing a sea change in the American political discourse. His campaign for the presidency has certainly shifted the terms of the debate over foreign policy, not only in the GOP but generally. Senator Rand Paul’s candidacy was dogged by questions about his lack of “orthodoxy” on foreign policy issues. That orthodoxy has now been smashed to smithereens, and future Rand Pauls will face no such suspicious inquiries. Candidates will no longer be required to sing, in unison, “the false song of globalism” – and we have Donald Trump to thank for that.
The task of anti-interventionists is not – as some would have it – to sit on the sidelines, or to join the “Never Trump” neocons and Clintonistas in attacking the Trump phenomenon as somehow beyond the pale. It is, instead, to push the discourse even further. We must take advantage of the opening provided by Trump’s campaign to point out the contradictions, recruit Trump’s supporters into a broader movement to change American foreign policy, and break the bipartisan interventionist consensus once and for all.
That is what I have been trying to do, in my own small way, for the past few months – much to the consternation of a rather sectarian and demoralized section of the libertarian movement, which cannot adapt to new conditions and doesn’t want to see the opportunity that is right in front of their eyes. They would much rather retreat into their little circles, uncontaminated by contact with the unwashed masses and safe from the need to examine their tactical and strategic acuity.
That is not an option open to me, or to Antiwar.com. This site was founded on the idea that it is necessary to build a single-issue anti-interventionist movement – and that ridding ourselves of the albatross of empire is the first and most important step along the road to a free society.
For the past twenty years, movements have arisen to challenge American imperialism: the campaigns of Pat Buchanan, the antiwar left that arose during the Bush years, the Ron Paul campaigns that energized many thousands of young people and put some meat on the bones of the libertarian movement. You’ll note the pattern: the Buchanan movement was small yet vociferous, the antiwar left was much bigger and yet more diffuse, the Ron Paulians were (and are) substantial in size and highly focused and well-organized – yet all crested without achieving a mass character, falling short of their goals.
The Trump movement is different: it is massive, and it is capable of winning. That’s what has the Establishment in such a panic that they are considering denying Trump the nomination and bringing in a candidate on a “white horse” to steal the GOP from the Trumpians. If that happens, the system will be shaken to its very foundations, its very legitimacy in doubt – a perfect storm as far as libertarians are concerned.
But there is more to it than that. If we step back from the daily news cycle, and consider the larger significance of the Trump phenomenon, the meaning of it all is unmistakable: we haven’t seen anything like this in American politics – not ever. Revolution is in the air. The oligarchy is tottering. The American people are waking up, and rising up – and those who try to ignore it or disdain it as mere “populism” will be left behind.
Yes, the road ahead is going to be rough, largely unpaved, and strewn with pitfalls. It would be easy to fall prey to the errors of pandering, of over-adaptation, or their opposite: sectarianism, and strategic inflexibility. Ideological entrepreneurship is an art, not a science, and it takes a skillful player to distinguish between opportunism and taking advantage of legitimate opportunities.
Yet there is no alternative, because abstention means extinction. Libertarians – and anti-interventionists of every political stripe – must intervene, or die out. Natural selection will take care of those who cannot or will not adapt to the new reality.
And this kind of sectarianism is absolutely unforgivable, because the new reality is far from a hostile environment. It is, in many ways, far more conducive than the old left-right paradigm, which is seeing the last of its iron grip on political consciousness loosened and dispelled.
We are living in revolutionary times. Every political movement and tendency will be put to the test. Some will be found wanting, and they will fall by the wayside. Others will adapt and prosper. Whether we have the courage to face the future is an issue that will soon be decided, and it is we who will do the deciding – because our fate is in our hands.
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.