Trump and the Neocon Lament

Upset that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump isn’t one of them, angry neocons insist that they represent America’s reasonable foreign policy consensus, a claim challenged by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The ululation among neoconservatives over their loss, at the hands of Donald Trump, of their control of the foreign policy of one of the two major American political parties continues with an op ed from one of the loudest grievers, Eliot Cohen.

Cohen enumerates many valid reasons why the vulgar and erratic presumptive Republican presidential nominee would be an awful steward of U.S. foreign policy. Along with the valid reasons to oppose Trump, Cohen also delivers a few low blows, including a comment that Trump’s “America first” slogan recalls the pre-World War II movement “that included not only traditional isolationists but also Nazi sympathizers.” One can always rely on neocons to work in a Nazi reference if at all possible.

Billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

A more fundamental deception in Cohen’s piece involves his assertion that Trump’s candidacy imperils a “two-generation-old American foreign policy consensus” that “has framed this country’s work overseas since 1950.”

It is true that there have been some depressingly persistent strains in American thinking about foreign relations in recent decades, the blatant and costly failures of which have had something to do with popular support for Trump (and, as Cohen correctly notes without acknowledging the failures, support for Bernie Sanders).

But Cohen’s overall argument is another example of neoconservatives striving to wrap themselves in a larger mantle of what Cohen calls “American global leadership” and general U.S. involvement in world affairs that is the antithesis of true isolationism. They have been able to do this partly because neoconservatism is in some respects a more muscular and militant form of some themes that can be found in broadly held American exceptionalism. But where the mantle-wrapping involves wool-pulling over eyes is that neoconservatism itself is a narrow agenda that has never reflected the kind of consensus that Cohen is claiming.

Cohen writes, “Even in this era of partisanship, there has been a large measure of agreement between the two parties, cemented by officials, experts and academics who shared a common outlook.” But especially given the recent neocon domination of the Republican Party, this simply has not been true.

A prime and recent exhibit is one of the biggest foreign policy accomplishments of the Obama administration: the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, on which the partisanship has been intense (and on which Trump, by the way, is siding more with the neocons).

Or consider the biggest neocon foreign policy endeavor: the Iraq War, which a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives, even amid all the pre-war propaganda about dictators supposedly giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, voted against. As for “officials, experts and academics”: the judgment of officials was never sought in a decision that was supported by no policy process, and many very credible experts and academics, including leading American foreign policy thinkers, opposed the launching of the war.

Even within the Republican Party, the neocon takeover of which came much later than Cohen’s 1950 start date for his alleged consensus, policy has been far different for most of this period than the direction that Cohen advocates. Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency was one of foreign policy restraint. Ike didn’t dive into Southeast Asia when the French were losing, he didn’t attempt rollback in Eastern Europe, and he came down hard on the British, French, and Israelis during their Suez escapade.

Richard Nixon’s foreign policy was characterized by realism, balance of power, and extraction from a major war rather than starting one. Ronald Reagan, despite the image of standing up to the Evil Empire, didn’t try to wage Cold War forever like some in his administration did. He saw the value of negotiation with adversaries, and when faced with high costs from overseas military deployments (think Lebanon in 1983-84), his response was retrenchment rather than doubling down.

George H.W. Bush had one of the most successful foreign policies of all, thanks to not trying to accomplish too much with overseas military expeditions, and to his administration being broad-thinking and forward-looking victors of the Cold War.

It wasn’t until the administration of George W. Bush that the neocons finally had their way. As for laying any claim to consensus, their loss of support, due largely to their disastrous experiment in trying to inject democracy in foreign countries through the barrel of a gun, destroys any such claim.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney receive an Oval Office briefing from CIA Director George Tenet. Also present is Chief of Staff Andy Card (on right). (White House photo)

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney receive an Oval Office briefing from CIA Director George Tenet. Also present is Chief of Staff Andy Card (on right). (White House photo)

The grand neoconservative experiment in Iraq, far from reflecting a consensus, was the product of, in Larry Wilkerson’s words, a cabal. On a more general and intellectual level, the neoconservatism which Cohen is trying to defend has also been a narrowly based political phenomenon, notwithstanding those traits it shares in kind if not in degree with broader American exceptionalism.

It is a movement with historical ties to Scoop Jackson Democrats and, farther back, Trotskyites. Along the way the movement has given us a dose of Plato, by way of Leo Strauss, and the idea that the neocons themselves know better than any of the rest of us, who can be kept in line more with myth and fable than with truth. So much for consensus.

It must be painful to lose control of the ideology of a major political party. So maybe we can feel a little sympathy for Cohen and his fellow neocons. But we should not put up with being portrayed as agreeing with them as part of a phony “consensus.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “Trump and the Neocon Lament

  1. peon d. rich
    May 21, 2016 at 23:05

    Let’s see, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, bombed, invaded and/or occupied; Indonesia massacres supported and facilitated; Iranian democracy over-thrown and fascist monarchy installed; occupation of Palestinian land supported and financed; invasions of Lebanon supported and facilitated; Iraqi repression and regional war funded and supported; Saudi oppression rewarded; Libyan bombing; Afghani radical fundamentalists armed, coordinated, financed and lauded; sanctions against Iran; Gulf War I, bombings of infrastructure, sanctions, no fly zone, turkey shoot; coup d’etat in Greece; repression of leftist politics throughout Europe; Radio free America, CIA labor organizations and support for civil disruption like in Poland and Hungary; NATO; cruise missles, ICBM’s, Star Wars missle defense, nuclear arms race; coups, death squads, military oppression and war on labor and indigenous peoples in nearly every country of the Caribbean, Central and South America; and a penchant to support every vile right-wing dictator and enemy of democratic process in the world. Yeah, the short-list of pre-neo con restraint. Give me a break – they are just a next step in consolidating Amerikkkan imperial power for neo-liberal mining of common good. And Plato would wretch in a spasm of disgust.

  2. Peter lOEB
    May 20, 2016 at 07:49

    Typical “Paul Pillar fare !!! An excellent analysis.

    I agree with “Stygg” above. Extreme care should be used with
    the word”successful”. For whom, By whom? How many killed?
    How many cities, villages etc, destroyed? Without a precise
    definition, such a word can lead to catastrophe. Since all
    writers are quoted out-of-context and must expect to be
    extreme care must be taken.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Drew Hunkins
    May 19, 2016 at 21:20

    Trump makes the Zionist Power Configuration very uneasy. With Killary Clinton they know they have an obedient lapdog; while with Trump the ZPC has a bit of a loose cannon who may not genuflect to them at every opportunity.

  4. Bill Bodden
    May 19, 2016 at 20:11

    On a recent CNN show, former Governor Bill Richardson deplored Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy in a discussion of Trump’s willingness to talk (heaven forbid) with Kim, Jong Un. Despite the many and immeasurable disastrous consequences of US foreign policy since the end of World War Two, Richardson apparently believes in sticking with the established and discredited foreign policy establishment.

  5. Michael K Rohde
    May 19, 2016 at 20:07

    The Neocons are nothing more than a group of political technocrats that are in thrall to the Right in Israel. They lied and distorted evidence to goad Congress into rubber stamping their democracy building failure in Iraq which was really just a military exercise to destroy the only military organization in the Middle East that frightened the Israeli military establishment because of its’ sheer size. These are people that are abusing their power to achieve private political agendas that are not in America’s best interests’.

  6. Oz
    May 19, 2016 at 19:59

    I would add to what Stygg said about the alleged success of George HW Bush: the demands made upon Germany jointly by Bush, Thatcher and Mitterand created the basis for the present economic collapse of Europe. Helmut Kohl was told that if he wanted German reunification, he would have to swallow the poison pill of the Maastricht agreement. And worse, Bush and company attempted to exploit the collapse of the USSR by turning Russia into a colonial looting ground, since the Third World nations were largely depleted. Putin will be remembered by historians as the man who put a stop to that. But an opportunity to create a stable and peaceful world order, following the demise of COMECON, was blown by Bush and company.

  7. Anthony Shaker
    May 19, 2016 at 16:53

    Trotskyites and Leo Strauss–two key words in the intellectual garbage heap of Neoconservatism. Thanks, I thought their names had vanished from the printed page and collective memory. But that’s how this warped mindset began. Those two figures practically defined the pall of evil that hangs over America today.

    One day the Manchurian Neocon candidates claim to be “liberal,” another day “conservative.” One day Mit Romney, another Hillary Clinton…and down into the black pit we go!

    This is the political ping-pong that the American people are being played. And it smells Zionist lobby. Neocon is virtually synonymous with that lobby. If anyone still doubts it, foreign (and increasingly domestic) policy is being designed with Israel in dead center.

  8. Abbybwood
    May 19, 2016 at 15:13

    Speaking of Neocons, the Koch brothers! hosted an “Anti-Neocon” soiree with attendees one would expect to see at a Sanders meeting:

    https://theintercept.com/2016/05/18/neocon-bashers-headline-koch-event-as-political-realignment-on-foreign-policy-continues/

  9. Chris Chuba
    May 19, 2016 at 14:03

    The Democrats and Republicans basically argue about which countries to destroy, not the premise that the U.S. has the unbridled right to campaign against countries who have not pleased us for whatever reason.

    Going back 20yrs …
    Democrats: Serbia, Libya, partial destruction of Syria/Ukraine.
    Republicans: Iraq, Afghanistan

    I’m certain that the body count is higher if one digs a little more and counts coups or other subversions but this is skimmin off the top. The Republicans would have had a higher toll had they had they been in office more, Syria and Iran would definitely have seen more aggressive measures.

    It’s true, there is a consensus in the leadership of both parties.

  10. Stygg
    May 19, 2016 at 13:22

    “George H.W. Bush had one of the most successful foreign policies of all, thanks to not trying to accomplish too much with overseas military expeditions, and to his administration being broad-thinking and forward-looking victors of the Cold War.”

    Iraqis and Panamanians may disagree.

    Georgie Boy was lucky the internet wasn’t around in his day. He’d be remembered very differently.

    • Evangelista
      May 20, 2016 at 20:51

      GHW Bush’s “Iraq War I” was the first major deployment of so-called “Depleted Uranium Munitions”, also known as “Silver-Bullets”, properly designated “Kinetic Penetrator” and “Pyro-kinetic Penetrator” munitions. Correctly identified the “Silver-Bullet” is a “Tactical Nuclear Weaplon”. It is not recognized such formally, or conventionally, however, because definition of “Kinetic Penetrators” as nuclear would bring the full array of nuclear restrictions and constrictions to bear on the munition, and “it just works too well” to be lost from arsenals that way…

      The introduction of the “Silver-Bullet”, able to burn through virtually any thickness of armour and spraying a blast of metal plasma with its exit (officially defined, for convenience, not radioactive, but in actual fact extremely radioactive, and leaving behind deadly and deformative levels of radioactive waste, in smoke and dust forms) changes warfare, making metal-armour deadly (viz the Iraqi tanks the Americans destroyed like shooting-gallery target ducks, also the Israeli armour Hamas destroyed with remnants from American misses, field drops, dump-disposals, etc., which brought Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon to a sudden halt),

      How does the stuff work? Like strike-anywhere match heads: smack, or scrape, a “Silver-Bullet” on anything metal (which, at nuclear combustion temperatures is a fuel) a mini-nuclear-explosion goes off, burning the ‘fuel’ metal. Chain-reaction is prevented by the matrixing of the nuclear isotope (usually plutonium) with an inert metal (the depleted uranium of the euphemism “Depleted Uranium Munition”). The right mix makes a bullet that has to continue penetrating to continue furning away the control matrix to expose a next nuclear element to fission, until the bullet is burnt up, or exits the ‘fuel’ metal. The bullets are fired ‘saboted’, surrounded by a ‘boot’, to prevent scraping on the firing gun barrel, which would burn out the gun barrel first round.

      Of course, with the U.S. using the stuff the U. S. was God on the Battlefield when only it had it, and enemies of the U.S., who could see it coming to them, had to have it to defend themselves. Henc, the North Korean resumption of its nuclear program (to make the raw materials) and Iran’s development of centrifuge cascades, to consolidate the aerobic plutonium waste its power reactors were producing, both to make the waste more storable, and to ‘recycle’ mixed with depleted uranium wastes to make a deterrent against U.S. Battlefield Gods playing the Devil in Iran, as they had in Iraq and in Bosnia.

      GHW Bush, with his Iraq war-game good-time fun will be remembered for his war-game foreign policy for hundreds of years in Iraq, where people will be monumented with birth-defected children for generation on generation.

    • Mark
      May 23, 2016 at 03:56

      Depleted uranium is toxic and evil, but it doesn’t cause a “mini nuclear explosion.” Take a Physics 101 course!

Comments are closed.