Last week, Vice President Mike Pence attended a private event at the American Enterprise Institute—a center-right think tank that traditionally holds an “internationalist” view on foreign policy—where he received an ear-full from none other than former vice president Dick Cheney.
Cheney and his pals are very upset over the Trump administration’s “America-First” foreign policy. Cheney went after President Trump for seeking to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Syria, asking wealthy European allies to pay more for NATO, meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, and not taking all the advice of his intelligence chiefs, among other things.
CNN’s Michael Warren wrote a story that phrased the event as Cheney bravely confronting Pence over Trump’s foreign policy ineptitude, to the cheers of many of the meeting’s attendees. After cleared questions, Cheney accused the Trump administration of operating a foreign policy “that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”
Here’s Warren: “Attendees say Cheney was polite and gave Pence plenty of opportunity to respond and defend the Trump administration… But the impression from one person there was that Pence relied too much on platitudes rather than addressing the criticisms directly.”
According to the story, Pence responded that President Trump doesn’t seek to tear down alliances, but to act in America’s interest, and foster greater burden-sharing. Pence added that Trump “is skeptical of foreign deployments, and only wants American forces where they need to be.”
While former Weekly Standard writer Warren thought the news was Cheney going after Pence, the real news is Cheney’s neoconservative crowd—much of the GOP foreign policy establishment, which can be counted on to advocate for intervention overseas—being mad that President Trump won’t listen to their terrible advice.
Cheney was one of the chief architects of the Iraq War, now in its seventeenth year with no end in sight. Given the neverending morass that war has become, and its utter failure to concretely benefit Americans in exchange for lives lost and trillions spent, it is preposterous that he would be lambasting the current vice president over foreign policy. He should instead be issuing public mea culpas.
Neocons Believe in America as Global Policeman
Cheney’s accusation that Trump is conducting Obama’s foreign policy is inaccurate, because both Obama and neocons are internationalists, and Trump is not. Neocons generally think global peace can be achieved through spreading of freedom and democracy, often by using military force. They tend to think any region in which America is not actively involved risks being filled with a menacing geopolitical force. They often view themselves as global citizens, and see America’s power as the perfect tool for peace and democracy spreading. America should act in its own interest, say the neocons, but America’s interest is the global interest, and vice versa.
Among other things, this leads neoconservatives to currently advocate for regime change or at least continued U.S. presence in Syria, continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan (even as that war is nearly two decades-old), a very hardline approach to Russia (which is oddly deemed an equal or even greater threat than China), and a U.S. military presence in more than 20 African countries that you have never heard of, to fight Islamic terrorists.
Internationalists might disagree about how much force should be used to spread liberalism. President Obama took out Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and presided over a terribly ineffective and dangerous effort to fund Syrian rebels in that country’s civil war. Republican neocons like Cheney just wish Obama had done even more, and put U.S. troops on the ground in Libya and Syria as well.
The Problem with Defaulting to Intervention
Despite their certainty about launching the United States into myriad global conflicts, neocons have lots of problems. First, they are incredibly naïve about fundamentalist Sunni Islam. Take the Syria example. ISIS and al Qaeda are both forms of fundamentalist Sunni Islam, which is incredibly popular across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Fighting the ideology that creates ISIS and al Qaeda could literally take forever.
It could also be self-defeating. Bombing and occupying a foreign land might make young men there more prone to outright terrorism, and infantilize the domestic forces that must take a stand in order for true progress against radicalization to occur.
In other areas too, neocons often cheer endeavors that shoot our country in the foot. They want us to stay in Syria to fight terrorism, but they were more than happy to fund and arm rebels—many of whom were radical Sunnis with ties to al Qaeda—in order to try to take down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Ditto with the intervention in Shia-majority Iraq, which ultimately emboldened and empowered the dominant Shia power, Iran.
Academically speaking, neocons have learned the lesson of World War II, but haven’t the lessons of World War I, Vietnam, or countless other conflicts where intervention and war had unforeseen outcomes and consequences. Thus they have a stunning record of getting foreign policy wrong. Leading neocon Bill Kristol was a huge advocate for the Iraq War, for example, and famously predicted it would be over in two months.
Despite how poorly many U.S.-involved conflicts have gone, neocons have refused to question their ideology. They will question someone’s motives if—for example—he disagrees with entering Syria’s civil war. You can point out that neither side is good, that this is largely a Shia-Sunni religious struggle that we should stay out of, and that taking out Bashar al-Assad would create a power vacuum for jihadists, but Kristol and Max Boot will respond by calling you a Russian stooge.
Trump Is Right to Not Listen to Failed Advice
Even though he still has neocons advising him in the White House, President Trump is thus smart to frequently ignore these people. In fact, pushing back against neocons is a big reason Trump got elected.
The American people agree that we shouldn’t be subsidizing wealthy European countries’ welfare states by fronting their defense. Germany’s military is literally falling apart, but the country is more than happy to give Russia billions for natural gas. If Germany isn’t concerned about Russia, is it our job to do all the work?
The American people also appreciate that Trump is trying to end the war in Afghanistan, and get American troops out of Syria, among other conflicts. Pence’s statement, that Trump wants us to be thoughtful about where we place U.S. troops, jives with the thoughts of a vast bipartisan majority of Americans.
The GOP Is a Conservative Party
Trump had an easy go of his GOP contenders in 2015-16 because the GOP is not a neoconservative party, it is simply a conservative party. There is a big difference. For neocons like Cheney to act as if Donald Trump stole the party is laughable. The neocons were an aberration in conservatives’ coalition.
The roots of the Grand Old Party are nationalism, foreign policy realism, and fiscal (spending) restraint. In but one example, President Eisenhower wrote a friend that cutting taxes was a reward for finding wasteful spending. President Nixon went to Communist China to exploit the rift between Beijing and Moscow. Democrats got us in the Vietnam War, and Nixon and Ford got us out.
Conservative voters care about localism, and tempered, non-utopian nationalism. It isn’t just nice to care about the people around us, and demand our politicians do what’s best for them, it is a high moral ideal—even commanded by scripture.
Some neocons just aren’t conservatives. Many are socially liberal, and view the pro-life cause as a way to get the so-called hayseeds to turn out on election day, not as a pressing moral issue. Because of this, some neocons may eventually find a home in the establishment Democrat Party.
True, neocons say they are fiscal conservatives, and many have criticized President Trump for not talking about entitlement reform (as has this writer), but in practice neocons are fiscal fakers. Their priorities never lead to downsizing the federal government. Rather, they bargain with Democrats to increase domestic welfare spending as long as the military budget also increases. There is a fundamental long-run contradiction between U.S. nation-building overseas and limited government here at home.
That’s why neocons have already lost the GOP, and Trump’s presidency is only just the beginning of a necessary shift. The Republican Party is finding its roots, and eventually going back to true fiscal conservatism (spending restraint that allows tax cuts, not just tax cuts for their own sake) and foreign policy realism.
But because of the American political system, this shift will occur in bits and spurts. Just this January, 47 Republican senators (that’s most of them) joined Democrats to vote for an amendment pushed by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell that sought to keep the United States in Syria and Afghanistan indefinitely. Try getting anything close to half of the American public to sign on to that. That’s the real story here.