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Trump and the Republican Open Letter on Foreign Policy

Donald Trump has promised to provide a list of his foreign policy advisers for months, and still hasn’t produced one. Many Republican foreign policy professionals and academics have saved him some time and removed themselves from consideration by denouncing him in an open letter [1]:

Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world. Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States. Therefore, as committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head. We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.

The signatories are well within their rights to reject Trump, and at least some of their complaints are accurate. One problem with this letter is that several of the complaints they level against Trump could be lodged against the other candidates still in the race, but there is no similar effort being made to oppose or criticize them. More to the point, there is not even a brief acknowledgement that Republican foreign policy failures have helped Trump succeed, nor is there any recognition that the hawkish obsession with “resolve” and “strength” have made Republican voters receptive to Trump’s unrealistic and reckless promises. Robert Farley made a related point earlier today:

If Trump’s “admiration for foreign dictators” is disqualifying in their eyes, they probably also must object to Cruz’s argument that the U.S. should not seek to depose dictators when jihadists will benefit. It would be worth knowing if they do. Then again, it’s not actually clear why pursuing a less confrontational, more pragmatic relationship with Russia is undesirable, but because Trump appears less inclined than his remaining rivals to “punch the Russians in the nose” he has crossed a line. We should be more worried about the candidates that are prepared to fight Russia over Syria than we are about the candidate that seems interested in cooperating with Moscow, but of course many of the signatories have no problem with a more aggressive and reckless policy in Syria and some have advocated for it. They are alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric on trade, but if he were in favor of aggressively waging wars, as opposed to trade wars, many of them would be celebrating his embrace of American “leadership.” Many of the people denouncing Trump here have a very warped view of what the U.S. should be doing in the world, and that needs to be kept in mind when reading their complaints.

It’s worth noting that at least some of the signatories are publicly committed supporters of Rubio (e.g., Max Boot), and presumably they are signing on to this letter to help promote his candidacy. They say that Trump’s “equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false.” I agree with that, but I must have missed it when many of these former Romney advisers ridiculed Romney and his supporters for making similar claims. Like Trump, Romney had absolutely no foreign policy experience and frequently showed that he didn’t understand what he was talking about, but that didn’t stop many of these same people from supporting him. When Romney said something outlandish or idiotic on foreign policy, his supporters dismissed it as meaningless pandering, but now they are applying a different standard.

There are positions that the other candidates have taken on Syria and the war on ISIS that merit just as much criticism as anything Trump has said (Cruz’s insane “carpet bombing” rhetoric or Rubio and Kasich’s reckless support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria), but there is little chance that most of the signatories of this letter would denounce Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich in similar terms. Potentially risking war with a nuclear-armed major power is and should be considered a worse offense than saying something flattering about an authoritarian ruler, but we won’t hear that from many of the people on this list.

The strongest argument against Trump on foreign policy is that we have no clear idea of what he would do, and it is dangerous to entrust someone with such a muddled and ill-defined foreign policy worldview with great power. I agree that his rhetoric on torture is deplorable and should be condemned, but then we should also condemn other candidates that endorse the use of torture. We should also condemn the previous administration for using torture on detainees, which had the effect of making support for illegal and immoral methods into a sick litmus test for many on the right. Another question that the signatories don’t attempt to address is whether the other candidates are even more dangerous when we have a very good idea of how they would conduct foreign policy once in office. They are appalled by Trump’s “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric,” as well they should be, but how is that worse than the other candidates’ willingness to inflict death and destruction on predominantly Muslim countries again and again?

Trump gets a lot wrong on foreign policy. His opposition to the nuclear deal is uninformed and foolish, his understanding of the relevant issues in many parts of the world is lacking or superficial, and his casual support for war crimes and torture is unacceptable. He wasn’t the early opponent of unnecessary wars he has claimed to be. However, the problem with singling Trump out as this letter does is that in spite of all his real deficiencies he is not obviously worse or more irresponsible than his rivals, who are either equally ill-informed or much more fanatical than he is. That is the deeper problem with Republican foreign policy that most of the people behind this letter can’t acknowledge and won’t even attempt to fix.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Trump and the Republican Open Letter on Foreign Policy"

#1 Comment By Ken Hamilton On March 3, 2016 @ 10:00 am

I am not fond of neoconservatives but in this case it’s the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 3, 2016 @ 10:25 am

I have got to have a laugh at the letter and anyone the least bit familiar with US foreign policy should.

It’s a little late for the signers and writers to be claiming some manner of moral high ground on foreign policy.

I guess the trick is to take each signatory and measure their views against the rather weak positions in the letter. One would think that given their education and connection they’d make a more compelling case. These are the promoters and designers of the the policies that brought us here. Its a little late to disavow what you have wrought.

What they have done is wiped out any ethical veracity they have for considering their views.

They supported the invasions of

The dismantling of stable democracies in Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Ukraine.
They have advanced arguments in support of enhanced interrogations
They have supported treating prisoners from th battle field as terrorists
They are responsible for the quagmired mess that is Guantanamo

Even the cliche’d “pot calling the kettle black” doesn’t paint the hypocrisy they wear.

Whatever his rhetorical short comings in making his case and his case is very strong and salient. He is a moderate in the light of most of these signatories and peacenik in light of several.

#3 Comment By Ben Mayo On March 3, 2016 @ 10:27 am

Why don’t the neo-cons, the republican party bosses, and the Democrat machine just go ahead and embrace? Make public the consummation of their union that we all know has existed for some time now? Then let this loathsome Hydra meet her fate against Heracles in November. The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all. I can’t wait.

#4 Comment By collin On March 3, 2016 @ 10:51 am

Which of the seven stages of grief is this? Is bargaining or denial? I guessing denial because if the foreign policy experts understood anything about Trump’s run is their attacks EMPOWERS The Donald not weakens him.

#5 Comment By Ian G. On March 3, 2016 @ 10:52 am

Wait, Max Boot is denouncing Trump for his admiration of dictators? The same Max Boot who lectured us on how we need to “stand with” a brutal Islamist theocracy in Saudi Arabia while it carpet bombs Yemen and beheads political prisoners?

#6 Comment By climber On March 3, 2016 @ 10:53 am

While I agree Trump is a huge risk and a sub-optimal candidate, if he as President could make progress on the following, I’d be pleased.

IMMIGRATION: Stop illegal immigration, force self-deportation by enforcing hiring laws on business, reduce HB1 visas, etc.

JOBS: I’m OK with light protectionism and slightly higher prices to keep jobs here. See Harley Davidson

FOREIGN POLICY: Tap Bacevich (or someone similar in outlook) as an advisor and stop our fruitless meddling around the world. It’s the Department of Defense, not Offense.

#7 Comment By Captain P On March 3, 2016 @ 10:56 am

I’m glad to hear that Eliot Cohen, Max Boot, and the other neocons on the list won’t be influencing Trump’s administration. I’m not sure what Trump will be like, but at least he’s shown that he’s the only Republican left who doesn’t kowtow to neocon ideology.

#8 Comment By Clint On March 3, 2016 @ 10:58 am

Eliot Cohen,
“Hillary is the lesser evil, by a large margin.”

Cohen helped organize The Open Letter.


#9 Comment By Randal On March 3, 2016 @ 11:06 am

Trump gets a lot wrong on foreign policy.

It’s precisely his lack of experience that should get him a pass on some of the nonsense he puts out on foreign policy. At least he has an excuse, unlike say Clinton.

And it’s not unusual for US presidents to learn foreign policy on the job. The odds are that an obviously intelligent and competent man such as Trump will behave more sensibly when he has had a chance to get on top of the issues, and will likely back off many of these positions.

With Clinton, Cruz or Rubio, however, the fear is precisely the opposite – that they will probably actually try to do the things they say they think ought to be done. That prospect ought to be truly terrifying.

The worry about the more mainstream candidates such as

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 3, 2016 @ 11:48 am

“Wait, Max Boot is denouncing Trump for his admiration of dictators?”

Every single admin. in US history has embraced dictators. We do so because

1. it serves our interests and

2. the manner in which countries govern themselves is largely theirs to choose

The signatories are being deliberately obtuse and wholly selective of US foreign policy history.

#11 Comment By Irony Abounds On March 3, 2016 @ 11:55 am

As many have noted, the biggest problem with the signatories of this letter is their support of past policies that were an utter disaster. And it is so ironic that they mention, albeit briefly, Trump’s threat to civil liberties, which I find to be one of the most frightening aspects of his character, when they have strongly supported torture, kidnapping and indefinite imprisonment in the past.

#12 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On March 3, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

The “foreign policy experts” are the exact people I’ve attacking and criticizing for years now, so of course I’m not listening to them now. I hold them directly responsible for the past twenty-five years of failure, and the fact that they won’t even pretend to have to learned anything makes them worse than Hillary Clinton.

In the past, they either supported, explained away, or ignored: 1) torture; 2) U.S. supporting dictators and authoritarian regimes; 3) illegal, expensive, and/or ill-conceived wars; 4) violations of civil liberties; 5) expansive executive powers for the president; 6) demeaning and degrading their political opponents; and 7) sweeping and irresponsible rhetoric from the president. To call them rank hypocrites goes without saying at this point.

They know when Trump’s in office, the gravy train ends for them…that’s the real cause of concern, since their parasitism comes to an end.

#13 Comment By Chris Chuba On March 3, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

And this is exactly why I am a Trumpet, a Trumpeteer, and would be willing to call myself a Trumperican rather than vote for any of the establishment candidates.

I know that Trump will have some people like this as advisors because they represent 95% of the foreign policy establishment, I just hope that he has a couple of sane rationalists in whatever staff he assembles.

Trump at least shows the ability for critical thinking and skepticism, a skill that all of the other candidates completely lack.

1. After the 2nd debate there was a concerted effort to portray him as an unschooled novice after the bookish Carly gave precise answers on which military assets she would use to provoke Russia. Trump held up to the pressure and didn’t waver.
2. In the last debate, Trump gave a common sense answer that being a mediator requires impartiality.
3. In the debate prior to that, he pointed out that you can’t be all over the place and fight everybody all at once and be obsessed with Russia, Assad, Iran, and ISIS, and said that he would focus on ISIS and not the others.
4. He rebuked the notion that we should be angry at Russia and China for not being submissive to us and pursuing their own interests.

Is he perfect? No but he is the closest thing to an adult that we have at the moment.

#14 Comment By jk On March 3, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

Stages of Grief for the touchy feely GOP: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance


#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 3, 2016 @ 2:24 pm

“I agree that his rhetoric on torture is deplorable and should be condemned, but then we should also condemn other candidates that endorse the use of torture.”

The essential analysis must be “why” we are using torture, other than treating it as a standalone phenomenon, as if it exists apart from the unnecessary, illegal and immoral wars. It doesn’t exist apart, it is one of the consequences of desperation in waging wars and the fact that wars are being waged is the justification for it, as a necessary means to win.

Torture continues, but is redefined legally by hairsplitting constitutional lawyers intent on obfuscation by Orwellian redefinitions and secret memos and carried out by secret Presidential covert orders. That is one of the essential reasons that secrecy about the practice continues, why no one has ever been brought to account for it and that those who have engaged in any whistleblowing action have been subject to draconian Espionage Act retaliation. If it were not so, this would hardly be so obsessive. Why? Because the wars proliferate, therefore this behavior that has become part of the arsenal cannot be renounced except in a propaganda sense.

The end to torture will come when the foreign war addiction ends. Given that Trump is the only candidate appalled by the waste and futile destruction involved in waging the failed wars and wants to end the trillions necessary to keep fighting them and spend it instead for domestic infrastructure, this will end torture in fact.

It’s a simple equation. End war, you end torture by removing the incentive to use it as a means of war. Deeds, not words, will accomplish that in reality, not the duplicitous language of those who rebrand assassination as “the disposition matrix.”

#16 Comment By Disinformatics On March 3, 2016 @ 2:46 pm

We need more on the genesis and development of that letter. At the bottom in small print it says it was “coordinated” by Eliot Cohen. Given that Cohen has advocated for war against multiple Muslim countries and was a leading advocate for the Iraq War, quite a few signatory names seem “off”.

For example, it’s hard to believe Dan Drezner would want his name to be associated with Cohen’s track record of bad judgment leading to bloody disaster. I don’t mean Drezner shouldn’t condemn Trump. I mean that reasonable, decent chaps like Drezner, applying the same moral and practical calculus that obliges them to condemn Trump, should not permit their names to be associated with Cohen’s.

Our failure to shame and shun Cohen and other neoconservatives and warhawks for their roles in our recent strategic and humanitarian disasters, in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths and trillions in wasted treasure, continues to compromise and distort public discourse. That someone with Cohen’s history can still imagine himself in a position to influence public opinion is shocking, really, a reminder of the drop in public and intellectual standards that goes very far in explaining the rise of Trump himself.

The letter should be audited, if only to confirm who among its supposed signatories actually agreed to have their anti-Trump opinion “coordinated” by someone implicated in more death, waste, and damage to America than David Duke and his invisible empire will ever inflict.

(As of this writing the letter as linked above no longer appears.)

#17 Comment By Melvin Backstrom On March 3, 2016 @ 3:39 pm


“The dismantling of stable democracies in Syria, Egypt, Libya.” Not sure where you’re getting your information from, but these three countries have NEVER been stable democracies. Stable autocracies more like it.

#18 Comment By Chris Chuba On March 3, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

Melvin Backstrom, you are correct that Libya, Syria, and even Egypt were not democracies but they were stable govts prior to outside attempts to overthrow them. Gaddafi would have defeated the rebels there were it not for NATO intervention.

The larger point is that the neocons believe in disruptive regime change to promote, U.S. approved Democracies. The neocons are truly activists.

Over the years, Putin has been repeating a consistent theme pleading that the undermining of existing govt institutions breeds chaos. We can call it ‘the Putin doctrine’ and it stands in stark contrast to Neocon ideology.

Even in Ukraine, where Putin is most vulnerable of hypocrisy, he has been very cautious. He has no interest in trying to seize all of Ukraine and rule over a people who hate Russia. Instead, he took a small area heavily populated by Russians that was vital to their security interests. In the Donbass, he prevented the rebels from advancing out of their territory and negotiated a treaty where they would remain part of Ukraine.

#19 Comment By Ken Tratomp On March 3, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

This throwing down the gauntlet by establishment doyens makes me want to throw down a similar gauntlet by combing through National Review’s archives for Pollyannaish quotes on trade pacts, and then posting them online. That will be a graphic way of making clear that the establishment (including the signatories of the Open Letter) are either clueless about what their beloved “Washington Consensus” means for ordinary Americans, or they just don’t care. Idiots.

#20 Comment By Myron Hudson On March 3, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

Having these fools speak out against Trump pretty much cements my support for him at least in the primaries. I’m all about electing the least dangerous person.

#21 Comment By Colonel Blimp On March 3, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

If you want an image of the neocons’ would-be future, imagine Max Boot stamping on a human face forever.

#22 Comment By Barry On March 3, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

Mr. Libertarian: “In the past, they either supported, explained away, or ignored: 1) torture; 2) U.S. supporting dictators and authoritarian regimes; 3) illegal, expensive, and/or ill-conceived wars; 4) violations of civil liberties; 5) expansive executive powers for the president; 6) demeaning and degrading their political opponents; and 7) sweeping and irresponsible rhetoric from the president. To call them rank hypocrites goes without saying at this point.”

I’m astounded at the raw stinking open hypocrisy of these guys. You can look at their list of foreign policy criticisms of Trump, and almost every single one is something that they supported, justified and helped carry out.

#23 Comment By jk On March 4, 2016 @ 4:25 am

Max Boot et al. are no the skin the game chickenhawks.

They are always volunteering the US to undertake some preemptive overthrow of some country that did not attack the US. They will not of course sign up for these causes that they so much care about.

They will certainly NOT enlist in the US military or “moderate rebel” forces or have their kin do the same.

“When decision makers have skin in the game–when they share in the costs and benefits of their decisions that might affect others–they are more likely to make prudent decisions than in cases where decision-makers can impose costs on others.”


#24 Comment By jk On March 4, 2016 @ 4:30 am

Trump is an immoral lout I suppose to these clowns.

These same guys would have signed off on torturing, indefinite detentions, fake Geneva Convention categories for questionable non-combatants, renditions, attacking and overthrowing sovereign nations that did not attack the US, fighting a war on dubious premises.

Throw out everything on Just War Theory basically.

Trump is both the id of the Republican party and a righteous cleansing force.

#25 Comment By Duncan On March 4, 2016 @ 10:42 am

EliteCommInc.: “the manner in which countries govern themselves is largely theirs to choose” … unless they elect people we don’t like, in which case we bring in the dictators (or in the case of Gaza, the Israeli blitzkrieg). Even stretching “largely” to the breaking point, your claim is so obviously false that I wonder what you thought you were saying. Still, it’s largely what most ignorant Americans believe about US foreign policy.