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America’s Biggest Problem Isn’t Trump; It’s That We Can’t Hold Iraq War Hawks Accountable

Neocon Eliot Cohen says a Trump reelection would amount to a moral collapse. He clearly hasn't learned a thing.
Eliot Cohen

One of the more troubling features of America’s current political culture is its inability to cashier politicians, policymakers, military leaders, and other establishment figures who have been proven not only wrong but wildly wrong. Those who led the nation into the unmitigated disaster that was the Iraq War, for example, should have been quietly ushered off the nation’s public stage and, if not prosecuted, at least stigmatized for the horrors that they inflicted upon the Iraqi people and our brave American troops. Members of Congress who supported the war should have been defeated, public policy “intellectuals” who argued for it should have been whisked off to private life, and generals who promised that victory was “around the corner” should have been retired. There must be public accountability in the res publica.

But rather than being stigmatized, these establishment figures have been feted by the establishment institutions that promoted their disastrous policies. Iraq hawk John McCain assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee years after it was apparent that the war was a fiasco. Paul Wolfowitz, another Iraq War architect, became president of the World Bank. Many American military leaders who urged us into Iraq, and then urged us to stay there for many long years, were given book deals, lobbying contracts, and think tank appointments. Even today, the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs is providing prime real estate to the intellectual godfather of the Iraq War, Eliot A. Cohen.

Cohen not only argued that the invasion of Iraq would be effortless, a mere mopping up after the “cakewalk” that was the first Gulf War, he also went “all in” on the presence of WMDs and the Baghdadian origins of the 9/11 attacks. He wrote boldly in the Wall Street Journal in late 2001 that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would lead to a “far, far better life for the Iraqi people.” In short, he was not only wrong, he was wildly wrong.

Yet here he is again, in October of 2020, with the lead article in Foreign Affairs, arguing with the same clichés he employed to lead us into Iraq, this time to attack Trump. If reelected, Cohen says, Trump will destroy America’s “moral purpose on the international stage.” With the Trump presidency, he declares, “the shining city on a hill has grown dim.” Trump has made it clear that he has “no intention of engaging in projects to expand liberty.” And of course, the unending string of clichés would not be complete without multiple references to “isolationism” and a “world akin to the chaotic 1920s and 1930s,” i.e. the Nazis will have a huge renaissance if we reelect Trump.

This is nothing short of astonishing. That these hackneyed banalities, which were used to launch a war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents in the Middle East, could be resurrected and published by one of the leading journals on American foreign policy simply boggles the mind.

Yet if one is to critique Cohen, one finds oneself in the unenviable position of defending Trump. With this Hobson’s choice, one can only keep in mind Burke’s admonition that “circumstances…give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.” In other words, when critiquing Trump’s foreign policy, one is obliged to ask: compared to what?

Trump’s foreign policy is one of profound strategic incoherence yet instinctual political acumen. What many foreign policy realists and restrainers cannot seem to understand is that Trump’s policy is full of contradictions yet very much aligned with the views of his voters. Populism is always full of contradictions.

For example, there is clear evidence that, in 2016, Trump carried key Midwestern states because people in working-class counties were sick and tired of seeing casualties return home from our endless wars in the Middle East. Politically, Trump’s desire to bring the troops home makes great sense. But to the chagrin of libertarians, so does his desire to spend big money on the military. We probably can’t afford it, and the military-industrial complex is the primary beneficiary of profligate military spending—yet Trump’s base loves fighter planes and aircraft carriers, so they are enthusiastic about robust American power.

Keep going down the list. Are barbs directed at “Euroweenies” who freeload in NATO popular? You bet they are. Is belligerence toward China, which hollowed out America’s Midwestern industrial base, popular? Check. Is Trump’s unwise and unremitting hostility towards the mullahs in Iran popular? Since those are the guys who took American hostages in 1979, yes, his base chooses Trump over the mullahs. None of these foreign policy positions are driven by strategic thought, but they are driven by an uncanny political sense.

If one believes that the U.S. needs to adopt a more restrained and coherent foreign policy, then Trump’s record is certainly a mixed bag. His political reticence to avoid new wars has been the most attractive feature and his occasional bombastic and militaristic threats has been the least attractive feature.

But in politics, one can only choose the options that are available, and what one gets with Eliot Cohen’s foreign policy is both politically unpopular and strategically disastrous. We know, for example, what Cohen means when he says the United States should engage in “projects to expand liberty.” He means we need to act in Syria in 2020 as we did in Iraq in 2003: another regime change quagmire with boots on the ground. America would become again, in Robespierre’s words, a nation of “armed missionaries.”

The most ominous theme of the Cohen essay, however, reflects the sentiment now so common—and so dangerous—in the national security establishment: a Trump reelection would be illegitimate. This would signal, Cohen says, that our American republic is “fundamentally flawed” and that the United States had “undergone some kind of moral collapse.”

Cohen’s position reflects the establishment’s absolute refusal to come to terms with their 2016 loss. There is no self-reflection, no sense that, with terrible errors such as the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailouts, our elites may have themselves unleashed this Trumpian populism. While the Framers of the American Constitution certainly feared populism, the one thing they may have feared more is an intemperate, arrogant, and unaccountable elite.

William S. Smith is a senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book Democracy and Imperialism is from the University of Michigan Press.



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