An Establishment Call to Arms?
Less than a year into Trump’s presidency, Washington is already witnessing nascent cries for the establishment to return.
In both his op-ed, “A Call to Revive America’s Political Center,” and July 5th on-air interview with C-SPAN, political commentator Morton Kondracke spoke in post-Trumpian terms but failed to grasp the spirit of the political revolution that was the 2016 US Presidential election. Kondracke argued that “the left and the right are tearing the country apart.” Nothing is blatantly incorrect about that sentiment. He spoke of the “polarization and paralysis” which prevents anything significant from getting done in Washington. Nothing factually wrong with that either. As a solution, he proposed a campaign to get elected many, many “moderates” who would fight for “centrist” and “bipartisan” policies. Again, nothing wrong with that sentiment per se: Moderation is a virtue.
But the who, not the what, is where his argument falls apart and where most anti-Trump political commentators have got it wrong. Who are Kondracke’s “moderates”? As he casually stated in his C-SPAN interview: “You know [if] you had Colin Powell and Bill Gates and [Facebook’s] Mark Zuckerburg and [Starbuck’s] Howard Schultz and Condi Rice… and all these people systematically advocating for centrist policies, we would get somewhere.” In his article he provides an even longer list of politicians, military officials, and businessmen who are firmly part of the establishment that the American electorate clearly turned away from in the most recent elections, and who Kondracke thinks now ought to get involved in funding and executing a “centrist revival,” which presumably would save America.
Kondracke also touts Country Forward as an example of a supposedly “bipartisan” group, a super PAC with a “centrist policy agenda” which is trying to get “moderates” elected. And who has Country Forward enlisted to help write its policy agenda? Bill Kristol, yet another elite whose influence was most felt in Bush 43’s administration disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Kondracke excitedly adds (with curious naïveté) that “former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been invited to participate [in Country Forward].” Tony Blair, of course, is a former British leader who to this day is wildly hated by ordinary Brits for how excitedly and uncritically he jumped on the bandwagon to invade Iraq.
Kondracke’s arguements are, in short, not a call for a centrist revival, but a plea for a royalist revolt, a request for the elites to return to the power which they presumably are entitled to hold. Several of the names of the “moderates” he mentions were floated by then-candidate Clinton as potential VP picks. Furthermore, Kondracke writes his article as if the fifteen years preceding the 2016 elections—the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq; the government-induced dot-com and housing bubbles which ultimately burst and led to the great recession; the endless Afghan war; the questionable Libyan intervention-had never happened; as if names such as Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Bill Kristol, and Tony Blair today command respect among ordinary Americans. Yet these names have become associated, in the public conscience at least, with bloody interventions that have cost thousands in lives and trillions in borrowed dollars. His ideas seem tethered to a different era, perhaps the 1990s. I’m surprised Kondracke did not call Alan Greenspan to be appointed as, say, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Kondracke misses what the 2016 elections were all about. It wasn’t about Republican versus Democrat, or conservative versus liberal. It was the elites versus the anti-establishment. In essence, it was about one candidate, Donald Trump, deciding to take on the entire machine: an entrenched political elite whose campaigns were funded by the financial elite and who had the ideological backing of the national security elite, which duly published numerous “open-letters” opposing Trump in a pretentious display of delusional arrogance, as if anyone outside the Beltway actually knew who these national security officials were or cared about their views enough to be swayed in their vote. These open letters, of course, were meant to send a signal to Clinton, who at the time of their publication was supposed to become the President, that she could deal with them, if not as an ally then as a partner or a friend.
In one of these “anti-Trump open-letters” published by Washington’s national security elite, the signatories of this treatise displayed a level of hypocrisy that requires “elite-status” membership to join. For brevity, I’d only point out one such hypocrisy. They argued that Trump’s election would “alienate partners in the Islamic world” and would thereby hurt our efforts to “combat radical Islamism.” Yet the list of people who signed this letter contains a “who’s-who” of appointed (not elected) national security officials who advocated for and planned the 2003 invasion of Iraq—and strategized its endless nature.
Whether you consider the Iraq War justified or not, it, without dispute, considerably damaged America’s relationship with most Muslim countries and stained America’s reputation in the eyes of the vast majority of Muslims, both inside the United States and abroad. Turkey—a NATO ally and up until then our closest partner in the Muslim world—refused to allow American troops to enter Iraq from the north; the war contributed to a dangerous level of anti-Americanism all across the Muslim world; and it exacerbated the problem of radical Islamism, leading to the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to ISIS.
These results were all the outcomes, at least in part, of a sustained advocacy campaign (both before and after the Iraq invasion) by many of the national security elites who signed the aforementioned open letter. An angel surely lost its wings somewhere in heaven when they suddenly, and quite dramatically, expressed open concern for America’s relationship with Muslims were Trump to win the election.
Meanwhile, the opposite happened to what these national security elites prophesied in the aforementioned letter: since being sworn in, President Trump was warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia (which will now become a stronger buffer to Iran); strengthened America’s relationship with Egypt, which the previous U.S. President refused to do because of “human rights” concerns; and justifiably called out Qatar for its tacit support of terrorists, which no American President had the guts to do before. All of these policies are ones which the signatories of the letter above secretly wish they could have been a part of, though they would never admit as much.
Another secret they would never admit to the rest of the country, or even to themselves, is that Washington has fundamentally become a town of elitists. Regardless of who is in charge, they promote each other and the interests of elites within other industries: New York financiers, Hollywood producers, Silicon Valley titans. Ordinary Americans, if they benefit from Washington’s policies at all, benefit by accident.
On the left, in January 2017, Washington witnessed Obama giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Biden; that is, a former President gave his Vice President the highest civilian award in the country—for Biden’s service to him(!) But back-scratching elitism is agnostic to political affiliations, and the right is just as guilty.
For example, a separate “anti-Trump open letter” (conveniently published in August 2016, only three months before the elections when it seemed a forgone conclusion that Hillary Clinton would soon win) contained two signatories: Dov Zakheim and Roger Zakheim, both Republicans. The former was Bush Jr.’s Under Secretary of Defense, one of the highest-ranking officials in the most powerful executive department of the federal government. During the Bush administration his son, Roger, curiously became the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense—at the tender age of 30. The Republican father-son duo, in their anti-Trump open letter, wrote that Trump is “not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief” because he “lacks… experience.” Of course, Roger Zakheim’s appointment to a high-post at the age of 30 in a department where his father served in a high office not only screams of nepotism, but also delegitimizes the Zakheims’ argument about the importance of “experience” in government service and typifies the hypocritical, back-scratching elitism that has become all too commonplace in Washington.
American citizens are rightfully angered by the blatant hypocrisy of this town, by individuals who are supposed to act as guardians of the public interest, but ultimately advance their private interests. Ordinary Americans sense in their electoral gut that the individuals they thought were sent to Washington to represent them had become part of the establishment and had long forgotten about them. They are right.
The individuals who cast their ballot for Trump included the hard-working middle class who felt excluded for the last fifteen years; they included veterans who fought in ill-conceived military campaigns, where their leaders viewed them as mere foot soldiers; they included immigrants who, having experienced tyranny abroad (or had parents who did), knew in their gut that America was headed in the wrong direction. These folks weren’t Democrats or Republicans first when they voted for Trump. Some of them were not even conservatives or liberals first, although, for most, values mattered and still matter. They were, and still are, American citizens first; law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working, striving citizens who voted (some for the first time) for Trump because he was outside of the establishment, and because he promised to end it. And they don’t need elites—many of whom outsourced their jobs or ruined their small businesses and instead gave them sugary frappuccinos to drown their sorrows and imaginary acres to grow imaginary crops on FarmVille—to now fund a “moderate” movement that advocates for “bipartisan” or “centrist” policies. Moderation may be needed, but not the kind Kondracke envisions. We need a moderation, or a cessation, of this town’s elitist back-scratching establishment.
Dr. Oleg Svet is a defense analyst. The views expressed here are his own.