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Neoconservative Wolves Dressed in Never-Trumper Clothing

They're sniffing around Joe Biden's foreign policy circle, bent on influencing his China policy—and more.

Bill Kristol (Gage Skidmore/Flickr), Joe Biden (Gage Skimore/Flickr) and Robert Kagan (Brookings/Flickr)

Never-Trumper Republicans have been worming their way into the Biden campaign, offering to flesh out his “coalition” ahead of the election and pushing their way into the foreign policy discussions, particularly on China. Given their shared  history with the liberal interventionists already in the campaign, don’t for a second think that there aren’t hungry neoconservatives among them trying to get a seat at the table.

“Some hawkish Democrats may see the neocons as convenient allies in preserving an outdated interventionist mindset,” offers Matt Duss, who is Sen. Bernie Sanders’ longtime foreign policy advisor and maintains close ties with the Democratic campaign to replace President Trump.  “And of course neocons are desperate for any opportunity to salvage their own relevance.”

To those who oppose Trump and support his Democratic opponent, The Lincoln Project’s frontal assault on the president, along with the mainstream headline-grabbing Republican Voters Against Trump PAC, are manna from heaven. But to those of us who were called “unpatriotic conservatives” for failing to goose step with the neoconservatives dominating Washington before the Iraq War—many of whom are soaring around this never-never land right now—this may be a warning from below.

Duss was responding to a Daily Beast report last week which quoted unnamed “individuals who work for conservative think tanks in Washington” who have acknowledged “informally speaking with members of the Biden team in recent weeks.” The focus appears to be on the failing China trade deal and Trump’s supposed weak posture. Reportedly, they are “so frustrated with the U.S-China trade deal and the administration’s efforts to hold Beijing accountable that they are willing to offer counsel to the Democratic nominee.”

For his part, Biden wants to challenge Trump on his own turf by making “an overt, persistent push to signal to voters that he supports American-made products,” and talking tough on China, saying the president started and lost a trade war with Xi Jinping. And, while military action is not discussed in the article, it says the Biden campaign has pondered “enforcement actions against Beijing” to be taken up with like-minded “allies” on more than trade, to include cyber and human rights. The article also suggests Trump has not effectively confronted these issues, quoting one unnamed Republican:

“The foreign policy space is one where given Biden’s track record as a senator, even more so than as vice president, there are a lot more Republicans who are comfortable with a Biden foreign policy.”

“Everybody’s been quietly moving behind the scenes,” the source added, noting that there are “a whole bunch of issues where they’re looking for folks to come out at the right time, sort of change the narrative.”

It’s hard to think that real hardline conservative hawks on China, like Steve Bannon and the folks at the Committee on the Present Danger: China, are involved here. Some of them are certainly neoconservative (like the denizens of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) but more in the John Bolton mold. They’d be pushing for cold if not hot war from Trump’s right, not hedging bets with Biden.

No, it can only be the establishment Republican types perched at places like Brookings and AEI who now see some sort of opening on the D-team. But if they seem like the mushy end of the right flank, think again. These guys are charter members of the Washington foreign policy consensus, mixed in with neoconservative never-Trumpers like Eliot Cohen and Robert Kagan (his wife Victoria Nuland was a top neocon official in the Clinton State Department) who have despised Trump from the beginning and think his America First foreign policy is “deeply misguided” and leading the country to “crisis.” Kagan, who openly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, has already authored at least one anti-Trump foreign policy op-ed with top Biden advisor Anthony Blinken. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. 

At the same time, The Lincoln Project has been killing Trump in online video fare this summer, and is currently the signature Republican opposition to the president’s re-election. It is led by several GOP strategists from losing presidential campaigns, including Steve Schmidt, who is best known for convincing military hawk Sen. John McCain to put Sarah Palin on his ticket in 2008, as well as Rick Weaver (McCain, 2000), and Stuart Stevens (Mitt Romney, 2012). 

Meanwhile, the backbone of Republican Voters Against Trump is Bill Kristol, who as AEI fellow and editor of The Weekly Standard, was the media mouthpiece for U.S. regime change in the Middle East, dating back in the Clinton Administration, all the way through the invasion of Iraq and his magazine’s timely demise in 2018. The PAC is a project of Defending Democracy Together, which he also directs. Other projects for the outfit include “Republicans Against Putin” and “Standing with Allies” (which urges continued assistance to the Kurds, read: more U.S. troops in Syria). Kristol also co-founded and contributes to the anti-Trump webzine, The Bulwark, which he co-founded in 2018. 

Neocon friends and allies are not in short supply. From Max Boot at The Washington Post singing the praises of The Lincoln Group:

If we are ever again to have a sane and sober center-right party in America — something we desperately need — then the Trumpified GOP must first be demolished. That is what the Lincoln Project is trying to accomplish, and more power to it. By leading the charge against the Republican Party, its founders have shown greater fealty to conservative principles than 99 percent of elected Republicans.

While we cannot speak for the conservative principles of every elected Republican we can safely say that “sane and sober” would not be words for how Boot, a saber rattler of the first order, ceaselessly promoted the failed U.S. war policy in Iraq. Once hated by non-interventionists on the left and right, his fedora-wearing visage is now firmly ensconced in the firmament of Washington’s elite liberal press. As is never-Trumper and neoconservative Jennifer Rubin, another Iraq War cheerleader, who tweeted about Lincoln’s willingness “to say out loud what we all whisper.”

Fearlessness is what Pat Buchanan and Scott McConnell and Taki Theodoracopulos were when they started TAC in 2002 because every single so-called Washington establishment conservative was all in for war. For that, they were called “unpatriotic.” And what of “axis of evil” David Frum, who penned that sorry invective against our magazine’s founders for National Review? He’s written his second anti-Trump book, and surprise, re-writing history, with nuggets like this:

I came of age inside the conservative movement of the twentieth century.  In the twenty-first, that movement has delivered much more harm than good, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis to the Trump presidency. 

Wait, what? Frum, as speech writer for President George W. Bush after 9/11 practically delivered the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Global War on Terror to the American public on a silver platter.

“In many ways these never-Trumpers are responsible for the rise of Trump,” quipped Trita Parsi, founder and vice-president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “By selling the Iraq War on a pack of lies, they helped deplete the American public’s trust and confidence in the political elite, the media, and the country’s leadership more generally.” Now they turn around as “allies” of Trump’s opposition.

Too bad they don’t get the irony.

Tim Shorrock, a foreign policy writer who contributes regularly to The Nation says he is disturbed by what seems to be a neocon push into the Biden orbit, but is more concerned with the Democratic interventionists and Blob careerists now at the right hand of the candidate. People like former ambassador Blinken, Nicholas Burns, Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Michele Flournoy, who has been touted as a possible Secretary of Defense. They would sooner drag the country back into Syria, as well as position aggressively against China if the military pushed hard enough and there was a humanitarian reason to justify it.

“While I don’t think the neocons would have a formal place in this administration I think their kind of thinking would still be present,” Shorrock warned.  However,“I am concerned it is going to be a lot of the same people who worked for Obama. And we know the kind of policies they supported in the Middle East.”

Duss, who has close insight into the Biden campaign, says thankfully, there is a real debate “not just in the party, but in the foreign policy community more broadly” about the future of U.S. intervention overseas. “In the past there has been an unfortunate tendency among some Democrats to jump at opportunities to attack the Republicans from the right on foreign policy. It never works.”

He pointed out the Democratic platform has adopted many of Bernie Sanders’ planks, including getting out of the war in Yemen, reducing the defense budget, returning to the Iran nuke deal, and having better control of arms sales to Middle East partners with despicable human rights records. Those restrainers who worked to get these things into the Democratic platform, Duss said, “actually represent a meaningful number of voters.”

Chris Preble, who just left the Cato Institute to start the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told TAC he’s not surprised the Biden campaign is willing to work with Republicans but, “If Joe Biden is a smart politician, he won’t listen to the people who pushed the Iraq War, and who want to leave troops in Iran and Afghanistan indefinitely.”

Simply put they are out of step not only with reality but with the American public. He points out that in a recent Charles Koch Institute poll, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they wanted troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think those around Biden are smart,” he added. “They read polls too.”

One Democrat close to the party who did not want to be named for this story agreed there were tensions, one could see that in the letter signed by some 275 mostly former Sanders delegates this week, calling Biden’s close foreign policy advisors like Rice and Flournoy “a horror show” for their ties to the failing policies of the last two decades and with the defense industry. That goes for any reports of neocons and never-Trumpers hanging around, too.

“There is an instinct around Biden to get the same meals around the same table around the same neocons,” he said. Thankfully, there seems to be enough people on the inside to reflect the American public and put up a fight. “Am I concerned that (neocons and never-Trumpers) are trying to influence the campaign? Sure, I’m a little concerned, but they have demonstrated they have no real base.”

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC since 2007, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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