Fresh off his likeness’s appearance on the big screen, former vice president Dick Cheney is back in his element dispensing foreign policy advice to Republican administrations.
Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports that Cheney politely but firmly pressed Vice President Mike Pence about President Donald Trump’s deviations from his handiwork during the George W. Bush years. The encounter took place at an American Enterprise Institute confab in Georgia in front of Republicans with deep pockets.
Some of Cheney’s complaints could easily command bipartisan assent: too much policymaking via Twitter, for example, and inartful rhetoric that hasn’t exactly smoothed the path to diplomacy. But that was not the crux of the Bush veep’s argument against Trump and Pence.
“It seems, at times, as though your administration’s approach has more in common with [Barack] Obama’s foreign policy than traditional Republican foreign policy,” Cheney reportedly told Pence. It was an assertion, the kind neoconservatives often make, of total continuity between presidents dating back to at least Ronald Reagan—if not all the way to Dwight Eisenhower—and the architects of the Iraq war. It’s as if history, or at least Republican Party traditions, began circa 2002.
Trump, of course, won the Republican presidential nomination after calling the Iraq invasion a mistake and suggesting that future wars for regime change in the Middle East would be destabilizing. In the process, he defeated Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and other largely unreconstructed defenders of the Bush-Cheney foreign policy.
Pence, no reflexive dove in his own right, made note of this in response to Cheney. “When the American people elected this president, they elected a president who expressed concern about American deployments around the world,” the vice president said, according to the Washington Post. “And they knew this was going to be a president that came and asked the fundamental questions about—you know, where are we deployed and do we really need to be asking men and women in uniform to be deployed in that part of the world?”
And while Pence reportedly argued that Trump was governing squarely within the Republican mainstream, he concluded per the Post, “[I]t should come as no surprise to anyone: This president is skeptical of foreign deployments, and only wants American forces where they need to be.”
“Isn’t it fitting that Cheney is the one mad that Trump is ending his reckless and endless wars?” Donald Trump Jr. asked on Twitter. “I never knew peace would be so unpopular!”
Where Trump and Obama do have something in common is that they both understood on some level that forever war weakens rather than strengthens the United States, spending treasure and political capital. They also both wanted a smaller U.S. military footprint in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Trump and Obama also have a third thing in common: they both broke with the Bush-Cheney foreign policy more in rhetoric than in practice (at least so far, in Trump’s case), allowing themselves to be talked out of retrenchment and into more bombings. Their interventions were narrower in scope than Iraq and committed fewer boots to the ground, but also proceeded without the constitutionally mandated congressional authorization.
So while it is rich to read that one of the men most responsible for mainstreaming dubious claims about weapons of mass destruction and ties between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks chastised Trump for “frequently” not listening to the intelligence community, it is Cheney’s main contention that deserves the most skepticism.
Trump’s foreign policy—a hard line against Iran, continually delayed yet supposedly precipitous withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, interventions in Yemen and Somalia, dragging Elliot Abrams out of retirement to saber-rattle against the admittedly awful Maduro regime in Venezuela, all conducted under the watchful eye of John Bolton—is too much like Cheney’s.
Some of this is due to a new Republican administration being overly dependent on the previous one’s retreads for staffing important national security positions. “Trump has rejected the interventionism and democracy-promotion espoused by George W. Bush, who talked during his second term of ‘ending tyranny in our time’” is how Politico summarizes the dispute.
Trump has not rejected the neoconservative foreign policy in the same systematic way that Bush embraced it, however. Nor did he come into office with the same elaborate plan for ending wars that Cheney had for starting them. Like Obama before him, Trump likely realizes he will be blamed for any bad thing that happens that is perceived to be the result of inaction, while the political consequences of ill-advised intervention will either be nonexistent or spread around the Beltway establishment.
Why, then, go after Trump over something like NATO burden-sharing when he has thus far simply been a less enthusiastic and ideologically consistent hawk? One could easily imagine Cheney or other AEI regulars defending in another context the idea of the Europeans spending more money for their own defense and less on their generous welfare states.
The reason is that the debates Trump has started by just talking the way he has constitute a loosening of the Cheneyites’ once ironclad grip on Republican foreign policy. “Guests seemed divided about new ways versus old ways being best,” a meeting attendee told Politico in an email. “I think most felt that while new ways are fine, some old ways—like thoughtful strategy and communicating/seeking advice from experienced players—is a time-tested and valuable piece as well.”
Conspicuously missing was any reference to regime change, the Bush-era “freedom agenda,” or large-scale, indefinite foreign military occupations as the best way of preventing terrorist attacks against Americans. Even among conservative hawks, including some in Cheney’s orbit, there has been a dampening of enthusiasm for democracy promotion. This group was split, for example, over the Arab spring.
Instead of following Cheney’s advice, as first-term W. did, Trump should learn that his failure to follow through on his “America First” campaign promises has won him little credit from the most important GOP hawks. This is similar to how his reticence on immigration has cost him the support of the Ann Coulters without gaining him any new defenders.
Disastrous results aside, Cheney was always a more articulate and consistent defender of Bush’s foreign policy than the 43rd president himself. Perhaps he just made the best case for Trump’s, too.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.