The Hawks’ New Hero: Arthur Vandenberg
In the cartoon version of U.S. national security policy, Republicans are stalwart and tough-minded defenders of freedom. If you want to keep America safe—and if you love the troops—you’ll vote GOP.
Democrats, in contrast, are wimpy and given to isolationism. Liberals view the armed forces of the United States chiefly as venue for social engineering. Given half a chance, they will eviscerate the Pentagon budget and allow the forces of evil to run riot around the globe.
All of this is bunk, of course, a point made definitively clear by the incoherent policies of our most recent Republican president. When it comes to national security, the actually existing GOP has become the party of whimsy.
Yet even if this cartoon version bears no resemblance to reality, it may retain some remnant of political utility. That appears to be what Elliott Abrams and the other founders of the just-created Vandenberg Coalition are counting on.
The coalition’s declared purpose is to promote “a strong and proud American foreign policy responsive to the interests of Americans all across our country.” Mark me down as strongly and proudly favoring those sentiments.
Yet apart from warning against the imaginary danger of isolationism, nothing in the coalition’s generic statement of principles comes within a country mile of saying anything concrete. If the Vandenberg Coalition were a religion, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims could all join without fear of violating any theological tenets.
So what’s actually going on here? The composition of the coalition’s advisory board hints at an answer.
It consists almost entirely of unreconstructed (and unapologetic) hawks, those who as senior officials or analysts promoted the militaristic turn that followed the end of the Cold War and reached its apotheosis after 9/11.
Going back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the hawks (Elliott Abrams not least among them) have enjoyed a good run. In 2016, however, Donald Trump chucked the tradition to which the hawks adhered and won the presidency. Although certain hawks (Elliott Abrams not least among them) joined the Trump team, they found themselves without influence. They could only watch as President Trump put a wrecking ball to all that they professed to stand for.
So the actual if unacknowledged purpose of the Vandenberg Coalition is to roll back the clock, undoing Trump’s pernicious legacy and restoring the good old days when the phrase “American global leadership” implied adherence to a recognizable if notably bellicose set of principles.
Implicit in the coalition’s founding is the claim that the present-day global order does not differ appreciably from the moment in 1947 when Senator Arthur Vandenberg, long-since forgotten Republican of Michigan, lent a veneer of bipartisanship to the Cold War strategy of containment. Abrams and his colleagues want to persuade their fellow Republicans to forget Trump and declare their fealty to the legacy of Arthur Vandenberg.
This is likely to pose a challenge, on a par with persuading Americans that Rosemary Clooney represents the future of American popular music. After all, however inexplicably, Trump’s hold on the Republican rank-and-file remains strong. Few pro-Trumpers are likely to take their cues from members of a foreign policy establishment that they have learned to despise.
Perhaps more importantly, nothing in the Vandenberg Coalition’s admittedly sketchy website suggests a willingness to revisit the events of the period that vaulted Trump to political prominence.
Chief among those events was the unnecessary and reckless 2003 invasion of Iraq that various coalition members enthusiastically endorsed. In that regard, a better name for the enterprise that Abrams is founding might be the No Second Thoughts and No Apologies Coalition.
Or better still: the No Fresh Thoughts Coalition, given the apparent eagerness of Abrams and his collaborators to embark upon a new Cold War with the People’s Republic of China standing in for the Soviet Union. That the present-day PRC may differ from Stalin’s USSR goes unmentioned, as does the possibility that the present-day United States may differ from what it was back when Arthur Vandenberg held forth on the floor of the United States Senate. And despite many references dangerous new threats, the Vandenberg Coalition website does not even mention climate change.
Washington is a funny place where strange things happen all the time. So I suppose it’s possible that the Vandenberg Coalition will figure prominently in charting the future of U.S. policy. But anyone looking for something other than warmed-over bromides offered by people with selective memories would do well to look elsewhere for enlightenment.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, will be published on June 8.