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What President Trump’s Foreign-Policy Team Might Look Like

Forget the neocons—make America great again by putting the national interest first.
president trump


From: McConnell

Since the Romney attack, it’s clear that much of the GOP establishment will fight your nomination tooth-and-nail, won’t support you after you win, would prefer Hillary. One guy who advises Marco on foreign policy took that further and said he’d prefer mass murderer Joseph Stalin to you. This attitude speaks volumes about GOP neoconservatives: most don’t think the Iraq War was a symptom of failure in moral and strategic judgment; most don’t know anyone who served in a combat unit, or anyone whose children who face repeated deployments. Most of them still hope to start another war in the Middle East, with Iran. Or escalate in Ukraine, in order to “bleed” Russia.

But there are many rooms in the GOP establishment, and the party includes millions who realize something’s gone very wrong. Most wouldn’t have chosen you to fix it, and many are still alarmed by your success. But anyone not explicitly against you can eventually be with you. Once you make it to the White House, you will need good people to manage and direct State and Defense.

Let’s start with foreign-policy intellectuals. A couple of weeks ago, some neoconservatives got press attention with one of those letters they are known for. It was organized by Eliot Cohen, an academic tub-thumper for the Iraq War, and its signers included most of those who had long yearned for that war and sold it to Bush and Cheney and through them to the country. These people hate you for all kinds of reasons, but the biggest is that they’ve been expecting to return to power for a long time, attached to Marco or Jeb or someone else, and now you’ve blocked them.

Still, most international relations experts are not neoconservatives, and none of the best ones are. They realize America is protected by two large oceans, can’t be expected to solve every problem in the world, and shouldn’t bankrupt itself by trying. Many of them are not liberals of any sort; they are instead the sort of men and women who might in the past have worked for Ike, or Nixon, or Reagan. For lack of a better word, they are realists.

One good place to find them is in this advertisement, published in the New York Times in the fall of 2002. It’s signed by international-affairs experts who opposed the Iraq War as a quagmire and a strategic distraction from defeating al-Qaeda. Many professors might have agreed privately but preferred to hide in the tall grass—Bush’s neocon hawks then dominated public opinion. The most famous of the signers are Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, who are brilliant, if controversial because of that Israel book they wrote a few years later. (Which, I should add, is widely—if quietly—admired by people with experience in foreign-policy circles.) There are many other important international-relations people on the list: Mike Desch, now at Notre Dame; Barry Posen, at MIT; Robert Pape, at University of Chicago; and many others. I’m not sure who among them would want to work in an administration, but they would be worth getting in for meetings, to see what they have to say. It’s important to remember that on the most critical foreign-policy decision America has faced in the past 50 years, they were right and all those now attacking you were wrong.

Two others to reach out to are Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. Both held important posts in the National Security Council during the Bush administration and negotiated with the Iranians right after 9/11. (For a while, Iran was on our side against the Taliban, until the neocons forced a shift in policy.) Since they left government, they’ve been arguing that we can build a new relationship with Iran, a mutually beneficial one. You have been trashing Obama’s deal with Iran, of course, but your shift to complaining that we aren’t getting enough out of the deal, like opportunities to sell goods to Iran, sets the stage for a pivot once in office. The Leveretts may be too optimistic about Iran—time will tell. But they might be right.

Another person, closer to the center, is Jacob Heilbrunn, who has been editing the center-right foreign-affairs magazine The National Interest for the past several years. He knows everyone and all the issues, and he could be a good bridge between the realists—a lot of whom are pretty pissed off and disaffected—and what remains of the GOP establishment.

Also worth reaching out to is Andy Bacevich, a former Army officer, who went back to school and became a top international-relations professor and author after the first Iraq War. Andy is critical of the entire military-interventionist sweep of American foreign policy, perhaps more than is politically smart to be, but he’s full of ideas that your administration (and the country) can benefit from.

Of course, keeping in touch with the more establishment types, who are actually correct some of the time, is smart. Being in regular contact with Richard Haass is always a wise move; he’s experienced and sensible, though his ambition for an important post with whomever is elected makes him less interesting than he might be. Richard Allen, an old Reagan hand, has signed on with John Kasich for the campaign, but I’d bet he’d be willing to advise President Trump come January.

My larger point is that your administration needs effective people. Voters have been willing to take your word for it that you will choose “the best people”—to go along with Carl Icahn. But once elected you will have to fill the picture in. A number of figures in the GOP establishment are looking for concrete signs of how this will happen.

You should always keep in mind that you have a strong mandate to break from the neocons who wrecked George W. Bush’s administration and much of the Middle East. In that sense the hostile letter organized by Eliot Cohen is a blessing in disguise—it means that as president you will have to approach foreign affairs with a clean slate, and no one will expect you to reach out to or “mend fences” with the neocons who have entrenched themselves in the main conservative think-tanks. Most of these warmongers would rather serve in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.



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