ew entities have been more discombobulated by our madcap president than the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, which former Obama foreign-policy adviser Ben Rhodes once dubbed “the blob.” F
Donald Trump assaulted the blob with his “America First” posture and his explicit indictment of the “corrupt establishment.” In the campaign, he scorned NATO as “obsolete,” praised Putin, indicted the waste of $6 trillion in the Middle East, and denounced our failed trade deals.
As president, he’s continued the assault. He has indicated no preference for a two-state or one-state “solution” for Israel and the Palestinians. He undermined our “One China policy” before re-affirming it. He pulled the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. He alienated allies across the Middle East with his two Muslim bans. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is literally home alone at the State Department, as top posts remain unfilled across the national-security bureaucracy.
And it hasn’t even been two months. From the upholstered libraries and plush dining rooms of the foreign-policy establishment, Trump’s antics elicit gasps of alarm, murmurs of disbelief, complaints of indigestion and dyspepsia.
The blob struck back last month. The Brookings Institution released a report called “Building Situations of Strength: A National Security Strategy for the United States,” written by a bipartisan committee of the impeccably credentialed—eight men, two women, all white. They include George Bush’s former security advisor, Stephen Hadley; neoconservative guru Robert Kagan; Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff; and counter-insurgency enthusiast Michele Flournoy. The report offers a concise summary of the conventional wisdom of the beleaguered foreign policy elites—and it doesn’t appear they learned anything.
Trump’s shocking electoral victory over the establishment’s candidate, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, demonstrated the public’s disapproval of our current course. So what fundamental strategic adjustments do the foreign-policy nabobs recommend? In a word: nada.
Iraq has made them more timorous about another major land war, but otherwise the report’s authors want to stay the course because the United States is the indispensable nation: “No other nation or actor is capable of replacing the United States as the leader of the international order.”
Abandoning “traditional US support for the international order” would “encourage revisionist states to destabilize Europe, East Asia and the Middle East,” “reduce economic growth,” “leave us vulnerable to a new financial crisis,” and damage efforts to deal with “terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change.”
Strikingly absent is any glimmer of recognition that the United States under their watch has itself been the “revisionist state” that destabilized the Middle East and Europe. We’ve already been devastated by financial crisis. Economic growth is already paltry, and the majority of Americans doesn’t share its rewards. And, despite the good Iran deal and Paris climate accord, efforts to deal with nuclear proliferation and climate change haven’t achieved enough.
The national-security managers dismiss the possibility of a more restrained posture. Should the United States choose to deemphasize Europe or the Middle East in order to focus on the Pacific, as Obama suggested? No, the report tells us, the regions are inextricably linked. We have no choice but to police them all.
Should the United States “distinguish between core and peripheral interests as other nations do?” No; while the United States “does not have to commit to responding to every act of aggression” across the world, “our historical experience suggests that some ambiguity that preserves the right to respond is necessary to bolster the international order.” From tribal villages in Yemen to islets in the South China Sea, nothing is beneath our concern.Should the United States distinguish between those threats that “pose a systemic risk to the international order and those that do not?” No, we shouldn’t see a “monster under every bed,” but we must be prepared to “take appropriate action” even where others might see a mere ‘peripheral’ interest,” they write. And so our military maintains nearly 800 bases in 70 countries and dispatched Special Operations forces to 138 countries in 2016.
We must understand, the managers tell us, that “there is a relationship between levels of US engagement and the health of the international order.” Even after the trillions and lives squandered in the Middle East, they worry not about the staggering costs of misbegotten intervention but that “if the United States does less, the levels of order in the global system are likely to deteriorate.”
The nabobs recommend a measured course, a posture more muscular than “the detachment” of Barack Obama and less reckless than the “over-commitment” of George W. Bush. They detail the elements. We will police the seas and the heavens. We will allow no rival power to claim even a regional sphere of influence. We will be dominant militarily in every theater from the Russian border to the South China Sea to cyberspace.
This requires a major military buildup, including investments in modernizing our nuclear weapons, “long-range strike capability, armed unmanned aviation, ISR platforms, undersea warfare, directed energy, space, and cyber security” and more. Yes, our allies should spend more too, but we should “not ask to much of fragile Europe.”
What does this mean on the ground? They recommend dispatching more forces to the Russian border to counter “Russian revisionism,” including “a robust US and allied presence in the Baltic States, Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.” They want greater assistance to Ukraine “to help ensure its prosperity and success,” with a promise of “lethal military aid” if Russia escalates its interference.
They propose “increasing engagement” to “restore stability” in the Middle East, ramping up the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda. They also urge continued deployment of military forces in the Gulf “to keep the oil flowing,” even though the United States doesn’t need it.
Trump’s first erratic weeks in office have already created a horrifying sense that the commander in chief is not in command of himself. But the conventional wisdom of the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment is in many ways even more disconnected from reality than Trump’s tweets.
In the anodyne language of a closeted elite, they provide a recipe for continued wars without end, for squandering resources and lives on interventions, overt and covert, large and small, in all corners of the earth. Mere defense of the United States is subsumed to the policing of an ever-elusive international order through the assertion of military dominance.
If Trump’s madcap inconstancy is harrowing, their crackpot realism is chilling. Catastrophic failure does not inform them. Endless wars without victory do not discourage them. The hollowing out of America does not alarm them.
The alternative to Trump cannot be a reversion to the conventional delusions of the blob, still wedded to a national-security strategy that is failing the American people.
Cross-posted from The Nation