by Ali Gharib and Jim Lobe
Robert Kagan made the first splash. In the hawkish opinion pages of The Washington Post, Kagan declared that, in a presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he’s voting for the Democrat. Then came Max Boot, the sometimes cartoonishly über-hawkish pundit, who declared in the neoconservative Weekly Standard that a Trump presidency would sink the country. Then the always cartoonishly über-hawkish Bill Kristol pressure group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, made a hilariously ignorant ad attacking Trump. It was starting to look like a Project to Reclaim the New American Century That We Forfeited Thanks to Our Iraq Misadventure and Our Unwillingness To Rebuke a Party That Let Its Grassroots Run With Hateful Ideologies.
And that was before the erstwhile Project for a New American Century revived its favorite modus operandi, the sign-on letter, for the anti-Trump campaign. On Thursday morning, a number of Republican foreign policy thinkers, led by the neoconservative scholar Eliot Cohen, wrote an open letter decrying Donald Trump as a force within their own party. In conclusion, the letter states:
Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world. Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States. Therefore, as committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head. We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.
As of press time Friday, the letter had 108 signatories.
Like the PNAC sign-on letters, not all the thinkers therein are neoconservatives, but they weigh heavily on the list. There are the old PNAC hands Kagan, Tom Donnelly, Gary Schmitt, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Ellen Bork, and Randy Scheunemann; other sometime PNAC signatories like Boot, Cohen, Eric Edelman, Daniel Blumenthal, Seth Cropsey, Aaron Friedberg, Daniel Pipes, Ruth Wedgewood, and Jeffrey Gedmin (Robert Zoellick, who is not a neocon, also signed PNAC letters and the Trump letter); and other neocons not affiliated directly with PNAC, such as Michael Rubin. Other hawks who work frequently on neoconservative initiatives but perhaps aren’t themselves neocons, such as Ray Takeyh and Michael Singh, among others, also appear on the list. Though not all the figures on the list are hawks, many of the GOP national security experts are, and many are housed at hawkish and/or neoconservative think-tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Foreign Policy Initiative (a sort of PNAC 2.0 in its own right), and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
There’s one glaring, notable absence: Bill Kristol himself. How strange that, following his clownish ECI ad, Kristol didn’t get on this letter. One wonders if he recognizes how toxic he has become. There are plenty of Iraq hawks on the list, but Kristol would have stood out among them as one of the war’s most loud-mouthed boosters. His inclusion, therefore, would have made the letter vulnerable to an attack from Trump that these are the same folks who brought us Iraq, which Trump (remarkably) considers to have been a mistake. (Elliott Abrams, who spoke at length to Politico for a story on the letter, was also curiously absent (as were prominent Iraq war champions at AEI, like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz, not to mention Richard Perle.)
There’s also this little wrinkle: Kristol was the genius who brought us Sarah Palin, plucking her from far-northern obscurity and helping persuade John McCain to make her his running mate in 2008. Now, of course, Palin has, with her frequent flourishes of nonsense, endorsed Donald Trump for president. That’s also an awkward point for someone who did sign the Cohen letter: Randy Scheunemann. As a McCain campaign staffer, Scheunemann had helped Palin prep for debates and form coherent thoughts (such that they were) on foreign policy. But when push came to shove and infighting broke out on the McCain campaign, Scheunemann was reportedly one of the aides making pro-Palin, anti-McCain leaks to the press. (Though lesser known than Kristol, Scheunemann was also a huge Iraq war booster, heading up the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and fostering, through it, legitimacy for the Iraqi exile charlatan Ahmed Chalabi. Kristol’s ECI was also founded in the offices of Scheunemann’s consulting firm.)
Then there’s Daniel Pipes. What on earth is he doing here? Pipes doesn’t have quite the hard anti-Muslim edge of, say, the monomaniacal bigot Frank Gaffney (who has, unsurprisingly, been influential among the Trump camp). And yet Pipes is quite the Islamophobe himself. But the Cohen letter rejects Trump’s animus toward Muslims:
His hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world making significant contributions to the effort. Furthermore, it endangers the safety and Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of American Muslims.
And yet Pipes should be delighted by Trump’s Islamophobia, since it is perilously close to the sort of rhetoric Pipes has been calling for from American leaders for years. Although Pipes has questioned some of the premises of the broader anti-Muslim movement, he acknowledges that theirs is his fight, too, and has gone out of his way to praise some of the most notorious anti-Muslim bigots. Indeed, Pipes was named in “Fear, Inc.,” the Center for American Progress report about Islamophobia (to which Ali contributed research) as an anti-Muslim “misinformation expert” and a “leading light” of the then-budding grassroots movement that Trump has seized upon to build his political base.
This sort of dynamic leads me to suspect that some of the motivations of the anti-Trump letter, despite its lofty principles, are less about ending torture and reining in Islamophobia than they are about his willingness to shatter some Republican shibboleths. For one thing, his insistence that he would be “neutral” in any effort to negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians must deeply offend (and worry) the neocons on the list. Of all the intellectual sins, in their view, “moral equivalence”—especially when it comes to Israel and its perceived adversaries—is perhaps the worst.
And then, of course, Trump’s denunciation of the Iraq war as a disaster based on lies by the Bush administration stands as probably the ultimate example. Although not all the letter signatories are even hawks, many of them are unreconstructed Iraq war backers. Some, particularly those associated with AEI, Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and PNAC, served as the war’s biggest boosters. Perhaps Trump’s frank questioning of their wisdom leads these hawks to recoil. There’s little doubt that the neocons and their allies will, sooner or later, call for another Big War in the Middle East, and when they do, it seems President Trump will be wholly unresponsive.
Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.