We're all neoconservatives now.
Twenty-seventeen has provided the pro-Trump right with a reliable source of satisfaction in the form of conservative Trump critics prostrating themselves. When it comes to foreign affairs, the so-called “Never Trump” right has had to admit that the president and his administration are, for the most, part getting the policy right. What the pro-Trump phalanx has had a tough time coming to terms with, though, is the extent to which the president has adopted his conservative critics’ policy prescriptions, not the other way around.
On Monday, President Trump released a national-security strategy review which, coinciding with a speech on the subject, that supposedly refocuses America’s foreign-affairs priorities and reorients U.S. grand strategy toward promoting “America First.” A peek under the hood reveals, however, that Trump’s new national-security strategy is a relatively conventional Republican approach to foreign affairs.
Superficially, this white paper reads like standard #MAGA fare. Indeed, when Trump delivered an address on Monday focused on his foreign-policy priorities, it could have been mistaken for a slightly downbeat stump speech from the 2016 campaign trail. But the policy is far from boilerplate Trumpism. The various invocations of “America First” in this document appear designed only to misdirect the isolationist wing of the GOP so they don’t recognize that they’ve been baited-and-switched.
This study demonstrated that the administration views the world as an anarchic environment in which great powers and non-state actors are engaged in a competitive, although not necessarily reflexively adversarial, contest. It identified America’s main threats as coming from three distinct sources: “strategic competitors” such as China and Russia, “Rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran, and transnational terrorist organizations. It emphasizes the need for “fair and reciprocal” relationships abroad, such as multilateral trade organizations and military alliances.
The document referred to both China and Russia as “revisionist” powers, which they are; both Russia and China are expansionist nations that have invaded, annexed, or created from scratch new territory beyond their borders. It rejects the notion that rogue states can be transformed into productive members of the international community through diplomatic negotiations. Border security begins with defending against terrorist operations and the infiltration of weapons of mass destruction into the United States, followed closely by the need to create a reliable network of anti-ballistic missile interceptors along the coasts.
Despite Trump’s talk of retrenching behind the walls of Fortress America, this national-security strategy recommends taking action “against sanctuaries” for terrorists abroad “before they can threaten the U.S. homeland.” This document rejects the idea that American values or its “way of life” can be “imposed” on others, which has been widely interpreted as the codification of Trump’s campaign-trail antipathy toward “democracy promotion.” But this document criticizes both Russia and China for making their economies “less free and less fair” and for censoring information “to repress their societies.” It also notes that “rival actors use propaganda and other means to discredit democracy.” It sounds from this like the U.S. has an interest in opposing the anti-democratic actions of these authoritarian states by, you know, promoting democracy. Eventually, this document gets around to endorsing that notion when it declares that “America’s commitment to liberty, democracy, and the rule of law” is an “inspiration for those living under tyranny” and is, thus, an indispensable tool of statecraft.
Trump is fond of denigrating foreign trade blocs and he has accused NAFTA of representing a national-security threat, but there is no mention of NAFTA in this document. It recommends only reforming organizations like the World Trade Organization to make it “a more effective forum to adjudicate unfair trade practices” and suggests the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should “encourage multilateral development banks” to invest in infrastructure abroad. That last bit was lifted off a World Bank press release announcing that this policy was already in place. So much for “the false song of globalism.”
Both Trump and the document on which he was ostensibly elaborating emphasized the need for America’s allies to “shoulder a fair share of the burden” for maintaining the geopolitical order, likely an uncharacteristically veiled reference to Trump’s demand that NATO’s allies invest more in their militaries. On the campaign trail, Trump scoffed at the fact that just five of NATO’s 28 members spent the requisite equivalent of two percent of their GDPs on defense. At a NATO summit in May, he went so far as to suggest that the U.S. would not respond if the alliance’s mutual defense provision was invoked by a member state that wasn’t carrying its weight.
Trump always misunderstood the impetus for defense spending in the first place, and his address and white paper dropped the specifics from their complaint. The nations that met that threshold in 2015—the U.S, U.K., Estonia, Greece, and Poland—all did so in response to external threats. Defense spending among NATO members is on the rise today, with Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania all set to meet that 2 percent threshold. They are not making these investments in response to Trump’s hectoring but to the threat posed by Russia—a threat that Trump appears to have finally recognized, along with the value of the Atlantic Alliance.
In an April 2016 speech on the campaign trail, Trump insisted that there was a method behind his conscious kowtowing to Moscow. He insisted that Russia and the U.S. could cooperate to beat back the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. Indeed, on Monday Trump revealed that the CIA had worked with the Kremlin to prevent an imminent terror attack from taking place. But the cooperative relationship Trump envisioned will remain the impossible dream. In 2017, Trump became the third consecutive president to pursue a “reset with Russia” without understanding the nature and sources of Russo-American conflict. They’ve sought to convince the Kremlin to abandon its Iranian allies and, therefore, the objective of reestablishing Moscow as a geopolitical pole on par with Washington. It was a project doomed to fail, and the West is fortunate that it ended before one or both players in this game miscalculated their way into a crisis.
When it comes to foreign affairs, the Trump-skeptical right’s trepidation was founded on its rational assessment of what the former reality-television host said he would do when he became president. Now that the facts have changed and Trump has largely abandoned in all but name his vision for an “America First” foreign policy, his rational critics’ positions have changed, too. Trump’s unfailingly sycophantic boosters would be well served by similarly letting the facts shape opinions; not the other way around.
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Donald Trump’s #NeverTrump Foreign Policy
Must-Reads from Magazine
The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Podcast: The claims, their legitimacy, and the potential precedent.
We devote the entire podcast today to the allegations of teenage assault issued against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Are we ready to surrender the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty, even in a non-legal proceeding? Give a listen.
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With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.