There are two ways of looking at the “Open Letter” signed by nearly seventy-five prominent figures from the Republican foreign-policy establishment expressing their vehement opposition to the idea of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The first is to view it as a political document, which it is and was intended to be. Under this view, it is fair game for anyone wanting to parse its language and arguments, looking for strong points as well as lapses in polemical rigor. The letter contains both, as we shall explore below.
But in the meantime it’s worth noting the other way of looking at the letter—as part of the political drama that unfolds in America from time to time when the people decide they must seize control of foreign policy from the so-called experts in order to rescue the country from ongoing or looming disaster. That’s what’s going on now, as reflected in the Trump candidacy, and two great episodes from American political history illustrate the significance of these developments.
One was passage of the controversial Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, products largely of North Dakota’s Republican Senator Gerald Nye, a rustic prairie progressive, advocate of nationalizing troublesome industries and tireless friend of thousands of German-born Dakota farmers still angry about America’s role in the Great War. Bent on preventing the country from entering any new foreign conflicts, Nye attacked the forces he viewed as promoters of war—the big arms manufacturers (“merchants of death,” as he called them) and international bankers who financed the purchase of armaments and then, as Nye viewed it, fomented war to ensure a return on their investments.
Nye’s Neutrality Acts, designed to place America on the sidelines of all international conflicts, required the president to proclaim the existence of any foreign wars and prohibited American vessels from carrying arms to or for belligerents in such wars. Franklin Roosevelt chafed under these restrictions on executive power and prerogative (until he was able to chip away at them in the late-1930s), but the American people didn’t trust their leaders to avoid foreign wars and weren’t inclined to take any chances. Nye and his powerful allies—notably Senators Arthur Vandenberg, William Borah, and Robert La Follette—essentially removed major foreign policy decision-making from the foreign policy establishment.
Then some three decades later the American people once again seized control of foreign policy from the foreign policy establishment. It began on March 12, 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, when Minnesota’s Senator Eugene McCarthy, an insurgency candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, captured 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, to 49 percent for the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson. A few days later Johnson aide Larry O’Brien told the president he was about to be “clobbered” in the Wisconsin primary. Johnson promptly announced the end of his re-election effort.
Here we see the American people seizing control of foreign policy from the so-called experts by destroying the presidency of a man who had scored the greatest presidential election landslide in the country’s history just four years earlier. Though in normal times the American people are happy to delegate foreign policy decision making to their elected leaders and their appointed officials, they take it all back when they get agitated.
Today large segments of the American people are agitated. They’re agitated about many things, including domestic policy matters, but they’re agitated in part over the ragged state of American foreign policy—the avid pursuit of regime change around the world in recent years and the resulting instability; the Mideast conflagrations unleashed, in the minds of many, by President George W. Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq; the incendiary confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, fostered in party by Western encroachment, or threats of encroachment, upon lands that traditionally have been part of Russia’s sphere of influence; and the establishment view, powerful in both parties, that America has an obligation to thwart bad guys and promote democracy around the world.
Trump not only has given expression to these concerns and agitations but has done so in such stark language that no one can mistake his underlying meaning. No wishy-washy efforts to shroud his intentions behind a veil of gauzy rhetoric. This strikes many as refreshing—and brings to Trump large increments of support.
What we’re seeing is a desire on the part of many Americans to do what they did in Nye’s day and Gene McCarthy’s—to remove foreign policy decision making from the establishment figures who have created so much of the current mess; who refuse to accept any responsibility for the mess; and who, in many cases, even refuse to acknowledge that there is any mess in the first place. Unfortunately for those who want a change, their only vehicle for pulling it off is Donald J. Trump.
He says he can get along with Putin. He asks “Why are we always at the forefront of everything?” He questions America’s financial support and protection for prosperous allies that, he says, can take care of themselves. He shows no interest in promoting democracy and human rights around the globe. He wants to return America to its previous position of “neutrality” in fostering negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He gives highest priority to the protection of America’s borders.
All of this gives the heeby-jeebies to the party’s foreign policy establishment, particularly its
“neoconservative” contingent, which has been at the forefront of America’s aggressive international presence since the 9/11 Islamist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001. Trump wants to move the country in a new direction on foreign policy, and the establishment is now striking back with its Open Letter.
Signed by many eminent officials and figures with vast experience among them and an awesome collective knowledge base, the letter attacks Trump as “utterly unfitted to the office” of president. He poses a threat not only America’s traditional foreign policy thinking, says the letter, but represents “a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.” His view of American influence and power in the world is “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” His trade policies would bring “economic disaster.” His call for payment from Japan for U.S. protection “is the sentiment of a racketeer.” On top of all that, he is “fundamentally dishonest.” The letter reaches for cleverness in noting that not all lethal conflicts can be solved like “a real estate deal,” and “there is no recourse to bankruptcy court in international affairs.”
Although the letter makes a mild bow of acknowledgment to “the conditions in American politics that have contributed to [Trump’s] popularity,” it makes no effort to understand or appreciate the underlying political sentiments driving Trump’s political success in this campaign year. Indeed, the document was spearheaded in part by Eliot Cohen, former State Department official under George W. Bush, who in an interview with Politico called Trump “the most dangerous demagogue in American politics in my lifetime.”
There is plenty of reason to question Trump’s positions and lack of political experience. We can’t know with certainty that he would govern as a “dangerous demagogue,” but it is a valid question, given his political crudeness and pugilistic rhetoric, not to mention some of his business practices. The issue of free trade vs. protectionism deserves serious political discourse at a time when America has lost most of its industrial base. Certainly, Trump’s call for aggressive interrogation techniques, perhaps far beyond what the country is comfortable with, deserves opprobrium.
But ultimately these distinguished foreign policy figures are lashing out not at Trump but at his constituency, which wants to remove American foreign policy from the domain of the foreign policy establishment—in other words, themselves. This constituency is saying the establishment has had free reign long enough; it’s time to change course, which likely means it’s time to change personnel.
It’s no wonder that the establishment is striking back with this angry and unyielding letter. And Trump makes an easy target. But, even if the establishment manages to kill the messenger, it will still have to deal with those millions who are sending the message.
Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at the National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.
Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon.