Cornered Neocons: Trump’s heresy on foreign policy has put Republican hawks in nightmare scenario — backing Hillary Clinton

Clinton represents the status quo on foreign policy — aligning her far more with neocon values than Trump

Published March 4, 2016 7:40PM (EST)

Bill Kristol, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Robert Kagan   (AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Wade Payne/Scott Morgan/CBS)
Bill Kristol, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Robert Kagan (AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Wade Payne/Scott Morgan/CBS)

“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives...We should've never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East. You call it whatever you want...They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none.” - Donald Trump

A Trump nomination is a nightmare for the Republican establishment. There are many reasons why that's so, some more obvious than others. To begin with, a Trump-led ticket would mean not just a third consecutive term for the Democrats, it would also result in down-ballot defeats and perhaps even the loss of their majority in the Senate – that's reason enough to panic.

But one of the less discussed concerns surrounding Trump has to do with foreign policy; specifically, the fact that Trump doesn't have one, and what he has said scares the hell out of Republican hawks. We saw a glimpse of this at a recent Republican debate, in which Trump popped the conservative bubble and said what no one else on that stage would – that the Iraq War was a mistake; that zealots exploited questionable intelligence for ideological purposes; and that military adventurism has made us and the world less safe. These are all indisputably true claims, and yet Republicans can't accept them.

It's heresy in the GOP to question the neoconservative paradigm – just ask Rand Paul. It's assumed, as an article of faith, that America is the moral leader of the world; that we must not only defend our values across the world, we must also use force to remake it in our image. This is the thinking that gave us the Iraq War. It's the prism through which most of the GOP still views international politics. Trump – and Bernie Sanders – represents a departure from this paradigm.

Although it's unlikely to happen, a Trump-Sanders general election would have been refreshing for at least one reason: it would have constituted a total rejection of neoconservatism.

Most Americans understand, intuitively, that the differences between the major parties are often rhetorical, not substantive. That's not to say substantive differences don't exist – surely they do, especially on social issues. But the policies from administration to administration overlap more often than not, regardless of the party in charge. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Much of the stability is due to money and the structure of our system, which tends toward dynamic equilibrium. And there are limits to what the president can do on issues like the economy and health care.

But one area in which the president does have enormous flexibility is foreign policy. Which is why, as Politico reported this week, the GOP's national security establishment is “bitterly digging in against” Trump. Indeed, more than any other wing of the Republican Party, the neoconservatives are terrified at the prospect of a Trump nomination.

“Hillary is the lesser evil, by a large margin,” said Eliot Cohen, a former Bush official with neoconservative ties. Trump would be “an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy.” Another neocon, Max Boot, says he'd vote for Clinton over Trump: “She would be vastly preferable to Trump.” Even Bill Kristol, the great champion of the Iraq War, a man who refuses to consider the hypothesis that he was wrong about anything, is threatening to recruit a third party candidate to derail Trump for similar reasons.

Just this week, moreover, a group of conservative foreign policy intellectuals, several of whom are neocons, published an open letter stating that they're “united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.” They offer a host of reasons for their objections, but the bottom line is they don't trust Trump to continue America's current policy of policing the world on ethical grounds.

Trump isn't constrained by the same ideological conventions as other candidates, and so he occasionally stumbles upon unpopular truths. His comments about the Iraq War are an obvious example. But even on an issue like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Trump says what any reasonable observer should: we ought to maintain neutrality and work to solve the dispute with an eyes towards our national interest. Now, Trump couldn't explain the concept of “realism” to save his life, but this position is perfectly consistent with that tradition. And if Republicans weren't blinkered by religious fanaticism, they'd acknowledge it as well. The same is true of Trump's nebulous critiques of America's soft imperialism, which again are sacrilege in Republican politics.

To be clear: Donald Trump is a lunatic; he isn't fit for public office. His ascendancy is a national embarrassment and the latest signpost on the road to idiocracy. Saying he isn't a neoconservative does not imply he has an alternative worldview, or even a vague notion of America's role in the world. He's merely a blank slate, a question mark, someone the establishment can't reliably bend to their will. Reagan, too, was a blank slate, but he was malleable, like George W. Bush. Trump, on the other hand, is an exquisite marriage of ignorance and confidence – no one has any idea what he'll do.

There is a similar – but not identical – dynamic on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton would be an infinitely better president than Trump – that's obvious. But there's no way around the fact that she represents the status quo on foreign policy, which is why neocons are far more comfortable with her than with Trump. And it's not just Clinton's support of the Iraq War, about which everyone knows. It's also her positions on Libya and Syria and Iran, all of which have been maximalist and interventionist. Her views on Israeli-Palestinian relations aren't particularly encouraging either.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have only one thing in common: they're appealing to people who've lost confidence in their party's establishment. As a whole Democrats, are immeasurably saner on foreign policy, but there's a dominant center-right wing of the party, and Hillary Clinton is arguably to the right of that.

Sanders' economic populism gets a lot of attention (as it should), but, like Trump, he's articulated some simple but important truths in this campaign. The difference is that Trump's foreign policy is contained entirely in the quote above, whereas Sanders has laid out a comprehensive vision, which rejects accepted wisdom and offers a sustainable alternative to interventionism. While it's unlikely that Trump has given serious thought to any of these questions, we can, at least, credit him for being honest about our recent history, as Sanders has been.

Again, we're unlikely to see a Trump-Sanders general election. As it stands, Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination. If that happens, she'll be our next president, and in many ways that will be a good thing, considering the alternative. But it won't lead to a major shift in our foreign policy. And that's unfortunate, because Trump's popularity suggests, among other things, that the country is weary of war and utopian entanglements in the Middle East.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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American Foreign Policy Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Neoconservatism