Ma: How the Conservative Foreign Policy Establishment Failed Americans Long Before Donald Trump

Former President George W. Bush, Senator John McCain, Senator Bob Corker and other Republican luminaries have publicly criticized President Donald Trump’s foreign policy in recent days.

Yet, long before Trump took over the national political conversation, the conservative foreign policy establishment had systematically betrayed conservative principles and abandoned intellectual rigor for ideological rigidity in foreign policy.

Many individuals and institutions participated, but one example of how a major conservative think tank went about the task shows the insidiousness of the betrayal and offers insight into the intellectual disorderliness that led to Trump’s rise.

It was the fall of 2005, and the Iraq War was raging. I had just graduated from Stanford Law School and given up a lucrative Wall Street law firm salary to spend a year as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

A few weeks into my fellowship, AEI issued what I perceived as a very unsubtle threat against me. I was told to stop conducting research on national sovereignty and international law and instead work on democratization in Asia. AEI understood that I was exploring opportunities in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and if I did not listen they would make sure I did not succeed.

I had been a conservative my entire adult life. Never did I imagine that this venerable institution of conservative thought would threaten me for attempting to put conservative thoughts on paper, but it did.

My research would have critiqued certain intellectual inconsistencies in Bush’s foreign policy. His administration’s dogged promotion of the freedom agenda directly conflicted with its robust defense of national sovereignty, leaving U.S. foreign policy looking confused, incoherent, and hypocritical.

On the one hand, the Bush administration noisily withdrew from multilateral regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and the International Criminal Court in 2002, arguing that the United States possessed the sovereign right not to subject itself to treaties and international norms to which it did not consent. In addition, it waged war on Iraq in 2003, arguing that a U.N. Security Council resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force was unnecessary to justify America’s sovereign right to self-defense.

On the other hand, nothing violates state sovereignty more than an armed invasion, even when it takes place in the name of freedom and human dignity. Yet, the Bush administration had sloppily endorsed it as a key rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

The real intellectuals at AEI were dismayed upon discovering the think tank’s interference with my research. When the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, learned that I had been instructed to focus on democratization in Asia, she asked, incredulously, “Because you’re Asian?!” Reality was not quite that crass, but it was pretty close.

Scholar-practitioners like Kirkpatrick recognized the value of self-restraint in the exercise of U.S. power—a concept for which my research would have indirectly advocated. Long before the conservative grassroots and Americans in general grew disillusioned with military ventures in the Middle East, Kirkpatrick characterized Bush’s foreign policy as “a little too interventionist” for her taste. She was wise and prescient, but not in a position to rescue AEI from its intellectual intolerance and shallowness.

Meanwhile, honest advocates of a democracy revolution in the Middle East acknowledged that they would shoulder the blame if the war in Iraq ended in failure. Senior administrators at AEI were not interested in such self-reflection.

Within the Bush administration itself, prominent senior officials, such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, believed the idea of spreading a democratic revolution in the Middle East was wrong from the start. As the most ardent and identifiable defender of U.S. sovereignty in the administration, he observed that Iraqis should have been put in charge as soon as possible after the U.S. invasion. Exaggerating for effect, he said, “We should have…said to the Iraqis: ‘You’re on your own. Here’s a copy of the Federalist papers. Good luck.’”

One did not need to agree with Bolton to know that his sentiments reflected precisely the tensions I outlined and proposed to explore in the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

At AEI, I posited that while the robust defense of U.S. sovereignty was necessary and crucial, the Bush administration needed to reflect on the implications of its policy inconsistencies and perhaps even enunciate the limits of its freedom agenda (for example, by saying that democracy promotion is not synonymous with regime change).

Naively, I had crashed into radical adherents of what columnist George Will would later call “promiscuous interventionism.” While plenty of thoughtful people in and out of the Bush administration passionately argued that freedom and democracy was the best long-term answer to defeating terrorism in the Middle East, others, such as the top decision-makers at AEI, attempted to make sure that dissenting views never saw the light of day.

As the war effort in Iraq revealed in later years, there was gross incompetence and miscalculation, leading to trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost.

More soul searching and intellectual critiquing from within the right—against endless interventionism, against loose talk about the forcible export of democracy, against assaults on sovereignty—might have been quite productive before and during the Iraq War. Yet those who were supposed to serve as the stewards of conservative intellectual thought, who were supposed to facilitate such critiquing, failed spectacularly at the task.

In the end, I undertook a project on democratization in China at AEI and wrote that while freedom in authoritarian countries was very much worth fighting for, U.S. efforts should be disciplined by the limits of its influence and the wishes of those who lived in unfree countries, not the “fervor of U.S. democracy promoters.” Since leaving AEI, I have argued repeatedly that reckless interventionists do not represent conservatism, and that conservative principles—such as prudence and skepticism of large government undertakings overseas—needed to be re-inserted in the GOP’s foreign policy debate.

Ironically, it has been left up to Trump to stomp on the type of foreign policy advocated by AEI.

During the campaign, many Never Trumpers, including fellows from AEI, griped that Trump knew little about foreign policy and swung “from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.”

Yet it was candidate Trump who offered what Americans were thirsting for: common sense. While former Governor Jeb Bush had difficulty declaring the Iraq War waged by his brother to be a mistake, Trump denounced it as a complete disaster and promised an end to “stupid, endless wars.”

As president, Trump has continued to undo the intellectual sloppiness of Bush’s worst foreign policy excesses. At the U.N. in September, Trump offered a robust defense of sovereignty that was far more cogent than the tortured version from the Bush era. While vehemently defending U.S. sovereignty, Trump also offered respect for other countries’ sovereignty, and officially threw aside the forcible export of democracy as a goal in U.S. foreign policy.

Of course, Trump’s views on sovereignty and his foreign policy are a work in progress. He is by no means pitch perfect, but his supporters also know that many Trump haters on the right are often just as phony as those on the left. They also know that Trump’s bombast and hyperbole, as well as his instincts for common sense, are a refreshing improvement over the stale thinking of the past and the disgraceful practices employed to bolster it.

Instead of congratulating themselves, Trump haters on the right should spend more time reflecting on how conservative politicians, thinkers, and institutions failed conservatism and the American people well before Trump came along.

Ying Ma served as the deputy director of a pro-Trump super PAC during the presidential election of 2016. She is the author of Chinese Girl in the Ghetto. From 2005 to 2006, she was a National Research Initiative Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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