As Trump’s Lead Grows, GOP NatSec Community Falls in Line … Against Him

March 4, 2016

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After a Defeat on Super Tuesday, The Empire Strikes Back

Super Tuesday has come and gone. The sheer number of delegates awarded has propelled the frontrunners ever closer to their respective nominations. And yet things have gotten even more tumultuous — particularly on the GOP side.

GOP foreign policy elites say no to Trump, loudly

Philosophies and worldviews among Republican security and foreign policy professionals range widely, but there’s one thing that many of them agree on: Donald Trump is the wrong candidate to be their party’s nominee. In an open letter published on our very own War on the Rocks, 100 (and counting) signers — including veterans of multiple GOP administrations — made their position clear:

We the undersigned, members of the Republican national security community, represent a broad spectrum of opinion on America’s role in the world and what is necessary to keep us safe and prosperous. We have disagreed with one another on many issues, including the Iraq war and intervention in Syria. But we are united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency.

The letter goes on to describe exactly why the signers believe Trump is unfit for the White House — from his aggressive advocacy of trade wars to his unpredictable swings between isolationism and military adventurism. Read the full letter here.

So who is advising Trump on national security and foreign policy?

Trump has unconventional opinions on security and foreign policy for a Republican candidate for president. He accused the George W. Bush administration of lying to get the country behind the Iraq War. He all but directly threatens trade wars with other countries. In other instances, he just seems not to know all that much about serious issues in the world. He confused the Kurds with the Iranian Quds Force, and he didn’t know what the nuclear triad was. We saw in yesterday’s open letter that many of the experienced people candidates would typically turn to for advice on these subjects have committed “to working energetically to prevent” Trump’s election. So, you might ask, who is advising him?

William Arkin has one answer. Writing for Vice, he has a brief profile of Samuel Clovis, a retired Air Force colonel who serves as Trump’s national campaign co-chair and chief policy advisor.

Trump is still taking fire for not revealing the names of his national security advisory team, although yesterday before the latest debate in Detroit, he tweeted that Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who recently endorsed Trump, would serve as the chairman of his “National Security Advisory Committee.”

And while retired Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is rumored to be informally advising Trump, both Flynn and the Trump campaign have declined to comment when asked about the relationship.

Romney takes the gloves off

Mitt Romney might not be willing to throw his hat in the ring as an alternative to Trump just yet, but in a much-anticipated speech yesterday, he joined the chorus of voices calling for Republicans to unite in their opposition to a man who “lacks the temperament of be president.” Much of his speech specifically made the case on foreign policy grounds. A few highlights:

Donald Trump tells us that he is very, very smart. I’m afraid that when it comes to foreign policy he is very, very not smart.

What he said on “60 Minutes” about Syria and ISIS has to go down as the most ridiculous and dangerous idea of the campaign season: Let ISIS take out Assad, he said, and then we can pick up the remnants. Think about that: Let the most dangerous terror organization the world has ever known take over a country? This is recklessness in the extreme.

Dishonesty is Trump’s hallmark: He claimed that he had spoken clearly and boldly against going into Iraq. Wrong, he spoke in favor of invading Iraq. He said he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. Wrong, he saw no such thing. He imagined it. His is not the temperament of a stable, thoughtful leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.

Donald Trump, statesman

That said, not everybody disagrees that Trump would be so disastrous as head of state and commander-in-chief. Are the very traits that Romney and others criticize actually potential weapons he can wield on behalf of the United States? Writing at Foreign Policy, Felipe Cuello argues that they are:

[Trump] has consistently shown himself to be highly creative in the curveballs he throws at his opponents and dealing with the curveballs thrown at him. His superior understanding of how to control the narrative is something America desperately needs. … Trump is a disruptor, and international relations are certainly a sector in need of disruption. … The current status quo in many areas of international affairs — from the World Trade Organization to the situation in the Middle East — are ripe for fresh approaches. … Trump’s refusal to stake a position on the Israel/Palestine issue (and refusal to take AIPAC money) is a similarly unique position among the field of candidates. Only the blindest opponents of Donald Trump would disagree that his presidency would be the first to stand a chance to resolve that particular issue.

The Bernie Doctrine

Trump isn’t the only candidate whose foreign policy chops are the subject of intra-party debate. Much ink has ben spilt on whether Bernie Sanders has the understanding — or interest — to manage the many global challenges that await the next president. Writing for, Northwestern University professor Ian Hurd argues that Sanders’ fixation on domestic issues offers a window into his approach to foreign affairs:

The Bernie doctrine focuses on two central connections: between the local and the global and between politics and economics. The pernicious effects of inequality link these together. … When asked about foreign policy, Sanders often begins by talking about growing income inequality in America. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton … has complained that he is being evasive, but she is missing the point. The connection between international policies and local economics is a tight one. Sanders is asking that we consider what is lost at home when the U.S. gets stuck in military quagmires abroad. Bombing the Islamic State group busts a hole in the U.S. budget — one estimate suggests it cost up to $400 million in September 2014. This takes money away from government priorities at home. The costs of overcommitting abroad often become a rationale for cutting spending at home, especially in ways that hurt working families. Domestic poverty and international war go hand in hand: Perpetual war abroad and entrenched inequality at home are inseparable.

A Paleocon Report Card

Presidents have more latitude in foreign affairs than in domestic policy, and the trend over the past two administrations has been for presidents to be more hawkish than their campaign pledges led voters to expect. George W. Bush promised a “humble foreign policy.” Instead, he gave us the Iraq War. Barack Obama was elected in part to end Bush’s wars. But he too pursued regime change, with Pyrrhic success in Libya and abortively in Syria. … These examples are alarming precedents for the next administration.

This is how the staff at The American Conservative introduces their foreign policy report card, which grades the remaining presidential candidates on their likely policies on a range of issues. Given the magazine’s particular ideological background, it’s no surprise that one candidate gets an F across the board, and few get high marks at all.

Does the Supreme Court understand national security?

The politics of this election year changed dramatically with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Whether the Senate should schedule confirmation hearings, much less take a vote, on an Obama nominee is and will remain sharply debated. But regardless of whether the next justice is appointed by Obama or the next president, this is an opportunity to place on the bench somebody with a deep understanding of national security issues. But that’s easier said than done, write Shane Reeves and Winston Williams at Lawfare:

The path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice simply does not include serving in the military or governmental agencies overseeing the national security mission. But it is only by serving in these roles, that a lawyer becomes familiar with the realities underlying America’s national security policies. And unlike other areas of the law, the closed and secretive nature of this government function makes it extremely difficult for those without practical experience to understand the complexities at issue.

National security politics in an election year

Politicization, partisanship, and fierce campaign posturing are the hallmarks of election years. So is it better to postpone action on foreign policy issues, leaving them for the next president? Michele Fluornoy and Richard Fontaine of CNAS weigh in:

As the country turns its attention to the Democratic and Republican primaries, it is tempting to assume that the United States should postpone any bold national security moves until the next administration takes office. A new president will arrive with a fresh team, new ideas, a political mandate, and allies in Congress. … Yet the world does not abide by American election cycles and to turn this election year into an extended waiting period would be a major mistake.

Here’s a list of things that Fluornoy and Fontaine believe can and should get done this year.


John Amble is Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore