Donald Trump

Why Donald Trump's Foreign Policy Team Baffles the GOP Establishment

Conservative foreign policy counsels are stacked with status quo hawks, so Trump's less interventionist crew draws from the fringes.

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Foter / Gage Skidmore

Until recently, Donald Trump was seeking foreign policy counsel from two sources. The first was "the shows" where "you have the generals and you have certain people," and the second was himself, because, in his own words, "I have a very good brain."

It doesn't exactly smack of Henry Kissinger, or even Barack Obama's ballyhooed "team of rivals." Perhaps recognizing this deficiency, Trump came to a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board on Monday holding a list of five foreign policy gurus who had signed onto his campaign: Walid Phares, Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Joseph E. Schmitz. "That's a pretty representative group," Trump proclaimed.

It's also a pretty unknown group, at least for those who keep up with foreign policy bigwigs in Washington. While Ted Cruz's campaign has become a bug light for the right's usual characters, including yet another afterlife granted to Elliott Abrams, Trump's hires are more obscure and outside the traditional establishment. Only Walid Phares rings bells, thanks to his visibility on Fox News and NBC.

Phares is a Maronite Christian who grew up in Lebanon. During the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War, he helped organize and Christianize the Lebanese Forces, a militia-cum-political party that today is part of Lebanon's March 14 Alliance. March 14 is viscerally opposed to Hezbollah and the rule of Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria (its opposite, March 8, is pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad). It's also highly skeptical of Iran, which bolsters Shia-aligned entities like Hezbollah and the Syrian regime through funds and training.

Phares' views on the Middle East seem to be refracted through his March 14 background. While he's not maximally hawkish on every issue—he presciently cautioned that Gaddafi's fall in Libya could result in "a takeover, after the authoritarian collapse, by Islamists"—he is a vociferous skeptic of Iran. "It is Iran that is threatening the region and the entire world," he told Al Jazeera in 2007. He more recently warned that President Obama's nuclear deal with Tehran was "Washington's gravest foreign policy mistake."

Joseph E. Schmitz, another of Trump's newly hired advisors, was the inspector general for the Defense Department during the Bush administration. Since 2012, he's maintained an archive at the conservative website Newsmax.com where he's written mostly about Obamacare (oddly enough), but also about foreign policy. His writings are full of brimstone over the Obama administration's feeble response to ISIS and Islamic terrorism in general.

But wait. Back when the United States was mulling over military action in Syria, Schmitz took exception, and suggested that instead of leaning on the Assad regime we should be attacking the Nusra Front, the local franchise of al Qaeda. Or, "as an alternate strategy," Schmitz wrote, "the United States might just refrain from engaging in any new acts of war while our enemies are killing each other." And following Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA, Schmitz demanded to know why the Defense Department hadn't implemented greater protections years ago. He called on the NSA to "be scrutinized to safeguard civil liberties and privacy."

Then there's Carter Page who has fingered the Obama administration for "misguided and provocative actions" towards Vladimir Putin, and accused State Department staffer Victoria Nuland of unnecessarily "fomenting" unrest in Ukraine.

Trump's picks have bewildered the Republican foreign policy establishment and drawn a volley of blog posts calling them "rotten" and "dangerous." That may very well be true—Schmitz, for example, buys into the Frank Gaffney-pushed chestnut that Grover Norquist is collaborating with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups—but it also misses a key distinction. Overall, Trump's squad is roughly aligned with its candidate's view of foreign policy: hold Islam in contempt, strike deals with other countries only if they lean heavily in your favor, stay out of other countries' civil wars, look to Andrew Jackson for precedent.

Last year, Robert Draper, the New York Times reporter who chronicled the "libertarian moment," went in search of the Republican foreign policy establishment. He found a peripatetic cast of old hands who, though they mumbled denunciations of the war in Iraq, still took a hawkish approach to just about every other international problem. This is explains why conservative foreign policy counsels are stacked with status quo neoconservatives while Trump's marginally less interventionist crew must draw from the fringes.

Bad ideas stay alive in Washington because they're incubated in an insular mainstream. If those who truly care about national security want to reform after the failures of Iraq, it needs to start with its expert class.

Matt Purple is a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation. ?

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  1. The first was “the shows” where “you have the generals and you have certain people,”

    I’m sorry, I’m chuckling to myself at my desk here. You gotta hand it to Trump, he brings the lulz.

    1. Mark Violet was on vaca.

  2. Phares is also a blogger. I have found his views interesting and informative.

  3. This group will launch a jihad against jihad. It will not end well. (I will take this opportunity to point out the similarity of water boarding to witch dunking.)

    1. And witch dunking fixed the entire witches turning people into Newt problem. I haven’t heard of one person turned into a newt in centuries

      1. You are so clueless!!!!

        Witch dunking has no effect on people turning into newts! It’s been known for centuries – since the time of King Arthur(!) – that people who turn into newts, if left to heal naturally, get better!

        It’s like arguing that witch dunking cures bad breath because since the invention of mouthwash, there has never been a case of witch dunking failing to cure bad breath!

        1. No, he was born a newt. He bought a person mask from Mr Lizard.

    2. Here’s the thing: how do you know there actually wasn’t a massive problem with real witches back then, and the only reason Satan didn’t take over the world was due to the actions of the brave Inquisition?

      We just assume that all those people they tortured and killed were innocent. There is an equal probability that they were malevolent practitioners of magick, and rightly sent to their infernal reward.

  4. It’s also a pretty unknown group, at least for those who keep up with foreign policy bigwigs in Washington.

    Keep in mind, those bigwigs and their retinues hate Trump for one and only one reason: he’s not going to give the usual suspects their usual place at the trough if he wins.

    That’s why the GOP establishment hates him. They think what their consultants tell them to think, and their consultants see themselves not making their usual bank with a Trump campaign and Presidency.

    1. It’ll be different piggies at a much classier trough, i mean just a YUGE trough.

      1. There’s gonna be so much slop. You’re gonna get sick of eating slop. This is key. Truffles, we love truffles. Love ’em.

        1. They’re not sending their best piggies. BAD.

  5. hold Islam in contempt, strike deals with other countries only if they lean heavily in your favor, stay out of other countries’ civil wars, look to Andrew Jackson for precedent.

    I’ve read this passage several times. By itself, it doesn’t read as particularly horrible. For instance, Obama’s foreign policy aims:

    [H]old radical Islam in contempt, strike deals with other countries only if the national media approves, get involved in other countries’ civil wars if a humanitarian cause can be sold, cherry-pick Andrew Jackson.

    1. look to Andrew Jackson for precedent.

      This could be a sign that we are going to get out of the quasi-war business – the dronings, the spec ops missions, the grinding we-aren’t-even-trying-to-win conflicts. Jacksonian war is war to the hilt, to win as fast and comprehensively as possible. It precludes the drip-drip of “limited kinetic engagements” or whatever they fuck we are calling it these days.

      Which means either (a) much less military activity around the globe or (b) total war in the Mideast. I seriously doubt its (b), although it could be.

      1. Depending on how you interpret Jacksonian foreign policy as it relates to its modern counterpart, Jackson secured several treaties with other countries while being largely uninterested in foreign entanglements. Wasn’t it our own Sec. of State who said “no one passes treaties any more”?

        1. while being largely uninterested in foreign entanglements

          It was a little more difficult for the US to get involved in foreign entanglements in the 1830s. And, if you count Native Americans as “foreign nations,” then he did get involved with a few of them.

          1. Nonsense, those were an internal matter, why else is the Bureau of Indian Affairs part of the Department of the Interior?

            /sarc

          2. And yet in 1790 the U.S. political class was very much debating the values and dangers of “foreign entanglements”. By 1830, the concept of foreign entanglements was hardly anything new. Especially considering there’s some debate among historians as to whether the Napoleonic wars (1805) was considered the first “World War”.

            1. The French and Indian War was a world war.

                1. We could use a World War at Emory.

            2. I don’t disagree with that. I’m just saying that it was more difficult to get involved in the 1830s than it is today. The debate over involvement in 1790 was mostly focused on naval conflict in retaliation for European assaults on American shipping. There were some who advocated a more aggressive position, but no one was suggesting sending American troops to Europe (and there’s some pretty good research that suggests Washington’s “no entangling alliances” statement was aimed at the Jeffersonians demand for more support of the French).

              I would suggest it was similar with Monroe: it’s hard to see the US mounting any significant military involvement in European affairs.

              Again, I don’t disagree with your main point, I’m just saying it was more difficult to get involved. If Jackson had been president in the 1880s/1890s and had steam power at his disposal, it might have been different.

      2. We need to start setting realistic ends for wars. Our problem is that we seem to think the military can get other nations to fight for themselves. Whether it be trying to get the South Vietnamese to fight the communists, the Afghans to fight the Taliban or the Iraqis to fight al quada, we have failed because you can’t make people care about a country if they don’t already want to. You can help them fight if they already have the will. But you can’t create that will no matter how many billions of dollars you pump into it.

        1. Fighting wars for people who won’t fight for themselves has been our disastrous policy since 1945 and we haven’t tired of it yet.

          1. Yes. And worse than that, we pump billions of dollars of aid and pick the most corrupt cronies imaginable to run the governments and then wonder why the population won’t fight. My dad was in Vietnam and his experience there was depressingly similar to mine in Iraq. I don’t mean guerilla warfare. I mean seeing the US government support a completely corrupt government expecting it to somehow turn into a viable nation.

    2. Sounds like far better policy than we’ve had in decades.

  6. George Papadopoulos

    No way, the dad from “Webster”?! Damn, looks like I’m voting for Trump after all.

  7. Even if one accepts all that “Trump is a fascist” hooey, his (still very dangerous) foreign policy still might elevate him to the top of the candidates list.

    1. Trump wants to engage in foreign wars without any allies to screw things up . He is most recently calling for 30,000 ground troops in Syria .

      1. “I find it hard to go along with?I mention that as an example because it’s so much. That’s why I brought that up. But a couple of people have said the same thing as you, where they said did I say that and I said that that’s a number that I heard would be needed. I would find it very, very hard to send that many troops to take care of it. I would say this: I would put tremendous pressure on other countries that are over there to use their troops, and I’d give them tremendous air supporters and support, because we have to get rid of ISIS, OK, just so?we have to get rid of ISIS. I would get other countries to become very much involved.”

        https://reason.com/blog/2016/03…..running-fo

      2. Nobody knows what Trump wants and Trump likes it that way. Ask him about specifics and he’ll tell you he doesn’t want to be tipping his hand to the enemy because it’s just dumb to be telling your enemy exactly what you’re planning.

        Well I’ve gotten a sneak peek at his hand and – while I don’t want to spoil the surprise – let’s just say if you’ve ever wanted to visit Monaco you’d better do it now while it’s still there.

        1. Monaco is highly overrated anyway. Unless there’s a race going on.

  8. Radical isolationists never answer the phone at 3am.

    1. I sure as shit don’t.

      1. This is me answering the phone at 3am:

        “who the fuck died”?

        “No one died? Then why the fuck are you calling me at 3am?” *click*

  9. Baffling the GOP establishment is like shooting fish in a barrel.

  10. The Maronites don’t like the Assassins ?

    Who knew?

  11. Grover Norquist is collaborating with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groupsIs that why they’re so violent? They signed a no new taxes pledge and now they want out of it?

  12. Trump’s picks have Everything bewildered the Republican foreign policy establishment

  13. Dude the trumpster is just cool like that.

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  15. “strike deals with other countries only if they lean heavily in your favor”

    Sounds good to me. As long as the “in your favor” part truly reflects the interests of the American public as a whole. Right now the “in your favor” part has largely been captured by the globalist class.

    If Trump really threatens the globalist’s long term agenda then we are in for some serious geo-political fireworks. First thing Trumps needs to do is a full audit of the Secret Service because his life, more so any president since JFK, will be in severe danger.

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