In justifying the Iraq War to the American people, George Bush in part invoked a gra-ndiose framing centered around the liberation of the Iraqi people from Sa-ddam Hussein’s tyranny.
This Wilsonian impulse to spread freedom was a staple of Republican foreign policy rhetoric for years, central to the military adventurism that became commonly associated with the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
However, with the emergence of Donald Trump, this line of thinking experienced a formidable challenge, a GOP presidential candidate seemingly willing to question the assumptions and platitudes that had dictated his party’s foreign policy for years. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump distanced himself considerably from his fellow Republican candidates with his pronounced willingness to condemn the Iraq War, while promising a presidency that would end the endless wars.
Unfortunately, Trump did not exactly follow through on his campaign platform. While expressing skepticism towards continued military intervention in the Middle East — Syria and Afghanistan in particular — troops remained engaged in such conflicts throughout his time in office. Additionally, Trump sustained U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen.
Despite this, Trump did achieve something more intangible: a shift in the conversation within the Republican foreign policy realm. In the aftermath of his presidency, establishment figures within the party have increasingly jettisoned Wilsonian idealism in selling their respective foreign policy stances to the American public, instead turning their attention more squarely towards self-interest.
One may first look at such a development as a harbinger towards a more restrained Republican foreign policy moving forward. In reality though, many of the figures and institutions increasingly employing such language have not in fact shifted their position towards restraint, but have instead simply co-opted “America First” realist language to sustain the hawkish status quo.
Take Mitch McConnell’s stance towards Ukraine. In explaining his support for the most recent $45 billion aid package, he stated quite bluntly that “the most basic reasons for continuing to help Ukraine degrade and defeat the Russian invaders are cold, hard, practical American interests.”
While one would be hard pressed to actually name these “cold, hard” interests, McConnell’s line of reasoning is a marked divergence from his past justifications for maintaining ground fo-rces in the Middle East, wh-ich in part invoked Amer-ica’s “indispensable” role in the international system. But more significant is the lack of substantive change corresponding with this rhetorical shift. Ultimately, McConnell’s view on American military hegemony has not changed; indeed, he still views it as inherently virtuous and necessary.
McConnell’s turn is by no means an outlier. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Walter Russell Mead highlights Senator Tom Cotton’s own purported embrace of realism. Mead details Cotton’s rejection of two divergent strains of Democratic foreign policy-making, those being the “technocratic progressivism” geared towards transforming the world in the United States’ liberal image, and the “frank, Anti-Americanism” that aims to disarm and weaken the United States.
To Mead, Cotton has wisely rejected both of these lenses, instead turning to a practical focus on self-interest. While those on the right may applaud this approach, it is unfortunately a facade. Though ostensibly pivoting to realism, Cotton’s foreign policy views have not actually changed. For example, he remains adamant in his support for the Saudis in the ongoing Yemen War, opposes military withdrawals from Syria and Iraq, and has been lockstep with the Republican establishment in terms of support for Ukraine.
Perhaps Cotton aims to emulate former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a self-described disciple of “realism, restraint, and respect” who nonetheless operated in a decidedly bellicose fashion vis a vis Iran and China during his time in the Trump administration. Clearly, Pompeo recognized the expediency of co-opting realism and restraint, allowing him to perpetuate the long-standing zero-sum Republican approach towards Iran and ushering in the same sort of dynamic with China.
The positions of such figures stand consistent with developments at the organizational level, too, as seen quite clearly at the Hudson Institute. In the past, Hudson scholars fully embraced the quixotic ambitions of neoconservatism, seen in the writings of adjunct fellow Norman Podhoretz, and current senior fellow Douglas Feith, who as an undersecretary for policy in the Bush Pentagon (and protege of neoconservative icon Richard Perle) was one of the chief architects of the Iraq War.
Today, Hudson retains a hawkish approach to Russia and China, rejecting concerns over escalation in their continued support to Ukraine, and advancing extremely bellicose policies vis a vis China. Notably though, they now largely avoid both neoconservative bromides and the liberal invocation of international norms and principles in promulgating such views, instead framing their positions through an American self-interest prism.
To this point, Senior Fellow Nadia Schadlow, who spent the GWOT as a neoconservative funder at the Smith Richardson Foundation, recently wrote a piece entitled “Conservative U.S. Statecraft for the 21st Century.” While ostensibly presenting a fresh perspective on foreign policymaking, the piece in reality offers justifications rooted in “realistic” approaches and “conservative principles” to sustain U.S. military primacy abroad, stating that “military power is a necessary foundation for keeping the peace.” It also perpetuates the framing of adversaries through a zero-sum ideological lens, with Schadlow noting Iran’s supposedly “messianic objectives” and China’s determination to “displace the United States”.
Schadlow’s analysis is consistent with other analysis from the Hudson Institute, incorporating realist rhetoric to advance the status quo. Such can be in the seen in the works of fellow Senior Arthur Herman, who recently wrote that $45 billion defense package to Ukraine is “money the U.S. can’t afford not to spend,” and that a “revived defense manufacturing base supporting Ukraine will be critical for our own ability to defer antagonists and protect our interests elsewhere.”
It’s obvious that the conservative establishment has put its collective finger up to the wind and judged that there is no more appetite for the Wilsonian idealism of the pre-Trump years. Co-opting “realism” and “America First” allows them to reach the base, while at the same time putting distance between themselves and the liberal internationalist left, using the language of “national interest” rather than what they dismiss as progressive universalism.
One should not be deceived though. This rhetorical shift has not changed the actual underlying belief sets of the Hudson Institute or the aforementioned political operators. In their minds, it appears, American military predominance is still necessary to defeat ideological foes; the same old, same old hawkish foreign policy thinking.