A Republican president with sound foreign policy instincts (stay with me here) would be crippled by the people staffing his administration. Since a president cannot serve as his own cabinet secretaries, or staff his own agencies at the deputy level, he would have to hire Republican foreign policy hands to do these jobs. Given the uniformly hawkish bent of the GOP foreign policy establishment and the disproportionate influence of neoconservatives among them, they would hobble if not destroy the strategy of such a president. “Personnel are policy,” as the old saying goes.
At the risk of revealing how daunting the project would be, then, it is worth considering how to make the Republican foreign policy establishment better.
During a meeting I attended at Harvard several years ago, the attending group of restraint-minded international relations scholars and one major philanthropist was asked what they would do with $10 or $20 million. A range of answers surfaced. My own was “start raising money.” This elicited an eye roll and a probing question from the philanthropist, but I stand by my answer. In the war of ideas at present, restraint is hopelessly outgunned.
It might be easiest to break down the problem functionally. The relevant instruments would be think tanks, publications, journalists, pressure groups, and donors, in no particular order. This week, we’ll look at think tanks. In subsequent weeks, we’ll examine publications, journalists, pressure groups, and donors.
It is too much to ask for a quick turnaround when it comes to right-of-center think tanks on foreign policy. The combination of ideological blowback, having one’s mortgage paid by those with interest in sustaining the status quo, and simple inertia make that unlikely.
What one might hope is that the John Hulsman saga is never again a live possibility. In 2006, the Heritage Foundation scholar was allegedly sacked for being too critical of Bush the Younger and the Iraq War, and made to sign a nondisclosure agreement to prevent him from discussing the terms of his dismissal. The man said to be responsible for firing Hulsman was Kim Holmes, who, whatever his ideological disposition, showed himself to be a far lesser scholar than Hulsman after the latter’s departure.
The best that can be hoped for when it comes to the think tanks is that the middle-of-the-road, more partisan institutes like Heritage do not return to their Bush-Cheney worst. AEI, the Hudson Institute, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies are duty-bound and money-motivated to stay neoconservative. A non-neoconservative AEI is unthinkable. What is thinkable is that a place like Heritage would make a big, showy hire not of a noninterventionist, but a Republican realist. Someone a lot like John Hulsman, actually. It would serve as a sort of bat-signal to any disgruntled Hill staffers or others with interest in rekindling conservative realism.
When I worked at the Cato Institute, I believed every argument I made (and probably still do). But at least when it came to foreign policy, it was necessary to keep in mind the size of the ask. In terms of change from existing policy, what we were asking for was revolutionary: many fewer wars, many fewer allies, gutting the defense budget, mostly leaving the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia. In a Weberian sense, our job was to represent the extreme fringe of opinion. If successful, we broadened the spectrum of allowable debate–in the process, pulling the center progressively in our direction.
What would be ideal is perestroika among right-of-center foreign policy think tanks, in which they hired more realists (not to say noninterventionists, necessarily), and engaged publicly with groups like Cato, inviting their scholars to debates and taking up their arguments. Without a massive influx of money, however, this is unlikely to happen.
FLASHBACK Video: John Hulsman on Prudence and Foreign Policy