Like so many members of what Michael Walsh aptly calls the “Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party,” leading neoconservative Eliot A. Cohen still doesn’t get what happened on election night last year.
Writing in The Atlantic , Cohen served up a scathing (if meandering) critique of President Trump’s foreign policy. Cohen believes Trump’s administration has heralded the end of the American-led world order. What Cohen doesn’t seem to comprehend is that the American-led world order has been fading for years—and much of it is the fault of “experts” like Cohen, who encouraged Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama to champion unrealistic foreign policies and break America’s unquestioned global hegemony.
Our politicians and our foreign-policy establishment—the former consumed by domestic matters, the latter largely by technocratic concerns—have lost the ability to make the case to the country for prudent American management of an international system whose relative peace for 70 years owes so much to Washington’s leadership.
Herein lies the flawed conceit of American foreign policy elites: the belief that a bipartisan cadre of technocrats can manage away all of America’s most vexing international problems (if only Americans resolved to use more military power). James Mattis once famously quipped to his troops that, “the enemy gets a vote.” But, in the mind of Cohen and his fellow Beltway foreign policy apparatchiks, this is not so. To them, other states are merely waiting to be awed by the awesome power of the United States (and the impressive intellects of those experts who manage America’s foreign policy).
Neither China nor Russia seem to buy into this conceit anymore. But don’t tell Cohen that.
Writing shortly after the Cold War, another neoconservative thinker, Jeane Kirkpatrick, observed that America’s “purposes are mainly domestic” and the passing of the Cold War freed up “time, attention, and resources to American ends.” Kirkpatrick believed that America needed to abandon its pretense of being a superpower, embrace a multipolar world, and return to being a normal country in a normal time. She warned her readers about a foreign policy elite behaving “like some priestly class that alone has the knowledge, experience, and wisdom to guide foreign policy.” Such an elite, she cautioned, would uncouple the democratic will of the American people from the preferences of the elite. Kirkpatrick feared the creation of a bifurcated society, where a small cadre of elites composed a ruling class that would lord it over the rest of us mere citizens in what Angelo Codevilla has called the “Country Class.”
The divide between elites like Cohen and the “Country Class” comes down to incentives: your neighbor has little incentive for pursuing more foreign policy misadventures, whereas Cohen and his ilk’s entire existence is predicated on greater levels of interventionism. Kirkpatrick clearly lost the post-Cold War foreign policy debate. The decades after the Cold War were defined by an increasing array of military commitments to causes that were of dubious importance to the national interest.
That the ruling class continues to show its disconnect with the rest of the country is apparent when Cohen asserts, “The administration obsesses about defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and yet intends to sharply reduce the kinds of advice and support that are needed to rebuild the areas devastated by war in those same countries.” He fails to address the obvious question that most Americans would ask: Why is nation-building important for killing terrorists?
The experts refuse to address this question because they know that the answer will be unsatisfactory to the millions of “Country Class” Americans who actually bear the burdens of war. Like an ancient pagan priest unable to prove his absurd claims when challenged, Cohen prefers to stifle informed inquiry by flashing his credentials and informing us that he is a member of the “chosen” priestly class. Others should bow before his divinely inspired “wisdom”—or else.
Even as Cohen bemoans the death of the foreign policy expert in the Age of Trump, he decries Trump’s embrace of authoritarians in the Middle East. Trump “seems to dismiss the larger problems of governance posed by the crises within Middle Eastern societies as internal issues irrelevant to the United States.” Internal governance issues of foreign states are irrelevant to American interests! Propping up such autocratic states as is sometimes necessary and as we did, very often, during the Cold War, is an inexpensive way of hurting the terrorists, while protecting our interests.
As Cohen’s jeremiad winds down, he laments that “A freedom agenda, in either its original Bush or subsequent Obama form, is dead.” Yes, exactly! The moment George W. Bush opted to remake the world in America’s image, our foreign policy truly took a turn for the worse. We squandered our “unipolar moment” in the sands of the Middle East.
Clearly, Eliot Cohen doesn’t get it: the American people do not want war without end and without victory. Who could blame them? All that these ongoing wars have done is to weaken America while empowering China, Russia, and Iran. If Cohen and his priestly foreign policy elites believe that’s “winning,” then we should be thankful that such a “novice” like Trump is in the White House.
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