Since the end of the Iraq War, many of the liberal hawks and neoconservatives who championed it have been waging a two-front war to regain their political footing and, incidentally, their previous prominence. The first hostilities began during the Obama administration. After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014 and the Middle East experienced an upsurge in Islamic militancy, these warrior intellectuals attacked President Barack Obama. The historian Robert Kagan, a leading supporter of the Iraq War, declared in an essay in The New Republic that “superpowers don’t get to retire,” prompting The New York Times to announce: “Events in Iraq Open Door for Interventionist Revival, Historian Says.” The revival never happened. Although President Obama met with Kagan at the White House, he was not sold on presiding over a new era of intervention. Instead, he went on to deliver a speech in May 2014 at West Point in which he said that the use of military power abroad was no panacea and that his detractors were “either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”
If the hawks failed to persuade Obama of the merits of their case on that occasion, they retained their pride of place in the Republican Party until the improbable rise of Donald Trump in 2016. For all the fusillades that the hawks launched at Trump, he remained unscathed, exploiting the neocons as a useful foil. With his characteristic penchant for personal vituperation, he ridiculed William Kristol, who had argued in 2002 that the Iraq War would “start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy,” as a “dummy” and “a loser.” The pivotal moment for Trump came during a debate at the South Carolina primary in February 2016, where he laid waste to longstanding conservative taboos in accusing George W. Bush of lying about weapons of mass destruction and in blaming him for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In April of that election year, Trump went on to deliver his first and only foreign policy speech, at the Mayflower Hotel, in Washington, D.C., where he premiered his America First slogan—a direct repudiation of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, whose messianic claim was that “the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world” by “ending tyranny.” Throughout his presidency, Trump mocked the hawks in the GOP and disparaged America’s NATO allies as chiselers and cheats, striking a responsive chord both among the Republican base and its intellectual mandarins.
In a variety of publications, including The American Conservative, American Greatness, and The Federalist, a phalanx of writers on the right, many of whom enjoy connections to the pro-Trump Claremont Institute, chimed in to espouse what they called national conservatism. The idea was that national sovereignty, hostility to immigration, and martial valor are what really counts in the international arena. Most notably, these conservative commentators celebrated authoritarian foreign leaders such as Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—not only as desirable allies for America, but also as great statesmen who should be emulated for their contempt for liberal sentimentality about feminism or transgender rights. The benignant verdict in 2017 of Christopher Caldwell, a former senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at Claremont, was not untypical: “if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time. On the world stage, who can vie with him? Only perhaps Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey.”
With Trump ascendant, a number of neoconservatives either jumped ship or went into a kind of internal exile. The Weekly Standard shuttered its doors. Its former editor, Kristol, began appearing regularly on MSNBC to wax wroth about Trump, while Politico and The New Yorker wrote stories about him headlined, respectively, “Last Man Standing” and “Bill Kristol Wanders the Wilderness of Trump World.” In 2018, Kagan entered the fray with a book titled The Jungle Grows Back, deploring the seemingly inexorable diminution of American power and the rise of rival authoritarian powers. Then there was the strange case of John Bolton. He originally attracted Trump’s admiration with his truculent statements on Fox and served as his national security adviser, only to become disenchanted with Trump for declining to attack Iran. Most recently, Stephen Hayes, the author of The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, and Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism, resigned from Fox as commentators to protest Tucker Carlson’s phantasmagoric documentary Patriot Purge about the January 6 insurrection, which the two deemed “irresponsible.”
Now that Putin is ravaging Ukraine, however, the political and intellectual terrain in Washington has shifted almost overnight. As a former senior Trump foreign policy official sardonically explained to me, “The good old days are back in D.C. Lines are being drawn.” Even as the Biden administration is announcing that it seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia that could morph into World War III, a battalion of foreign policy mavens are pushing it to take a more assertive stance. On Tuesday, in an open letter in Politico, for example, several dozen foreign policy experts urged the Biden administration to establish a limited no-fly zone in Ukraine even if it might lead to conflict with Russia. Where skepticism about intervention abroad had been steadily gaining ground over the past decade, it is now the case that a belief in the unabashed assertion of American power abroad, democracy promotion, and regime changes is once more gaining sway. Will it mark a real shift back to the future? Or will it prove to be a mere hiccup, as Trump publicly flirts with the idea of running for another presidential term?
In retrospect, the Biden administration’s pullout from Afghanistan opened the door for the current spasm of criticism of its conduct in Ukraine. Republicans sought to depict Biden as Jimmy Carter redux. Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, complained, “It’s the most dishonorable thing a commander-in-chief has done in modern times”—as though Biden wasn’t largely implementing Trump’s own 2020 Doha withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, said, “President Biden bears direct responsibility for what is really a catastrophic decision that is going to put us at risk in ways that we have not been since before 9/11.” Biden also came under fire from Democratic lawmakers. And liberal-leaning writers such as George Packer have drubbed Biden for what they see as his bungling of the pullout (writing in The Atlantic, Packer declared it would “live in infamy”).
On Ukraine, the liberal hawks have been generally friendly toward the Biden administration, trying to prod it to take a more aggressive stance toward Russia. Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia in the Obama administration, said: “I don’t want to telegraph to Putin ahead of time what we want to do, especially because we know he’s capable of practically anything and we are trying to deter him from further horrific action, from cutting off future options for Ukraine, assistance to Ukraine or our defense of NATO.”
Others are pushing for what would amount to regime change in Moscow itself. The former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in a tweet he ended up deleting, stated: “There are no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians anymore. Everyone has to make a choice—support or oppose this war. The only way to end this war is if 100,000s, not thousands, protest against this senseless war. Putin can’t arrest you all!” Another sign of the reflexive, seemingly unconscious return to cold war thinking came in a recent comment on WNYC’s On the Media show by the Yale scholar Jason Stanley, who, in making a historical comparison, said, “the Soviet Union is now invading Ukraine.” A minor but telling slip.
If Democrats are debating the proper course to adopt toward Putin’s imperial ambitions, though, a much more consequential rift is opening up in the GOP. For the first time in a long while, Republican hawks are starting to feel ascendant. They are adopting a hard-line stance on Ukraine policy, which includes their backing for a no-fly zone. “Failing to do so in fear of Putin simply empowers Putin even more,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, who serves on the January 6 commission, said this past Sunday. “Now’s the time to put a stop to him and his barbaric brutality.”
Then there is Senator Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, who delivered a scathing speech on Monday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. His message could not have been clearer: Ukraine is Afghanistan all over again. Putin, he said, “wagered that if the American president wouldn’t stand up to a depraved gang of seventh-century savages in Afghanistan, there was no way he would stand up to Russia. After all, Joe Biden had signaled weakness, conciliation, and appeasement to Putin from the very beginning.” As with many hawks in the GOP, his mission was to obfuscate Trump’s habitual toadying toward Putin by diverting attention to Biden’s putative pusillanimity in the face of Russian aggression.
Still, the rifts in the GOP won’t be easily overcome. The party has become a carnival of self-loathing. John Bolton has dismissed the notion floated by Trump defenders that Putin was too frightened to attack Ukraine while he was in office as so much rodomontade. Rather, Bolton maintained, Putin was simply waiting, like a vulture circling his prey, for Trump to withdraw from NATO in his second term. Meanwhile, the America First camp punched back when North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn told a group of supporters, “Zelensky is a thug. Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.” Tucker Carlson this week decried “little Lindsey Graham” for acting out “war fantasies,” and claimed that by recklessly aiding Ukraine “we are at war with Russia.” His ilk was in Cheney’s sights this past weekend when she sent out a tweet decrying the “Putin wing of the GOP,” even if her specific target was Douglas Macgregor, a retired US Army colonel whose appearances on Fox News are often excerpted on Russian state television. On Fox Business, Macgregor stated that the Russian army had been “too gentle” at the outset of its invasion of Ukraine and that, far from being heroic, Zelensky was “delusional” and a “puppet”—a description that precisely echoes Russian propaganda.
In July 2020, Trump nominated Macgregor to become his ambassador to Germany. After his hearing process stalled in the Senate, Trump appointed him instead as a senior adviser to the Pentagon in November, a move that prompted Bolton to observe “it’s a shock” that he’s “on any government payroll.” When I spoke recently with Macgregor, he recounted that during a White House meeting with Trump toward the end of his presidency, he’d said, of the Washington foreign policy establishment, “I hate them all.” Trump responded, “So do I.”
But the odium that Putin has incurred worldwide in committing war crimes in Ukraine has distinctly put Trump, who lavished praise on the Russian autocrat as a “genius,” on the defensive. Already, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser Robert O’Brien, and Cotton, among others, are vying with one another to ally hawkishness with realism: to display their zeal for tough words backed by American hard power—but only with deeds that truly appear to support vital national interests. These efforts are raising eyebrows among traditional GOP realists who argue that the correlation of forces, to use the old Soviet term, is on their side.
“Given the return of conservative restraint, which harkens back to an older persuasion on the right, you’re likely to see more establishment candidates attempt to pour neoconservative wine into the realist bottle,” observed William Ruger, president of the libertarian American Institute for Economic Research, who was nominated to be ambassador to Afghanistan at the tail end of the Trump administration. “But this will be much more challenging than it would have been in years past because of the rise of a realist counter-establishment in Washington itself. What’s more, the base isn’t buying the arguments as easily and without skepticism.” Whether or not the hawks will be able to close the sale in time for the 2024 election cycle, then, is an open question.
For its part, the Biden administration appears to be ignoring them. It’s avoiding, as far as possible, any moves that might transform the Ukraine conflict with Russia into a cataclysmic nuclear one. It has refused to authorize either a no-fly zone or the transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine, while pummeling Moscow with economic sanctions and preparing Kyiv for a protracted guerrilla war. But Biden’s critics remain intent on depicting his innate caution as tantamount to appeasement by any other name. On issues ranging from Taiwan to Tehran, they are likely to seize on Putin’s savagery in Ukraine to try to expand their offensive. Writing in The Washington Post last week, for example, the hawkish columnist Josh Rogin declared that any idea Biden officials may harbor of “working with China against Russia is equally naive. We can’t split the Russia-China team, so we will just have to work harder to stop them both.”
The battle over US foreign policy isn’t over. It may be just getting started.