By Kristina Wong at The Hill
The rise of Donald Trump is threatening the power of neoconservatives, who find themselves at risk of being marginalized in the Republican Party.
Neoconservatism was at its height during the presidency of George W. Bush, helping to shape the rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But now the ideology is under attack, with Trump systematically rejecting each of its core principles.
Whereas neoconservatism advocates spreading American ideals through the use of military force, Trump has made the case for nationalism and a smaller U.S. military footprint.
In what Trump calls an “America First” approach, he proposes rejecting alliances that don’t work, trade deals that don’t deliver, and military interventionism that costs too much.
He has said he would get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and sit down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — a throwback to the “realist” foreign policy of President Nixon.
As if to underscore that point, the presumptive GOP nominee met with Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, earlier this week, and delivered his first major foreign policy speech at an event last month hosted by the Center for National Interest, which Nixon founded.
Leading neoconservative figures like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan have assailed Trump’s foreign policy views. Kagan even called Trump a “fascist” in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
“This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him,” wrote Kagan, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Other neoconservatives say Trump’s foreign policy stances, such as his opposition to the Iraq war and the U.S. intervention in Libya, are inconsistent and represent “completely mindless” boasting.
“It’s not, ‘Oh I really feel that the neoconservatism has come to a bad end and we need to hearken back to the realism of the Nixon administration,’ ” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Do you see anybody who voted for Donald Trump saying that? Absolutely not,” she said. “I don’t think Donald Trump believes in anything but Donald Trump, and that’s why the right label for his movement is Trumpism — nothing else.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed, saying that to associate Trump to such a clear school of thought as realism “would be being a little bit generous.”
“[Neoconservatives] are concerned for good reason,” said O’Hanlon, a Democratic defense hawk “These people don’t think that Trump is prepared intellectually to be president.”
“It’s not just that their stance of foreign policy would be losing .. .all foreign policy schools would be losing influence under Trump with very unpredictable consequences,” he added.
Despite the opposition he faces in some corners of the GOP, polls indicate that Trump’s message is in line with the public mood.
A recent Pew poll found that nearly six in 10 Americans said the U.S. should “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can,” a more isolationist approach at odds with neoconservative thought.
John Mearsheimer, a preeminent scholar in realist theory, says there’s a parallel in history to the way America turned inward after the Vietnam War.
“There’s no question that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger went a considerable ways to pursue a less ambitious foreign policy, and they talked about allies doing more to help themselves, and they began to pursue detente with the Soviet Union.”
“And this was all a reaction to Vietnam. Vietnam of course was a colossal failure. The body politic here in the United States was deeply disenchanted with American foreign policy, especially in its most ambitious forms and the end result is we ended up backing off for awhile,” he said. “We have a similar situation here.”
Experts say the isolationist sentiment is prevalent in the Democratic Party as well.
“The [Bernie] Sanders supporters charge Hillary Clinton with never seeing a quagmire she did not wish to enter, and basically with not just complicity, but a leading role in contriving some of the worst disasters of American foreign policy in this century,” said Amb. Chas Freeman, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and a former Nixon and George H.W. Bush official.
“This is the principle reason that Hillary Clinton is having so much trouble putting Bernie Sanders away,” said Mearsheimer, who supports the Vermont senator. “Sanders is capitalizing on all that disenchantment in the public, and Hillary Clinton represents the old order.”
But the ideological battle over foreign policy is playing out more forcefully in the GOP.
While some members of the Republican foreign policy establishment are coming to terms with Trump becoming their party’s nominee, including lawmakers like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), neoconservatives remain staunch holdouts.
Some experts say neoconservatives are fighting hard because they have the most to lose.
“They’re losing influence inside the foreign policy establishment in general, and they have definitely lost influence inside the Republican party, which was their home base,” Mearsheimer said.
Some neoconservatives are even throwing in their lot with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, most prominently Kagan and Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
With Republican foreign policy figures split, influential Republican donors such as Charles and David Koch are trying to shape the GOP’s new direction.
The Charles Koch Institute recently launched a daylong conference that featured Mearsheimer and another prominent realist Stephen Walt that questioned U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
“This has meant the frequent use of force, a military budget the size of the next seven to eight countries combined, and an active policy of spreading American power and values,” said William Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute.
“After a quarter century of this approach, it’s time to ask: Has our foreign policy been working? Is it making America safe? Should we continue on this path? And if not, what do alternative approaches look like?”