Last year I arrived early for a lunch address by Gen. Michael Hayden, who ran the National Security Agency and later the Central Intelligence Agency in the George W. Bush administration. Hayden was already there, and glad to chat. The conversation turned to Egypt, and I asked Hayden why the Republican mainstream had embraced the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the military government of President al-Sisi, an American-trained soldier who espoused a reformed Islam that would repudiate terrorism. “We were sorry that [Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed] Morsi was overthrown” in July 2013, Hayden explained. “We wanted to see what would happen when the Muslim Brotherhood had to take responsibility for picking up the garbage.”
“General,” I remonstrated, “when Morsi was overthrown, Egypt had three weeks of wheat supplies on hand. The country was on the brink of starvation!”
“I guess that experiment would have been tough on the ordinary Egyptian,” Hayden replied, without a hint of irony. As Tommy Lee Jones said in “Men in Black,” Gen. Hayden has no sense of humor that he’s aware of. He repeated the same point verbatim a few minutes later in his speech: It was a shame that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt was overthrown, by acclaim of the majority of Egypt’s adult population, which had taken to the streets as the country careened towards ruin. Hayden, like Sen. John McCain, the Weekly Standard, and the majority of the Republican foreign policy establishment, believes that America should try to foster a democratic version of political Islam. It lionized Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Washington, nurtured Turkey’s dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and armed “moderate Islamists” in Syria as a supposed democratic alternative to the Assad regime. Hayden’s specialty was signal intelligence, and by all accounts he was good at his job. He is clueless about foreign policy.
Gen. Hayden was perhaps the most prominent signator of a letter from fifty former national security officials who served in Republican administrations, declaring that Donald Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” required of a president and, if elected, “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”
Trump responded, “The names on this letter are the ones the American people should look to for answers on why the world is a mess, and we thank them for coming forward so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place.” That is exactly correct. He might have added that they are incapable of learning from their mistakes and doomed to repeat them if given the opportunity.
The Republican Establishment believed with fervor in the Arab Spring. Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol went as far as to compare the abortive rebellions fo the American founding. It backed the overthrow and assassination of Libya’s dictator Muamar Qaddafi, which turned a nasty but stable country into a Petri dish for terrorism. It believed that majority rule in Iraq would lead to a stable, pro-American government in that Frankenstein monster of a country patched together with body parts taken from the corpse of the Ottoman empire. Instead, it got a sectarian Shi’ite regime aligned to Iran and a Sunni rebellion stretching from Mesopotamia to the Lebanon led by ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Trump is vulgar, ill-informed and poorly spoken. He has no foreign policy credentials and a disturbing inclination to give credit to Russia’s Vladimir Putin where it isn’t due. But he has one thing that the fifty former officials lack, and that is healthy common sense. That is what propelled him to the Republican nomination. The American people took note that the “experiment” of which Gen. Hayden spoke so admiringly was tough not only on the ordinary Egyptian, but on the ordinary American as well. Americans are willing to fight and die for their country, but revolt against sacrifices on behalf of social experiments devised by a self-appointed elite. That is why the only two candidates in the Republican primaries who made it past the starting gate repudiated the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Common sense, to be sure, isn’t enough. Trump can’t swap spit with Vladimir Putin and let the witches’ kettle of the Middle East boil along by itself without dire consequences. As Bret Stephens complained Aug. 8 in the Wall Street Journal, some of Trump’s loudest supporters make a motley virtue of their ignorance. “There was a time when the conservative movement was led by the likes of Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol and Bob Bartley, men of ideas who invested the Republican Party with intellectual seriousness,” Stephens wrote. I knew the late Irving Kristol, who trained and promoted most of the cadre who ran the first Reagan Administration, and Robert Bartley, the late editor of the Wall Street Journal — brilliant men from whom I learned a great deal, some of which I had to unlearn afterwards.
But the Republican Establishment today is guided not by the likes of Irving Kristol, but by his epigonoi. His son Bill Kristol has never published a single essay of intellectual significance, and the same is true of Commentary Magazine editor John Podhoretz, son of the estimable Norman Podhoretz. To be a “neo-conservative” in the 1970s in the mold of Irving Kristol and former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz meant to repudiate the leftist views of one’s youth and make the leap to the Reagan camp. The original neo-conservatives knew how wrong they had been in their youth, and re-learned their politics after forty. Unlike their forbears, today’s neo-cons never have had a self-critical moment. Today’s guardians of the sacred flame of the sacred conservative flame are to the manure born.
The choice, sadly, lies between an unlearned interloper with common sense and an Establishment whose policy response is predictable as the emergence of a gumball from a supermarket machine after a quarter is cranked in. They are mediocre ideologues incapable of learning from past failures, clinging to their careers because they are unsuited for honest work. Trump may not know much but he is capable of learning. That can’t be said for his detractors.
“It isn’t just that the emperor has no clothes,” I wrote in a review of Angelo Codevilla’s brilliant 2014 book To Make and Keep Peace. “The empire has no tailors.” Three administrations of Bush father and son have produced a monotone Establishment of functional foreign policy morons. One can’t find many prominent national security officials to oppose the signators of the anti-Trump letter because a whole generation of functionaries has been bred from the same stable. America will have to learn foreign policy from scratch. For my money, I’ll take the rough-edged outsider over the recidivist failures.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.