Donald Trump’s election stunned the national-security establishment, which the precocious Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, once dubbed “the Blob.” In his campaign speeches, Trump mocked its “stupid” wars and “lousy” deals on trade, Iran, and the environment. He scorned it in his inaugural address: “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories.” His trumpeting of an “America First” policy, with its disgraced isolationist provenance, offended the Blob’s core beliefs.
Not surprisingly, the mandarins sounded the alarm. Rhodes even organized charter members of the Blob into National Security Action, an advocacy group designed to challenge Trump’s heresies. Opposing Trump, however, is cheap grace. The real question is what lessons the establishment has drawn from his rise. Is Trump a grotesque aberration, an accidental interloper whose removal—by impeachment or electoral defeat—will allow a return to normalcy? Or does his victory constitute a wake-up call, one that demands a fundamental reworking of US national-security policy?
Trump in the Back Alleys
American national-security policy over the last several decades can be viewed as having what the historian Alfred McCoy euphemistically described as a “delicate duality.” It has featured the creation of global institutions and a “rules-based” commercial system, represented by the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organization, among others. At the same time, the US has waged hard-knuckled, back-alley brawls involving constant interventions in other nations’ affairs: brutal proxy wars, the lawless toppling of governments, routine election interference, ruthless economic pressure, and more.
Trump, despite his rhetoric, is far from an America First isolationist. He has doubled down on the interventionist side of US foreign policy, escalating the “stupid” wars in Afghanistan and Syria, arming Ukraine, threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea, increasing the use of drone strikes, adding to the bloated military budget, and dropping more bombs on more people in more countries than before.
These early betrayals of his campaign promises were met with approval from much of the national-security establishment. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, joined the widespread applause for Trump’s “quick, limited air strike” on Syria, and virtually the entire Blob supported giving more money to the military. Leading Trump critics were gleeful that his stated desire to improve relations with Russia was thwarted, with many backing the decision to ship arms to Ukraine. Trump has ended up, as the neoconservative doyen Eliot Cohen wrote with relief, “a highly erratic, obnoxious version of the Republican normal.”