Earlier this month, Susan Glasser, Politico’s chief international affairs columnist, interviewed Max Boot and Eliot A. Cohen for her weekly podcast, The Global Politico.
The result is an extended lamentation of sorts, with Boot and Cohen expressing the angst that now afflicts what used to be called the Republican foreign policy establishment. Yet the exchange, moderated by Glasser, also helps us understand why that establishment was blindsided by the Trump phenomenon. Even today, its members are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the voters who repudiated their views by casting ballots for Trump might have had cause to do so.
Prior to its implosion, Boot and Cohen had achieved measures of prominence in that establishment. Boot is a prolific journalist and has served as foreign policy advisor to Republican presidential candidates who invariably lose. Cohen, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University, is the author of several highly regarded books and was a high-ranking State Department official during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Glasser makes no effort to conceal her regard for her guests. In her introduction, she describes Boot as “fantastic” and Cohen as “great.” (Boot quickly insists that Cohen also merits the accolade “fantastic.”) Yet what really interests Glasser is that her guests represent, in her estimation, “the heart of the #NeverTrump foreign policy resistance.” Furthermore, they are no Johnny-come-latelies to the cause. They have resisted from the outset, their campaign dating back to the moment Trump entered the political arena, or, as Boot puts, it “from day one, when he rode down that damn escalator at the Trump Tower and started bashing Mexicans.”
Prodded by Glasser, Boot and Cohen heap obloquy on a president whom they describe as “incredibly erratic and unpredictable,” “blustery,” “terrifying” (twice), “reckless,” “appalling,” “ignorant,” and “dangerous.” Cohen decries Trump’s lack of character. His critique of Trump’s policies is sober, thoughtful, and relentless. By comparison, Boot comes across as slightly unhinged. Per Boot, Trump “kowtows to dictators and undermines American support for freedom and democracy around the world.” He engages in “the most blatant xenophobia, racism, and general bigotry that we have seen from the White House.” Although Boot fancies himself a historian, his grasp of America’s past is, to put it mildly, selective.
Stylistically, they differ: Cohen reasons; Boot hyperventilates. Yet substantively, they are on the same page.
I happen to admire Cohen as an analyst, writer, and thoroughgoing patriot, even when I disagree with his specific prescriptions for policy. As for Boot, to my mind, his ranking among members of the commentariat qualifies as something of a mystery. Even so, I confess to envying (even while finding inexplicable) his ability to publish in all the toniest outlets and to get himself on TV.
Yet when it comes to their finding Trump unfit for office, all I can say is #MeToo. I am in complete agreement.
Where I part company from Boot and Cohen is in understanding how we managed to find ourselves in our present fix. Why did so many of our fellow citizens vote for Trump in the first place? On this point, in their exchange with Glasser at least, Boot and Cohen, both self-described conservatives, settle for the sort of explanation you might expect from confirmed lefties: pervasive bigotry within the rank-and-file of the Republican Party. As Boot puts it, “There is a lot of prejudice, racism, homophobia, all sorts of dark impulses out there.”
True enough. Yet Boot and Cohen specialize not in dark impulses, but in America’s role in the world. Could popular unhappiness with the recent course of U.S. foreign policy have contributed to Trump becoming president? The possibility is one they seem unwilling to consider.
At one point, Glasser gently (or perhaps mischievously) tries to steer the discussion toward “the war in Iraq that you both supported” and that Trump claims (falsely) to have opposed. Might Iraq and its sequelae have had something to do with Trump’s amazing ascent? Boot and Cohen refuse to take the bait. Iraq should be the subject of a “separate podcast,” Cohen insists.
Mark that down as a missed opportunity.
While no single factor explains why Trump won the presidency, it would surely be a mistake to exclude foreign policy. To put it another way, along with whatever dark impulses the masses may harbor, the hubris to which foreign policy elites succumbed after the Cold War played a not-insignificant role. The 2003 invasion of Iraq represents the ultimate expression of that hubris.
Those who called for invading Iraq erred on at least five counts. They misconstrued U.S. security interests while completely disregarding the interests of other nations. They credited those charged with formulating and implementing basic U.S. policy with undeserved competence. They overestimated the efficacy of American military power. They wildly underestimated costs. And they failed utterly to anticipate the second- and third-order consequences.
Note, however: If those errors were on particularly vivid display in Iraq, they were by no means confined to Iraq. Indeed, they constitute the through-line of U.S. policy throughout the period from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump.
What accounts for their pervasiveness? I submit that members of the foreign policy elite, Democrats as well as Republicans, radically misread the implications of the Cold War’s end—all the nonsense about a “sole superpower” exercising “global leadership” as history’s “indispensable nation.”
It didn’t require dark impulses to persuade Americans in 2016 to disregard would-be presidents given to reciting such shibboleths. All they had to do was to inventory the number of ongoing and unsuccessful military campaigns of the past quarter-century.
We need the likes of Eliot Cohen and (even) Max Boot to help in identifying an approach to statecraft that is more realistic, more modest, and more effective—and that might offer an escape from permanent war. Yet a necessary first step will be to shed the delusions to which the end of the Cold War gave birth. And that’s not easily done.
Put yourself in poor Boot’s boots. Trump’s election, he tells Glasser, “has really shaken me to the core.” “Every day I wake up,” he sputters, “and I’m outraged by something that Trump has done.” Boot once “believed in that Reaganesque vision of America as a city on a shining hill” and he wants to do so again. It’s asking a lot for him to admit that it’s always been a crock of bull.
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.