“There’s a tremendous growth of self-government among the Kurds, and you can’t make a child grow smaller,” Christopher Hitchens told Hugh Hewitt in 2007, in his characteristically self-assured fashion. Reflecting on his career as a polemicist, Hitchens also once said: “The cause of self-determination for Kurdistan was high on the list of principles and priorities.”
Hitchens died eight years ago this December, but that hasn’t stopped people from wondering what he would thought about Trump. Surely, the thinking goes, the verbose and urbane Hitchens would have rejected vulgarian populism. Surely, the thinking also goes, the professional contrarian couldn’t have resisted the great political arsonist of our young century.
Here’s something for sure: Hitchens would have fumed at the latest moves out of the White House, a slapdash but justified retreat in Syria that saw Kurdish partners of Washington pelting U.S. convoys with rotten vegetables. It’s striking that perhaps no move made by President Trump in his three years in office has engendered more opprobrium in official Washington, with a supermajority rebuke in the House last week the latest evidence of how steep a climb it will be for the president to do something, anything, to recalibrate America in the Middle East.
The neoconservatives and their allies are now smelling blood. The Trump-era trajectory of the ideologues who ruled under George W. Bush is complicated. Some neocons, such as writers Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum and William Kristol, have flown the coop, effectively or explicitly abandoning the Republican Party. Other neocons have thrived, serving in the Trump administration while the 45th president pursues the hawkish line on Iran that the 43th president actually flinched from. If populist-nationalism could be discredited in the process, that is is just the cherry on top.
In Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, Trump inadvertently credentialed a major, conservative successor who would be broadly hostile to his legacy. And by feuding so openly with Senator Mitt Romney, Trump has in some ways done what he says Barack Obama did for Joe Biden, now a leading Democratic candidate for president—that is, rescuing Mitt from the political ”trash heap” Neocons and their fellow travelers who have grown more weary of POTUS in recent weeks, such as the influential Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, would doubtless welcome a primary challenge by the 2012 Republican nominee against the 2016 standard-bearer.
At the very least, the thinking goes, a serious, finger-wagging challenge from the establishment Right would snap Trump back to the model of 2017 and 2018: more airstrikes against Bashar Assad’s Syria, less Iran “can do what they want…frankly” in Syria. More presidential stiff arms, rhetorical, financial and otherwise, toward a regime in Tehran that has overseen a “long reign of chaos and terror,” as Trump emphasized in spring 2018, but less campaign-style lamentations about “endless wars” from the arriviste in the Oval. As neocon-friendly journalist Eli Lake argued earlier this month, Trump with his sea legs is poised to preside over an “American unexceptionalism” and “chose” chaos and collapse.
But a more tender open wound has been supplied: impeachment. It’s rarely stated so openly, but for the president’s leading Democratic and neocon critics, Trump’s dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are a feature, not a bug. The incident that has landed him in the hottest waters yet, his bullying of the Ukranian president, ex-comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, is merely part and parcel of a broader tendency. His critics wail that Trump is a would-be strongman who prefers to deal with strongmen and treat small-d democrats as chumps. Abandoning the Kurds because of a clubby relationship with Erdogan, in whose country he may build Trump Towers after he leaves office, is just the coup de grace.
Perhaps the most serious obstacle for Trump’s Syria course is that it appears to have seriously ruptured the conservative consensus of Trump’s first years in Washington, an understanding that make the great hijacker of the Republican Party at least tolerable to his fellow partisans. In particular, Trump’s foreign policy has been called “Jacksonian,” in opposition to the crusading democracy promotion of the neocons, yes, but still open to bellicose action overseas.
“Jacksonianism” is a perspective most commonly associated with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the uberhawk former national security advisor John Bolton and the leading foreign policy columnist of the Trump era, The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russel Mead. Mead backed the Syria withdrawal, writing: “The U.S. may be the most powerful actor in the region, but it can’t resolve the economic and social conflicts that destabilize the Middle East.” But outside Mead, the bench is thin for the chastened neocons that once served as Trump’s rump. Senator Ted Cruz, a johnny-come-lately “realist,” joined a senatorial pile-on with Romney, Trump’s intermitted ally Senator Lindsey Graham, and the so-called “heir to Trumpism,” Senator Tom Cotton.
Trump’s future—and fate—may lie, instead, with the “Jeffersonians” Mead once insisted, with dubious elaboration, that Trump was not. In Meadian terminology, disciples of the third president are those who realists “more inward-looking, less globally engaged U.S.” That churlish characterization aside, Mead wrote last fall that Trump had broadly disappointed this contingent. If he had, he is no longer. In the president’s ear: Senator Rand Paul, Congressman Matt Gaetz, the Fox host Tucker Carlson, and the billionaire kingmaker Peter Thiel, all of whom favor a less counterproductive footprint abroad.
But if Trump is going to succeed in turning the page on a tragic era in American foreign policy, as he appears newly interested in doing late into his third year of office, he’ll have to do more than lament this situation. Trump has already seized the commanding heights; he is the president of the United States. If he wants to end the era of endless wars, he’ll have to also take the countryside—that is, the bureaucracy and his own staff. Less complaints about the “deep state,” more remaking the state, lest politics be recaptured by the neocons.
Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.