Poor Eliot Cohen: one of the principal architects of the Iraq war, and chief ideologue of Bushism in foreign policy – remember the “freedom agenda”? – he’s miffed that “This campaign shows that the foreign policy consensus that has framed this country’s work overseas since 1950 is in peril.” His ire is directed at Donald Trump, but he’s more than a little annoyed at the left-wing of the Democratic party, which is also showing signs of messing around with the Sacred Consensus. How dare these miscreants challenge a “consensus” that brought us a whole series of outright military defeats, from Vietnam to the Iraq war, and cost us tens of thousands of lost lives and an incalculable amount in dollars! Egghead “intellectuals” like Robert McNamara and Cohen know a lot more about foreign policy than the denizens of flyover country, such as one Merle Haggard, who advised us in one of his ditties:
“Let’s get out of Iraq and get back on track And let’s rebuild America first.”
Of course, Haggard didn’t know that – as Cohen helpfully points out – he was invoking a “notorious movement” that “included not only traditional isolationists but also Nazi sympathizers.” It’s a good thing we have Cohen around to set us straight: otherwise, we might all be turning into little Hitlers when we think we’re just opposing yet another chickenhawk-inspired war.
More seriously, Cohen’s vaunted “consensus” is an illusion. No one asked the American people if they wanted to be the world’s policeman. What Cohen means is that all the Serious People in the Washington Beltway, and the concrete canyons of New York City, agree that other peoples’ sons and daughters ought to be sent abroad to fight foreign wars in which America’s real interests are tenuous if not nonexistent. Outside of that circumscribed world, the “consensus” breaks down.
The politics of American foreign policy are governed by the tides of partisan warfare, the ebb and flow of the eternal struggle between “left” and “right.” Which means that every decade or so, the political spectrum switches polarities: witness the transformation of the “isolationist” Old Right of the 1940s into the warmongering conservative movement of the cold war era. A similar case of role reversal occurred on the left in the 1990s, when the previously “antiwar” liberal wing of the Democratic party allied with the usual neoconservative suspects to bring us the US invasion of the Balkans – and it was conservative Republicans in Congress who threatened to withdraw funding from Bill Clinton’s conquest of Kosovo.
This news caught neocon grand strategist Bill Kristol vowing to walk out of the GOP if it succumbed to “isolationism”: for some reason, the end of the cold war did not possess most conservatives with the urge to “crush Serb skills,” as Kristol so memorably put it in the Weekly Standard.
9/11 derailed the developing anti-interventionist consensus on the right, no doubt about it, but the Republican ascendancy also played a role: with George W. Bush in the White House, and in the tender care of his neoconservative duennas, the stage was set for a solid decade of war.
Now that the partisan pendulum has swung the other way, however, and the Democrats control the foreign policy dashboard in the Oval Office, the anti-interventionist instinct encoded in the DNA of every authentic conservative is reasserting itself.