Stories about campaign policy advisors are normally ones of process, interesting only to those inside the beltway. This is truly the nitty-gritty of political analysis: delving into the resumes of the men and women behind the candidate, and trying to extrapolate broad worldviews or specific policy recommendations they might be whispering into candidates’ ears. In short, it’s normally pretty banal stuff to the average observer.
It says something about the GOP race for president, then, that the foreign policy teams of their presumptive nominee and current runner-up are making such a splash in the news cycle.
Last week, the Republican Party’s last unpleasant hope to stop presumptive nominee Donald J. Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, released an eclectic mix of foreign policy advisors. One the one hand, Cruz has poached traditional neoconservatives, including names like Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra indictment fame or Michael Leeden, Iraq and Iran war advocate extraordinaire. Yet on the other, he has courted some of the most extreme single-issue Islamophobes on the fringe of the right. Chief among these is of course Frank Gaffney, whose insane brand of Islamophobia includes believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the Oklahoma City bombing and warning against the infiltration of the American government (including the Republican Party) by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The curious range of folks on his team mirrors Cruz’s obfuscatory foreign policy stances. Cruz has branded himself against neoconservatives, frequently lumping primary opponent Sen. Marco Rubio in with the Obama-Clinton (read: NATO) intervention in Libya. Nonetheless, they now appear on the senator’s foreign policy team, perhaps drawn to his idle promises of “carpet bombing” ISIS. But Cruz is trying to have his cake and eat it too; while on the one hand seeking the endorsement of the Washington establishment he so loathes (and that so loathes him) via the neoconservatives, he’s also trying to hit Trump from the right flank by bringing in extremist charlatans like Gaffney.
Meanwhile, 181 days after promising radio host Hugh Hewitt he’d be announcing “something very soon” and that “so many great national security people, including generals” were clamoring to be by his side, Trump has released the names of five advisors. There is arguably little point in analyzing the individual members of Trump’s national security team, because they are not a means to an end (better policy) but an end in and of themselves: Red meat for the beltway press to devour, and a throwaway line (“See, he has advisors—and they aren’t political hacks, either!”) for his supporters to holler at anyone who will listen.
In the same editorial board meeting in which Trump unveiled this preliminary list of advisors, he also suggested that the United States should step back from NATO, of all things. Trump’s understanding of U.S. power projection around the world as a money drain—and his proposed solution of a tribute payment solution—reflects a childish understanding of geopolitics, but he’s been expressing it consistently and publicly since 1990. Advisors will not change that view, but instead adapt their own expertise to bolster it in some way. At the end of the day, Trump’s comment that his best foreign policy advisor is himself because he has “a very good brain and [has] said a lot of things” is all the statement that one needs to understand how he views the world.
Both candidates’ foreign policy teams, thus, say more about their character than their substance. For Cruz, it’s a flexible attempt to reconcile his current need for the establishment with his past brand of radicalism; for Trump, it’s a cultivation of low-level sycophants who will validate his own assumptions about the world until the establishment swallows its pride and comes around to do the same. Meanwhile, the troubling spaces where both men overlap on foreign policy—inhumane positions on torture and refugees, simplistic, bomb-based plans to defeat ISIL, and reckless preference for force over diplomacy—remain too little discussed and dissected.
Banking on lists of advisors to adjust rhyme, reason, or American values into the GOP foreign policy conversation is clearly a faint hope.
Graham F. West manages The Whistlestop (@thewhistle_stop), a platform for holding candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of national security and foreign policy throughout the 2016 cycle. Views expressed are his own.
Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump and rival candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R) cross paths during a break at the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, South Carolina January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane