How GOP Base and Establishment Differ on Foreign Policy

Donald TrumpJonathan Chait wrote an interesting article at some point last week, Terrorism in the Age of Trump. I want to reflect on something that he mentioned in the article that I’ve found bizarre: the conservative establishment’s belief that the terrorist attacks in Paris would cause Republican base voters to turn away from Trump and toward “reasonable” candidates like Marco Rubio. Who would think such nonsense? Why would the base run from Trump? How is Trump unfit to address ISIS compared to other Republican candidates?

The whole basis of Republican thinking on foreign affairs is that we just have to be “tough” and be willing to do “whatever it takes” and then all will be well. I’ve been amazed by this kind of thinking my whole life. There are still people who think that we would have won the Vietnam War if only we had nuked the North Vietnamese back to the stone age. According to this way of looking at things, the only reason we don’t have clear victories like World War II anymore is because we don’t have the political will to destroy an entire country.

Marco RubioSuch people have not read their Carl von Clausewitz. They seem to think that the idea of war is to “win” — that we aren’t trying to do something else. Given this ridiculous way of thinking, we could beat ISIS by dropping about a thousand nuclear bombs on Iraq and Syria. But what would we have “won”? Would it make terrorist attacks like those on Paris less likely? Hardly. It would make them more likely because the only remaining front would be on the streets of Europe and America.

This is the way that the Republican base thinks about war. In general, they don’t think that any country (other than Israel) has an equal claim to existence to our own. And this is an idea that the Republican establishment has pushed for decades. This is the basis for Europe bashing. Liberals are horrible because they think that America might have something to learn from Europe. This is a sign of weakness. So of course the party base would think that being strong (that is: belligerent) is all that matters in a president.

I go back again and again to the 2004 interviews with James Hackett, where his big compliment was that Bush went to war in Afghanistan and he was certain that Gore would have treated the attacks on 9/11 as a police matter. Well, I always thought that was a stupid claim; Gore would have gone to war. But the point was that what was really important was to look tough. The right thing to do was not what would work best, but what would give Dr Hackett that conservative thrill that America was being “decisive” and “strong.”

But what’s most amazing is that Trump’s ideas on how to fight ISIS are no different than anyone else running for the Republican nomination. What’s more, we do have the example of George W Bush. He did, at best, a mediocre job in Afghanistan. Then he changed focus and went to war with Iraq. How would Trump be worse than that? At least if he took us to war in Iraq and Syria, I don’t see him losing interest and going to war in Argentina because they wouldn’t let him build a hotel or something.

The thinking of the Republican base is all messed up. But it is at least coherent. It is the establishment’s thinking that is incoherent. They want the same kind of foreign policy that the base wants: unthinking belligerence. But they want the slightest difference in rhetoric — or something. It makes no sense.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

11 thoughts on “How GOP Base and Establishment Differ on Foreign Policy

  1. We had clear victories in Germany and Japan because of the willingness of the Russians to really do what it took to completely dismantle Berlin and the surprising effectiveness of the nuclear bomb in stopping the Japanese War Council who were split on the issue of surrendering before they heard about Nagasaki. There also was clear victories because the wars were classic wars-you knew who the enemy was on both sides and there was no melting away into the populace because the soldiers were not trained to do that.

    Not sure which is worse-the base who don’t know any history but were raised on the right wing movies like everything Stallone and Schwarzenegger starred in the eighties on down to the explosion filled Bay/Bruckheimer films of the current era so think that all war is just pretty explosions never mind the vast number of people hurt physically, emotionally and property wise. Or the establishment, who should know better but refuse to.

    • Have to disagree with you on this. Japan was well ready to surrender before we nuked them. We insisted on detonating the nukes first, for debatable reasons. The reason I accept as most likely is that we were showing Russia who had the biggest toys. But there was a lot of other stuff going on.

      The “pretty explosions” line, I can’t agree enough. Somehow patriotism has gotten mingled with callous cruelty. Giving a modicum of shit about other people is now cowardly PC. It’s amazing.

      “Forget it, TT posters, it’s Chinatown.”

      • It was the nature of the surrender-we wanted unconditional and they didn’t. Truman was a former soldier. He knew exactly what it was going to mean when he ordered their use. And was fully prepared to invade the mainland if it hadn’t worked.

        It was not to show our capabilities at that point, the cold war hadn’t started yet remember? Russia was then our ally.

        • Actually, the cold war started to gear up just before the war ended. The communists who had helped the French allies were being frozen out of the post-war French government before the last German left.

        • You’re much kinder than I to Truman. As I see it, the other reason for using the Bombs was — shit, why not? We built ’em. Let’s test ’em.

          In interviews he gave during subsequent decades, Truman kept upping the fantasy casualty numbers of a ground invasion he probably knew would never have happened. Every time he defended the bombs, all the soldiers’ lives it saved got bigger and bigger.

          Russia had also declared war on Japan at that point, and was busily taking over strategic territory in Manchuria and some Pacific islands. Japan would have surrendered the minute we asked. We wanted to try out our toys first. Or send a message. Or both.

          Saving the lives of US soldiers was a post-facto excuse. The war was already won by our carpet-bombings of Japanese cities, where we used bombs specifically intended to set fires to wood houses. Those bombs worked, creating firestorms so intense that Robert McNamara, one of the strategy gurus involved and later SecDef during our Vietnam war, has admitted that our firebombing of Japan was a war crime.

          As Dave L. points out, the Cold War started before WWII ended. We’d just let Russia win a war for us, and in the process take over Eastern Europe (which, having been invaded several times in recent centuries, Russia was reasonably justified in taking over.) We’d help support an anti-Communist junta in Greece within the next year. The Cold War was on, baby! Let’s go America! Kick some ass!

          What’s debatable is when America shifted from a democratic republic to an empire. I think one can put the start date right at the beginning when we began genocide and slavery (aka, we were awful right from the start.) Others have decided our invasion of the Philippines was a turning point (Mark Twain, at the time, suggested we replace our flag with a skull and crossbones.) Dropping the atomic bombs would be the latest possible moment where we turned into an evil empire. If we weren’t to begin with.

          Now here’s a terrific thing.

          (I’m serious: this is a terrific thing.)

          The Marlboro Man, and images like that, were inspired by a painter named Frederic Remington. He did paintings of noble cowboys triumphing through toil. He made conquest of the West seem pretty, instead of genocide-y.

          So Remington was hired by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher and Murdoch of his day, to provide noble paintings of US soldiers fighting off the Spanish menace in Cuba.

          Except there was no Spanish menace.

          Supposedly, Remington telegraphed Hearst that no such menace existed. And Hearst supposedly responded “you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

          It’s a famous line. A version of it was given to the character Charles Foster Kane in the movie “Citizen Kane.”

          Here’s the fascinating bit — maybe that line never happened.

          In this analysis it probably never did:

          Accurate? Wrong? Hard to say. Interesting regardless. Stuff like this is great. History is actually terrific and cool. Once you dump all the shit history books.

          • I am probably kinder to Truman because I have thought long and hard about what it means to be in his position. And I agree with his decision. War is awful. It is terribly wasteful, inefficient and mostly useless. But when you are in the position of having to decide between your people and theirs? I come down on the side of making it impossible for them to ever hurt mine again.

            So yes, I agree with the decision to stop it completely in the most finite way possible. Not even going to point out all of the atrocities Japan did, because those are excuses.

            Being President means making horrible choices at times. You can, with 20/20 hindsight, say we were wrong to even have a base in Hawai’i or to declare war after Pearl Harbor or to have kept our people in the Philippines where it lead to the Bataan march after the surrender of our troops. Or that Truman never should have kept up the firebombing or to use the nukes. But if you are in office, like he was, you have to make hard choices based on the information you have at the time.

            I have not had to make that difficult a choice but I have had to, as an office holder, make a choice in how to deal with something despite hating what had to be done. And do so without an expression on my face to show how I really felt.

            So we will have to disagree on if he should have. But we still agree war is almost always wrong.

              • Neither of us knows what the other has studied. Even then we can read the same history and come to opposite conclusions. That is why I left the details out and focused on what it means to be in the position to have to decide.

  2. I agree with James on this. I think Truman understood that the Soviets were not going to remain our allies for very long. They wanted a piece of the Japanese pie. Truman fired a shot across the Soviet’s bow with the A-Bombs.

    • Certainly the nuclear bombs were more about the Soviet Union than anything. But the fact of the matter was that we had made two of them and we were going to use them both. There was never any question of that. But the bomb didn’t end the war. And all that stuff about a hundred thousand troops lost in a Japanese invasion was nothing but justification.

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