After decades of spending trillions of dollars on fruitless wars, Americans are getting frustrated with the Middle East. Even when dramatic attacks happen, Americans are throwing up their hands. To take one example, after Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities last fall, a Business Insider poll found that only 13 percent of Americans surveyed supported any kind of U.S. military response. Almost twice as many responded that “the US should remove itself entirely from the affairs of the region and let Saudi Arabia handle the issue itself.”

The withdrawal advocates are right. The foggy theories underpinning U.S. strategy in the region are wrong. Not only would leaving help keep the United States out of more costly wars in the region, but rolling up U.S. Central Command would save on the order of $65 – 70 billion per year in peacetime. That’s real money.

In a new paper, I argue that three main concerns underpin U.S. policy in the Middle East: oil, Israel, and terrorism. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, echoing those of the Obama and Bush administrations, says that the United States “seeks a Middle East that is not a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to a stable global energy market.”

To evaluate U.S. strategy, then, one has to consider how likely something bad happening with respect to oil, Israel, or terrorism would be if the United States weren’t in the region. Put differently, would the costs of leaving exceed the costs of staying?


To start with the oldest and most central justification for U.S. policy in the region, policymakers believe that U.S. troops prevent regional wars or other types of instability that threaten the ability of oil producers to get their product onto world energy markets. So, the U.S. presence in the region is thought to prevent price volatility, which could potentially hamper U.S. economic growth and warfighting capability, and produce second- and third-order effects that could send the global economy into a tailspin. They also believe that U.S. troops help prevent one country from controlling so much oil production capacity that it could use its control of oil markets to extort the United States and other consumers.

Of course, while scholars tend to ascribe U.S. interest in the region to oil, American political elites rarely say so out loud. Some of them may not even believe it. But the assumptions behind longstanding policies often escape scrutiny. The larger problem with these witchy beliefs — what Robert Vitalis calls Oilcraft — is that energy markets do not work the way U.S. foreign policymakers seem to believe that they do. As a leading oil economist lamented in 2004, “U.S. oil policies are based on fantasies not facts.”

Beginning in the 1970s, policymakers began to fear an “oil weapon” that could be used by oil-producing states to hobble the American economy in pursuit of political objectives. And if this weapon could be used on purpose, wars could also set it off inadvertently. Leading scholars at the time thought that most of the fluctuation in oil prices was caused by political volatility, not supply and demand. (Later research would show that long-term shifts in supply and demand were the real culprit.)

Oil is a fungible commodity sold on world markets. A metaphor used in the literature on oil markets is that of a bathtub into which producers pour oil and out of which consumers suck by opening a drain. What matters is how much is pouring in, how many drains are in the bathtub, and how open they are.

Countries in the Middle East make up roughly 30 percent of the world supply of oil and other liquid fuels, and that’s a big deal. If they pour more or less oil into the bathtub, that affects world prices. For this reason, two energy scholars suggested in 2013 that “what Americans import from the Persian Gulf is not so much the actual black liquid as its price.”

It was easy for politicians in the 1970s to blame the Arab oil embargo for the ensuing pandemonium in the U.S. economy, but it was also incorrect. As Henry Kissinger would later admit in Years of Upheaval — using the passive voice three times —

The structure of the oil market was so little understood that the embargo became the principal focus of concern. Lifting it turned almost into an obsession for the next five months. In fact, the Arab embargo was a symbolic gesture of limited practical importance.

Although the embargo did not cause the gas lines of the 1970s, at times U.S. policy in the region has itself contributed to oil price shocks. The 2011 regime change in Libya, tensions with Iran in 2012, and other recent U.S. policy initiatives have temporarily increased the price and volatility of oil.

In the modern era, it’s not even clear that upward oil price shocks are necessarily an economic calamity. Such shocks today would be substantially less economically damaging than those of the 1970s due to the declining economic burden of energy costs in countries like the United States. If prices rose suddenly, existing public and private reserves could help mitigate its effects.

Policymakers also worry that if one state could dominate the entire region, it would possess so much influence over world supply that it could act like a market-maker in oil. That might warrant a military effort, but so would an alien invasion.

No Middle Eastern country has a shot at regional hegemony. The state Americans are mostly supposed to worry about is Iran, but the country is in shambles today and would have no play at regional hegemony even if one assumes away “maximum pressure.” As one study of the military balance in the Gulf puts it, “Iran’s land forces are shaped largely for defense in depth and seem to have limited long-range maneuver capability and uncertain survivability in the face of Arab Gulf and allied airpower.” This is not an offensive military power poised for conquest. While reasonable people disagree about the implications of an Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz, even pessimists concede that Iran would have to suffer “catastrophic” attacks to drive it to do something as dramatic as making an effort to close the Strait.

Alternatively, one might worry that if the United States left, China or Russia could swoop in and pick up where the Americans left off. A cynical Machiavellian would encourage them to do so. Better Beijing or Moscow squandering money, attention, and military power attempting to run the Middle East than the United States.

U.S. troops in the Middle East do not stabilize the price of oil. No state is poised to consolidate control over the region’s oil. Nothing about oil justifies an American military presence in the Middle East.


One also hears concerns regarding the safety and power position of American partners in the region, especially Israel. For example, President Donald Trump recently claimed, “we don’t have to be in the Middle East, other than we want to protect Israel.”

Here again, how Israel’s security turns on a robust American military posture in the region is unclear. Since the Israel Defense Forces shellacked the Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has aggressively pursued its interests throughout the region with relative impunity, at least from conventional responses. Terrorism is an important problem for Israel, but the danger is not existential and would decrease with progress toward a settlement with the Palestinians. Regardless, a forward U.S. military presence in the region does nothing to help the Jewish state with its terrorism problem.

Israel enjoys an enormous qualitative military edge over any combination of potential regional rivals in conventional military terms. It also has at least 90 nuclear weapons deployed on an array of platforms, including submarines, that give it a secure second-strike capability against any state in the region that might threaten its survival. Moreover, the maelstrom of sectarian conflict that the past two decades of U.S. policy in the region helped unleash harms, rather than benefits, Israel.


Finally, there is terrorism. But since the basic contours of American policy in the region predate 9/11 by decades, it is strange to think that a concern that emerged after a policy began justifies the policy. Put bluntly, there is no evidence that terrorism is a threat that warrants an American effort to manage the Middle East militarily. The chance of an American being killed by terrorism outside a war zone from 1970 to 2012 was roughly one in 4,000,000. This is an extraordinarily low risk. As early as 2002, smart risk analysts were asking questions about counter-terrorism policy such as, “How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

Nearly 20 years later, we ought to be prepared to say, “Nowhere near this much.” The amount Americans pay now to fight Islamist terrorism — conservatively, somewhere between $50 and $100 billion per year, depending on how one counts — is absurdly divorced from the risk it poses. If someone ran a hedge fund assessing risk the way the U.S. government has responded to terrorism, it would not be long for the world. Moreover, it is difficult to identify how U.S. policy across the region — with the possible exception of some drone strikes and special operations raids — have reduced the extremely low probability of another major terrorist attack against the United States. If anything, U.S. policies may have made one more likely.

Good Money After Bad

Almost all of what the United States seeks from the Middle East — supplies of oil, limits on the terrorist threat, an Israel capable of defending itself — regional countries need more than the United States does. Without selling their oil, countries in the region would suffer terribly. Allowing one country to grow big enough to dominate the region would invite war and even state death. And although most terrorist organizations affect countries in the region far more than the United States, Washington can credibly threaten severe punishment against any state aiding anti-U.S. terrorists.

If the past 20 years have proven anything, it is that the United States does not have the answers to the problems of the Middle East. The good news is that it does not need them.

Costly foreign policies based on unsound logic should be updated or discarded. At a time when challenges at home and abroad are demanding more time and money, the $70 billion per year spent on patrolling the Middle East could be better spent elsewhere. After decades of floundering, policymakers ought to put CENTCOM out of its misery and spend that money on higher priorities with better likelihoods of success.

Justin Logan (@justintlogan) is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.

How Empire is Destroying the American Republic


Many American hawks fail to grasp one of the most axiomatic rules of history: when a republic becomes an empire, it is no longer a republic.

For all their concern about spreading democracy abroad, many hawks show a decidedly noticeable failure to recognize that imperial adventures weaken republican government at home. The devolution from republic to empire has a number of causes, some practical and some cultural, with most on display in our current politics.

On a practical level, the massive national security commitment necessary to maintain an empire tends to overwhelm the republican safeguards against unnecessary wars. In recent decades, for example, the national security state has gone to war in numerous countries — Libya and Syria are only two examples — on the basis of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was enacted by Congress to sanction attacks on the perpetrators of 9/11.

The use of that AUMF to justify wars unrelated to 9/11 made these wars blatantly unconstitutional. Yet it is apparent that most of Congress is now a mere appendage of the national security state and no longer protects its constitutional prerogative to sanction war as this would require difficult votes as well as jeopardize the largesse bestowed by defense contractors. Madison’s famous argument in Federalist #51 that, in a republic with separated powers, one branch of government would “resist encroachments of the others” becomes obviated in an empire. Empires tend to ignore republican rules.

The other practical difficulty of maintaining a republic when it aspires to empire is that the technologies created to fight wars abroad end up undermining republican government at home. In imperial Rome, the legions themselves became a threat to domestic order; in the present U.S. the domestic attacks are more subtle.

Numerous media reports indicate, for example, that an anti-Trump PAC, Defeat Disinfo, is employing retired Army General Stanley McCrystal to deploy a Defense Department-developed Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool to counter candidate Trump’s social media posts and to create “counter-narratives” using a network of “paid influencers.” The AI technology was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to counter the propaganda of terrorist groups overseas. The culture of our present officer corps seems a long way from that of General George Marshall who once remarked to Eisenhower, “I may make a thousand mistakes in this war, but none will be the result of political meddling!”

McCrystal’s deployment of anti-terrorism technology to manipulate domestic political opinion during an election is surely incompatible with republican values. One would have thought that the McCrystal revelation would have generated more controversy as it comes on the heels of the astonishing abuse of another anti-terrorism tool, NSA surveillance, by FBI agents who submitted phony warrants to the FISA court in order to frame Trump campaign operatives.

As observers from both parties have noticed, military technology and tactics have bled into domestic policing with local police departments deploying armored vehicles and drones. One need not be a Trump partisan, nor a rabid libertarian, to conclude that the technologies developed to maintain the American empire are now being used to undermine our republican traditions.

Tufts law professor Michael Glennon has concluded that the national security state has in fact grown so large that the “Madisonian” branches of government — the presidency, Congress and the courts — are no longer in charge of national security policy. Glennon asserts that we now have a “double government” in which policy decisions are made by “a largely concealed managerial directorate, consisting of the several hundred leaders of the military, law enforcement, and the intelligence departments and agencies of our government” who “operate at an increasing remove from constitutional limits and restraints, moving the nation slowly toward autocracy.” Despite his clear desire to do so, Trump’s inability to extricate us from Afghanistan is confirmation that the Madisonian branches of government no longer determine policy.

The rise of a double government was captured perfectly in a Tweet by Michael McFaul, an Obama national security official, who commented that, “Trump has lost the Intelligence Community. He has lost the State Department. He has lost the military. How can he continue to serve as our Commander in Chief?” To those with an imperial outlook, the President serves at the pleasure of those who run the empire, not the voters. To Michael McFaul, the unelected members of the foreign policy establishment determine the legitimacy of elected leaders.

While legal breakdowns and the technologies of American empire are overwhelming our republican traditions, the much deeper problem is that American leaders have eschewed a constitutional culture and adopted an imperial culture.

Republican institutions cannot operate unless its leaders embody a certain temperament or “constitutional personality.” They must demonstrate measured and restrained habits even with political opponents. They will seek common ground and compromise. They would, in Hamilton’s words, “withstand the temporary delusion” of popular pressures and engage in “more cool and sedate reflection.”

In foreign policy, this constitutional temperament would, in Washington’s words, “observe good faith and justice toward all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all” and “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.”  In other words, republics have leaders of a certain quality and type, leaders who demonstrate restraint not only in domestic politics but on the world stage.

Contrast this constitutional temperament with our current crop of leaders. In domestic politics, we have fierce, vituperative and irrational partisanship. There is no spirit of compromise and no willingness to show good faith with political opponents. Our politics, as Hobbes said of the state of nature, exhibit “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” In foreign policy, the imperial personality shows itself in “maximum pressure” campaigns, an “inveterate” antipathy toward Russia, and chest-thumping assertions of American exceptionalism. The constitutional personality exhibits a certain humility; the imperial personality exhibits none.

Removing the practical dangers of empire would be hard, but not impossible. Restoring congressional authority in matters of war and peace and banning the domestic use of military and intelligence technologies are both achievable goals for those wishing to restore republican values. However, the imperial culture of our national security elites flows out of a will to power that is, at root, a character flaw. Changing laws is easy compared with improving character.

The Case for Withdrawing from the Middle East


The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy states that the United States “seeks a Middle East that is not a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to a stable global energy market.”1 These priorities echo those of prior administrations. Terrorism, Israel’s well-being, and oil are the main reasons the United States cares about the Middle East.2

In service of these interests, the United States spends tens of billions of dollars every year trying to manage the region’s politics. In one of the most careful estimates of the cost savings, Eugene Gholz concludes that jettisoning the Middle East mission would produce savings on the order of $65–70 billion per year.3

The United States also keeps tens of thousands of military personnel on bases in the region. From Bahrain to Egypt to Iraq to Kuwait to Qatar to Syria to the United Arab Emirates, the United States has dozens of military bases and installations across the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility.

The United States has also fought wars and engaged in costly diplomacy across the region. Although some wars, like the 2011 air campaign in Libya, are not directly related to oil, Israel, or terrorism, the two wars in Iraq, the U.S. involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen, and the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran all grew in part from those underlying worries. Similarly, bipartisan devotion to the Saudi royal family and the Israeli government are tied to beliefs about the region’s importance to Americans.

These costly policies are puzzling because, on paper, the region is a strategic backwater. Its GDP constitutes 3.3 percent of world GDP, compared to 32.5 percent in the Western Hemisphere and 25 percent each in Europe and East Asia.4 The Middle East’s population is between 3.5 and 5 percent of the world total, depending on how one counts.5 Even if one country were to dominate—or conquer—a region with those economic and human resources, it could not pose a serious military threat to the United States. In order to think that the region has great importance to U.S. national security, policymakers have relied on murky theories about energy economics, the regional balance of power, and the threat of terrorism.

None of these theories justify current U.S. policy in the region. U.S. interests in the Middle East do not require stationing American troops in the region. Moreover, the ideas justifying a permanent troop presence there have been wrong for decades; they did not become wrong once the United States became a net exporter of petroleum, or once Israel developed Iron Dome, or once Al-Qaeda was dispersed in 2001 and 2002.

The goal of this paper is not to lay out a detailed plan or timeframe for withdrawing U.S. troops from the region, but rather to scrutinize the justifications for U.S. policy in the region to date. Though mostly unspoken, these justifications are bad in their best rendering. If there is no good justification for a costly and destructive government policy, it should end.

Read the full paper here.

Justin Logan (@JustinTLogan) is director of programs and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University. 

The Truth About the War on Terror


The national security establishment is pushing against the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by President Trump following almost two decades of combat. Even Republicans are warning Trump that he is repeating one of the foreign policy mistakes of Barack Obama.

One of the most astonishing recent arguments against a withdrawal from Afghanistan was made by former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who said that terrorist groups that “pose a threat to us are stronger now” than they were before 9/11. He said the United States faces Al Qaeda and Islamic State alumni who are “orders of magnitude greater” than before and who “have access to much more destructive capabilities.”

How are we worse off than 2001? According to the Watson Institute, the war on terror has cost the United States over $6 trillion, 800,000 people have died as a direct result of the violence of these conflicts, and nearly 38 million people have been displaced or made refugees. According to the Washington Post, some 775,000 American forces have been sent to Afghanistan since 2001, and more than 2,000 of them died.

The United States poured billions of dollars into reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan under the notion that economic development would check the growth of terrorism. Yet after all this blood and treasure, one of the most senior American officials and a former combat general in the war on terror says Al Qaeda is stronger than it was before 9/11.

If McMaster is correct, it shatters promises made by three presidents that victory was close, if only we would stay the course. Toward the end of his second term, George Bush all but declared victory when he said, “A nation that was once a safe haven for Al Qaeda is now a young democracy where boys and girls are going to school, new roads and hospitals are now being built, and people are looking to the future with new hope.”

As he sent a new surge of forces into Afghanistan, Obama said it was all part of a plan “to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the Al Qaeda safe haven that it was before 9/11.” In 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta said we had to stay the course in Afghanistan, as the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.” In 2017, when Trump sent his own unlikely surge of forces into Afghanistan, he said it would have a “clear definition” of victory for “crushing Al Qaeda.”

But as we know, the Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, which made clear we were not simply deceived by a string of presidents, but rather by a national security bureaucracy that “failed to tell the truth about the war” and made “rosy pronouncements they knew to be false.” However, if correct, the revelation of McMaster is an order of magnitude worse than what had been noted in the Afghanistan Papers.

Several officials on record concluded that the government of Afghanistan was corrupt, that democracy efforts would likely fail, and that the war was probably “unwinnable.” But what McMaster is asserting is that the war did nothing. Things are worse than ever. Politicians and military leaders from many nations have tried to spin such defeats as successes.

American national security officials often lied about the true progress for the Vietnam War. As Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.” But this notion should not apply to the United States. In a democracy such as ours, where there are allegedly checks and balances to drive federal accountability, these prevarications should have turned into one of our monumental scandals.

The assertion from McMaster should have been headline news. A republic such as ours needs an internal mechanism. Those officials who deceived the public should be cashiered, those generals who promised victory but failed to deliver it should be retired, the media should launch a thousand investigations into what went wrong, and the members of Congress who enabled this great failure should be voted out. Yet accountability seems unlikely, which leaves us an ominous signal for the republic.

William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University. He is the author of Democracy and Imperialism.

How ‘Diversity’ Became Its Own Pagan Religion


As our society fractures into hostile factions without any apparent glue to hold them together, it is an appropriate time to consider our culture’s embrace of “diversity.” Diversity is now the raison d’être of contemporary life, dominating the culture of our universities, corporations, entertainment, and other mainstream institutions.

Conservatives are rightly skeptical of the mania surrounding diversity. They know that, when you lift up the lid, you find race hustlers shaking down corporations, mediocre academics in “ethnic studies,” and guttersnipe actors and musicians promoted well beyond their aesthetic abilities. In short, we see a scam designed to steer power and money to certain groups and away from others. More importantly, while the alleged goal of promoting diversity is social harmony, diversity huckstering has instead produced seething hatreds, racial and gender finger-pointing, and a degradation of cultural standards.

What are conservatives to do? First, they should not glibly dismiss the kernel of truth in their opponents’ position. As it is actually lived, human life is in fact a wealth of diversity and would be quite monotonous without it. No two human beings are alike, no two pieces of great art or music are precisely the same, no two nations or cultures are identical, no two moments in time are an exact match, and the natural world of animals and plants is a kaleidoscope. Diversity is much of the reason we travel or wander through a museum. Life is wonderful precisely because it is diverse.

Acknowledging all this, where has our current diversity gone wrong? Why has it produced such inauspicious results? The problem is that many diversity advocates refuse to admit that, while life is diverse, it also has an element of oneness, certain common elements that are inescapable. This common human experience is reflected in such popular expressions as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As the great Irving Babbitt expressed it: “Life does not give here an element of oneness and there an element of change. It gives a oneness that is always changing.”

Diversity hucksters emphasize what is superficially different about human beings while failing to acknowledge our profound commonalities. This error manifested itself when the civil rights movement jettisoned Martin Luther King’s appeal to character as the ultimate standard of judgment and instead began to assert that only skin color matters. A recognition of what is common among human beings requires that we consider those human beings on a moral and religious level, not just at the level of superficialities.

What distinguishes human beings from everything else in the universe is that we are cleft between what is good and what is evil. We all have a “higher self” that can act with virtue and decency and a “lower self” that can act with malice and hatred. What all great religious traditions acknowledge is that the taming of the lower self brings harmony with what is divine in our nature, and this brings happiness. On this point, there is common agreement between the Hindu religion’s Laws of Manu, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, the Buddha’s sayings in The Dhammapada, the prophets of the Old Testament, the Pauline epistles, and many sayings in the Koran. For human beings to live together in peace, individuals must act upon what is highest in themselves, rein in their passions and desires, and act, not according to their own selfish will, but according to a will greater than themselves. At this level of existence, human beings are not diverse; they are the same.

The diversity hucksters refuse to acknowledge that the only true source of order in society is this “self-ordering” that takes place within the heart of every person, that allows diverse people to share a common bond. Instead they insist that moral and spiritual strivings are irrelevant to the social order and that only by advancing certain identity groups, and disadvantaging others, can we witness an improved social order. Not surprisingly, when you jettison character, you get social chaos, not social cohesion.

While these points may seem philosophically arcane to some, when we get them wrong, there are profoundly bad consequences on a grand scale.

Consider, for example, the issue of nationalism that is all the rage right now in conservative circles. One historic form of nationalism that refused to recognize what is common among all human beings, only what was unique to one nation, was the German Volk. German culture, it was thought by their Romantics, was not simply a creative expression of what is common to all people; it was something existentially superior to all other cultures and nations, something not in the same moral universe. According to the Volk, all Germans were superior by virtue of their birth. We all know where the Volk took Germany. But we should recognize that there is little philosophical difference between the moral premises underlying the German Volk and our current campus hucksters who insist that some people are inherently superior simply because of their race or gender, simply because of an accident of their birth. Campus bullying by woke groups has much in common with the thuggery (and much worse) that emerged from the Volk.

Even conservatives can unfortunately get this wrong. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might be alarmed to discover that his intellectual predisposition toward “American exceptionalism” places him firmly in the same philosophical camp as our campus diversity hucksters. He told the Claremont Institute (emphasis added), “America is exceptional—a place and history apart from normal human experience.” What possible common ground could our chief diplomat find with other nations and cultures when America is so existentially unique as to be outside history itself? Pompeo’s insistence that Americanism is “apart from normal human experience” is little different from the campus activist’s insistence that white men can never understand the unique experiences of those of a superior gender or race.

A healthier form of patriotic nationalism could acknowledge the many remarkable, and even exceptional, aspects of our history without cutting us off from a common humanity and insisting we are beyond good and evil. This metaphysical American exceptionalism is an invitation to bully other nations, which, by definition, are considered morally inferior. If you think American foreign policy has gone off the rails because we selected the wrong grand strategy, and not because of what’s happening to our culture, think again.

The profound challenge we face is that the omnipresent diversity propaganda represents an ersatz religion, a pagan and tribal religion that rejects the possibility of what Claes Ryn has called “a common human ground.” It rejects the Christian truth that all human beings are Imago Dei, which, in this sense, makes it profoundly anti-Christian. When you recognize that the nation is in an existential struggle between an older Judeo-Christian tradition and an intolerant, retrograde, and pagan religion, the 2020 election seems quite less important.

William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism.

Why the Blob Needs an Enemy


Despite its many failings and high human, social, and economic costs, American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has shown a remarkable degree of continuity and inflexibility. This rather curious phenomenon is not limited to America alone. The North Atlantic foreign policy establishment from Washington D.C. to London, which some have aptly dubbed the “blob,” has doggedly championed the grand strategic framework of “primacy” and armed hegemony, often coated with more docile language such as “global leadership,” “American indispensability,” and “strengthening the Western alliance.”

In America, this unfortunate status quo in support of primacy persists even in the Trumpian Age and within debates around the eccentric and unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. In fact, despite all the talk of political polarization in the United States, it appears that when it comes to naming new threats and enemies to “contain,” “deter,” and deem “existential,” bipartisan consensus is found swiftly and quite readily. On the Left, and in the wake of President Trump’s election, the Democratic establishment began fixating its wrath on Russia–adopting a confrontational stance toward Moscow and fueling fears of a renewed Cold War. On the Right, the realigning GOP has increasingly, if at times inconsistently, singled out China as the greatest threat to U.S. national security, a hostile attitude further exacerbated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alarmingly, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has recently joined the hawkish bandwagon toward China, even attempting to outflank Trump on this issue and attacking the president’s China policy as too weak and accommodating of China’s rise.

In a recent speech delivered in Europe, the U.S. defense secretary and former corporate lobbyist for Raytheon, Mark Esper, unified these two faces of the Janus that embodies the North Atlantic foreign policy establishment. Esper referred to both China and Russia as disruptive forces working to unravel the international order, which “we have created together,” and called on the international community to preserve that order by countering both powers. As it stands, we are on the path to a series of cold wars throughout this century, if not a hot conflict between rival great powers that could spiral into World War III. Despite increased calls for realism and restraint in foreign policy, primacy is alive and well.

Indeed, the dominant tendency among many foreign policy observers is to overprivilege the threat of rising superpowers and to insist on strong containment measures to limit the spheres of influence of the so-called revisionist powers. Such an approach, coupled with the prospect of ascendant powers actively resisting and confronting the United States as the ruling global hegemon, has one eminent International Relations scholar warning of the Thucydides Trap.

There are others, however, who insist that the structural shifts undermining the liberal international order mark the end of U.S. hegemony and its “unipolar moment.” In realist terms, what Secretary Esper really means to protect, they would argue, is a conception of “rules-based” global order that was a structural by-product of the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War and whose very rules and institutions were underwritten by U.S. hegemony. This would be an exercise in folly—not corresponding to the reality of systemic change and the return of great power competition and civilizational contestation.

What’s more, the sanctimony of this “liberal” hegemonic order and the logic of democratic peace were both presumably vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian system, a black swan event that for many had heralded the “end of history” and promised the advent of the American century. A great deal of lives, capital, resources, and goodwill were sacrificed by America and her allies toward that crusade for liberty and universality, which was only the most recent iteration of a radically utopian element in American political thought going back to Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Alas, as it had eluded earlier generations of idealists, that century never truly arrived, and neither did the empire of liberty and prosperity that it loftily aimed to establish.

Today, the emerging reality of a multipolar world and alternate worldviews championed by the different cultural blocs led by China and Russia appears to have finally burst the bubble of American Triumphalism, proving that the ideas behind it are “not simply obsolete but absurd.” This failure should have been expected since the very project the idealists had espoused was built on a pathological “savior complex” and a false truism that reflected the West’s own absolutist and distorted sense of ideological and moral superiority. Samuel Huntington might have been right all along to cast doubt on the long-term salience of using ideology and doctrinal universalism as the dividing principle for international relations. His call to focus, instead, on civilizational distinction, the permanent power of culture on human action, and the need to find common ground rings especially true today. Indeed, fostering a spirit of coexistence and open dialogue among the world’s great civilizational complexes is a fundamental tenet of a cultural realism.

And yet, despite such permanent shifts in the global order away from universalist dichotomies and global hegemony and toward culturalism and multi-polarity, there exists a profound disjunction between the structural realities of the international system and the often business-as-usual attitude of the North Atlantic foreign policy elites. How could one explain the astonishing levels of rigidity and continuity on the part of the “blob” and the military-industrial-congressional complex regularly pushing for more adventurism and interventionism abroad? Why would the bipartisan primacist establishment, which their allies in the mainstream media endeavor still to mask, justify such illiberal acts of aggression and attempts at empire by weaponizing the moralistic language of human rights, individual liberty, and democracy in a world increasingly awakened to arbitrary ideological framing?

There are, of course, systemic reasons behind the power and perpetuation of the blob and the endurance of primacy. The vast economic incentives of war and its instruments, institutional routinization and intransigence, stupefaction and groupthink of government bureaucracy, and the significant influence of lobbying efforts by foreign governments and other vested interest groups could each partly explain the remarkable continuity of the North Atlantic foreign policy establishment. The endless stream of funding from the defense industry, neoliberal and neoconservative foundations, as well as the government itself keeps the “blob” alive, while the general penchant for bipartisanship around preserving the status quo allows it to thrive. What is more, elite schools produce highly analytic yet narrowly focused and conventional minds that are tamed to be agreeable so as to not undermine elite consensus. This conveyor belt feeds the “blob,” supplying it with the army of specialists, experts, and wonks it requires to function as a mind melding hive, while in practice safeguarding employment for the career bureaucrats for decades to come.

There is, however, a more significant psychosociological reason for the blob’s remarkable persistence. When it comes to foreign policy, Western policymakers today suffer from a Manichean worldview, a caustic mindset crystalized during a decades-running Cold War with the Soviet Union. The world might have changed fundamentally with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the bipolar structure of the international system might have ended irreversibly, but the personnel—the Baby Boomer Generation elites conducting foreign policy in the North Atlantic—did not leave office or retire with the collapse of the USSR. They largely remain in power to this day.

Every generation is forged through a formative crisis, its experiences seen through the prism that all-encompassing ordeal. For the incumbent elites, that generational crisis was the Cold War and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation. The dualistic paradigm of the international system during the U.S.-Soviet rivalry bred an entire generation to see the world through a black-and-white binary. It should come as no surprise that this era elevated the idealist strain of thought and the crusading, neo-Jacobin impulse of U.S. foreign policy (personified by Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson) to new, ever-expanding heights. Idealism prizes a nemesis and thus revels in a bipolar order.

Frozen in this Cold War mindset, the Atlanticist blob has internalized the bipolar moment that followed the Second World War, treating it as a permanent fixture and the normal state of the international system. In fact, the bipolar and unipolar periods we have undergone over the past 75 years are nothing but aberrations and historical anomalies. In truth, the reality of the international system tends toward multi-polarity—and at long last it appears that the system is self-correcting. The North Atlantic establishment came of age during that time of exception, forming its (liberal) identity through the process of “alterity” and in a nemetic opposition to communism.

Not surprisingly then, the North Atlantic elites continue to seek adversaries to demonize and “monsters to destroy” in order to justify their moral universalism and presumed ideological superiority, doing so under the garb of a totalizing and absolutist idea of exceptionalism. After all, a nemetic zeitgeist during which ideology reigned supreme and realism was routinely discounted was tailor-made for dogmatic absolutism and moral universalism. In such a zero-sum strategic environment, it was only natural to demand totality and frame the ongoing geopolitical struggle in terms of an existential opposition over Good and Evil that would quite literally split the world in two.

Today, that same kind of Manichean thinking continues to handicap paradigmatic change in foreign policy. A false consciousness, it underpins and promotes belief in the double myths of indispensability and absolute exceptionality, suggesting that the North Atlantic bloc holds a certain monopoly on all that is good and true. It is not by chance that such pathological renderings of “exceptionalism” and “leadership” have been wielded as convenient rationale and intellectual placeholders for the ideology of empire across the North Atlantic. This sense of ingrained moral self-righteousness, coupled with an attitude that celebrates activism, utopianism, and interventionism in foreign policy, has created and reinforced a culture of strategic overextension and imperial overreach.

It is this very culture—personified and dominated by the Baby Boomers and the blob they birthed—that has made hawkishness ubiquitous, avoids any real reckoning as to the limits of power, and habitually belittles calls for restraint and moderation as isolationism. In truth, however, what has been the exceptional part in the delusion of absolute exceptionalism is Pax Americana, liberal hegemony, and the hubris that animates them having gone uncontested and unchecked for so long. That confrontation could begin in earnest by directly challenging the Boomer blob itself—and by propagating a counter-elite offering a starkly different worldview.

Achieving such a genuine paradigm shift demands a generational sea-change, to retire the old blob and make a better one in its place. It is about time for the old establishment to forgo its reign, allowing a new younger cohort from among the Millennial and post-Millennial generations to advance into leadership roles. The Millennials, especially, are now the largest generation of eligible voters (overtaking the Baby Boomers) as well as the first generation not habituated by the Cold War; in fact, many of them grew up during the “unipolar moment” of American hegemony. Hence, their generational identity is not built around a dualistic alterity. Free from obsessive fixation on ideological supremacy, most among them reject total global dominance as both unattainable and undesirable.

Instead, their worldview is shaped by an entirely different set of experiences and disappointments. Their generational crisis was brought on by a series of catastrophic interventions and endless wars around the world—chief among them the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the toppling of Libya’s Gaddafi—punctuated by repeated onslaughts of financial recessions and domestic strife. The atmosphere of uncertainty, instability, and general chaos has bred discontent, turning many Millennials into pragmatic realists who are disenchanted with the system, critical of the pontificating establishment, and naturally skeptical of lofty ideals and utopian doctrines.

In short, this is not an absolutist and complacent generation of idealists, but one steeped in realism and a certain perspectivism that has internalized the inherent relativity of both power and truth. Most witnessed the dangers of overreach, hubris, and a moralized foreign policy, so they are actively self-reflective, circumspect, and restrained. As a generation, they appear to be less the moralist and the global activist and more prudent, level-headed, and temperamentally conservative—developing a keen appreciation for realpolitik, sovereignty, and national interest. Their preference for a non-ideological approach in foreign policy suggests that once in power, they will be less antagonistic and more tolerant of rival powers and accepting of pluralism in the international system. That openness to civilizational distinction and global cultural pluralism also implies that future Millennial statesmen will subscribe to a more humble, less grandiose, and narrower definition of interest that focuses on securing core objectives—i.e., preserving national security and recognizing spheres of influence.

Reforming and rehabilitating the U.S. foreign policy establishment will require more than policy prescriptions and comprehensive reports: it needs generational change. To transform and finally “rein in” North Atlantic foreign policy, our task today must be to facilitate and expedite this shift. Once that occurs, the incoming Millennials should be better positioned to discard the deep-seated and routinized ideology of empire, supplanting it with a greater emphasis on partnership that is driven by mutual interests and a general commitment to sharing the globe with the world’s other great cultures.

This new approach calls for America to lead by the power of its example, exhibiting the benefits of liberty and a constitutional republic at home, without forcibly imposing those values abroad. Such an outlook means abandoning the coercive regime change agendas and the corrosive projects of nation-building and democracy promotion. In this new multipolar world, America would be an able, dynamic, and equal participant in ensuring sustainable peace side-by-side the world’s other great powers, acting as “a normal country in a normal time.” Reflecting the spirit of republican governance authentically is far more pertinent now and salutary for the future of the North Atlantic peoples than is promulgating the utopian image of a shining city on a hill.

Arta Moeini is research director at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship. Dr. Moeini’s latest project advances a theory of cultural realism as a cornerstone to a new understanding of foreign policy.

Stationing US Troops in Poland Is a Bad Idea


Foreign policy was a distinctly secondary issue at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, as both parties believe COVID and culture war will remain the ground on which the 2020 election will be fought and won. When foreign policy does make an appearance, Democrats and Republicans alike strive to highlight the unique approach (or dysfunction) of Donald Trump’s administration. Yet recent events in Europe demonstrate that despite the rhetoric, both parties remain committed to the flawed foreign policy conceptions and institutions of the past.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak signed a defense cooperation agreement that will send at least 1,000 more U.S. troops to Poland. This new pact will receive little scrutiny from American politicians or voters. It should. This latest agreement is emblematic of America’s zombie defense of Europe, a policy trapped in amber a full three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

President Trump created a storm on both sides of the Atlantic when he announced a substantial drawdown in American troops in Germany. But as so often with Trump’s foreign policy, there is less than meets the eye. The Department of Defense stated that 12,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Germany – but nearly half of them are going to be stationed in other European countries, including Poland. This shell game gives the lie to any talk of burden-sharing in European defense.

Despite nearly four years of Trump’s browbeating and Europe’s pledges, the fundamental realities of NATO have not changed. The United States still accounts for almost 70 percent of all NATO defense spending. Europe is a rich continent, but just seven of the alliance’s 30 member states are above the suggested 2 percent of GDP defense spending line (Poland is one of them, barely). This state of affairs predates Trump; indeed, it predates Nixon. American presidents have been begging European allies to defend themselves since the early Cold War. In 1951, upon assuming command of all NATO forces in Europe, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower warned bluntly: “If in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed.” Yet here we are.

The alliance’s supposed heavyweights are now some of the worst offenders, regardless of their ostensible spending levels. Britain will soon be down to a scant 148 main battle tanks, having sacrificed real defense capability for the hollow prestige of a pair of aircraft carriers. France has maintained real capability but is increasingly focused on Africa and the Mediterranean, where it finds itself aligned with Russia in Libya. Germany, which could singlehandedly match Russia’s defense budget if it chose to, is a military laughingstock: its planes grounded, its deployed troops lacking even basic radios, and its special forces infiltrated by potential domestic terrorists.

When it comes to defending Europe from the supposed Russian threat, most NATO members, to quote Dick Cheney on serving in the Vietnam War, have “other priorities.” Migrants and the Mediterranean, to say nothing of pandemic preparedness, economic stimulus, and a host of other domestic concerns, a rate far higher than T-80s in the minds of European leaders. But then, they needn’t worry about Russia: the United States is willing to handle their defense for them.

Poland is at least not the Baltics, a geographically undefendable salient that NATO is inexplicably determined to reinforce. But increasing U.S. forces in Poland is only marginally more sensible. If we want a tripwire, a hundred bored infantrymen will do: adding a thousand troops would make little difference in a fight against the full weight of the Russian armed forces. A serious U.S. troop buildup in Poland, of multiple brigades, would risk a classic security dilemma, with Russia reinforcing its units on Poland’s border in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in response.

If we want to help NATO nations both deter Russia and defend themselves if deterrence fails, the answer is advice and arms, not American troops. Potential frontline NATO states that genuinely fear Russia must become “porcupine nations,” making themselves both resilient and undigestible through a total defense concept like that of Finland. Estonia has gone the furthest in this direction, returning to universal male conscription and augmenting its forces with militias.

Luckily, Russian military analysts believe there is scant evidence that Russia wants a war with NATO. Russia has neither the appetite nor the troops to try to occupy Ukraine, never mind pick a fight with Poland or even the Baltics.

French President Emmanuel Macron drew widespread condemnation last fall when he said NATO was experiencing “brain death.” As France confronts NATO ally Turkey in the Mediterranean while America mindlessly stacks troops in the east, Macron’s prescience is underscored. NATO is an alliance on autopilot: at best, a distraction and drain, at worst, a potential cause of future conflict. America, beset by internal problems, skyrocketing debt, and a real competitor if not enemy in China should leave defending Europe to the Europeans.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

Kipling: Poet Laureate of Soldiers, Sailors, and Colonizers


If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, Christopher Benfey, (Penguin, July 2019), 256 Pages, ; Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War, Sarah LeFanu, (Hurst, February 2020), 381 pages.

Rudyard Kipling would not appear well suited to the 2020s. Poet laureate of soldiers, sailors, and colonizers, Kipling and his vast body of work seems a far better fit for the Cold War 1980s or the crusading early Aughts. This reviewer is surely not alone among youngish conservatives in having once penned a cringe-worthy collegiate column that favorably invoked “The White Man’s Burden.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have now dulled, hopefully for a long while, that inveterate Western temptation to nation-build with bayonets.

Christopher Benfey, author of an engaging chronicle of Kipling’s American sojourn, claims that his decision to write about Kipling was a potentially career-killing one. A friend warned him, voice rising, that “Kipling is the most politically-incorrect writer in the canon!” (That Kipling is in the canon is a telling concession). Benfey assembles a diverse cast of luminaries—Said, Orwell, Auden, Borges—to briefly defend his subject. Then he is off, beginning with the charming story of a precocious young Kipling’s pilgrimage to meet Mark Twain in Elmira, New York, in the summer of 1889. Twain wrote later, “I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before—though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would.”

Born and raised in India, Kipling was initially fascinated by an America that was just as vast and varied as the subcontinent. He soon found himself living in the United States, albeit by accident. In January 1892, Kipling had married the American Carrie Balestier, the steely sister of his best friend and collaborator, Charles Wolcott Balestier. The peripatetic young Wolcott, variously a mining investor, presidential campaign biographer, editor, and literary agent, had died suddenly of typhoid a month before in Dresden. Rushing back from India, Rudyard proposed to Carrie by telegram. After a hasty wedding in London in the grip of an influenza epidemic, the newlyweds departed on a planned around-the-world honeymoon. On a brief stop in Carrie’s native Brattleboro, Vermont, they purchased a few acres of land from her brother, Beatty.

After arriving in Yokohama, Japan, the Kiplings endured a pair of earthquakes: the first literal, the second financial. Waking one morning to find his empty boots moving across the bedroom floor, Rudyard watched in terror as “a clock fell and a wall cracked, and heavy hands caught the house by the roof-pole and shook it furiously.” Six days later, in a precursor to the Panic of 1893, Kipling’s bank, The New Oriental Banking Corporation, failed. Their entire fortune gone, the Kiplings beat a hasty retreat back to Vermont. They rented a cottage near Brattleboro for $10 a month and Kipling set to writing and earning.

Kipling was initially enchanted by Vermont. He loved the crisp, clean air, “as dry as the very best champagne.” The annual explosion of fall color was tough to do justice in words, while the winters could prompt moments of rapture: “The trees are Emperors with their crowns on and icicles five and six feet long hang from our eaves. It’s all like life in a fairy-tale—life when one sings and shouts for joy of being alive.” That year (1892), he wrote in Carrie’s diary on New Year’s Eve, was “the happiest year of my life.”

Kipling’s four years in the Green Mountain State were also a period of professional fecundity. Ensconced first in the cottage, then in his new home Naulakha (a stately green wooden ship on a hillside), Kipling wrote some of his best known works, including Captains Courageous, The Day’s Work, The Seven Seas, and much of Kim and the Just So Stories. Benfey informs his reader of a curious fact: it was in the wolf-less hills of southern Vermont that Kipling also composed the Jungle Book stories of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves.

Though Kipling proclaimed to his Brattleboro friend Molly Cabot that he was the only man living who could write the Great American Novel, he was not to realize this boast. The closest he came was Captains Courageous, a didactic tale whose research he conducted in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As another biographer has sourly noted, the lone short story Kipling ever set in Vermont “is a boring satire on socialism in which the characters are horses.”

Benfey, however, makes a credible case that Kim, Kipling’s opus, was really his American novel. Kipling, Benfey contends, consciously sought to make himself an American writer. The twin influences of Twain and Emerson undergird Kim. The book was conceived in Vermont, though it was not published until five years after Kipling’s return to England. As Benfey notes in his excellent epilogue, Kim became the inspiration and handbook for a generation of American soldiers and spies at the dawn of the Cold War—with uneven results.

Kipling ultimately found America too lawless for his taste. On his first visit to the country in 1889, he had quickly landed at a house of ill repute in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Presumably engaged in research for the “home-grown fiction on the hoof” that he had promised his employer, India’s Allahabad Pioneer, Kipling found himself witness to a murder during a poker game in the bowels of the building. A decade later, he would maintain that America lagged India in the quality of its universities, post offices, and courts, “while in the matter of safety to life and property I think the comparison would be even more startling.”

Writing for The Times during his honeymoon, he dismissed New York City as “the shiftless outcome of squalid barbarism and reckless extravagance.” Kipling could concede the material advantages: the average American was a “hundred years ahead of the English in design, comfort and economy, and . . . labour-saving appliances in his house.” Civilization though, could not be bought. By 1926, Kipling was instructing the publisher of a British newspaper to inform his readers that America had been “specially exempted from the processes of Evolution.”

While near-mute on African Americans, Kipling did grasp one of America’s founding hypocrisies. In his autobiography Something of Myself, Kipling wrote that he “never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.” When he made this point to his friend Theodore Roosevelt while wandering the Smithsonian, the future president made the glass cases of Indian artifacts shake with his rebuttal.

Kipling nonetheless enjoined the United States to follow Britain’s lead in spreading civilization to the benighted inhabitants of Africa and Asia. “The White Man’s Burden” was written to encourage a hesitant America to embrace its imperial mandate in the Philippines, newly conquered from Spain and in need of American paternalism and rectitude. Twain and Andrew Carnegie, both friends of Kipling, had joined the Anti-Imperialist League. Roosevelt was all for imperialism, though he found Kipling’s advice “rather poor poetry.”

Roosevelt was under fewer illusions than his friend. In a letter to Kipling, the then-governor of New York inveighed against “the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.” War lover though he may have been, Roosevelt was at least free of the crusading universalism of his contemporary and rival Woodrow Wilson.

Kipling’s passion for imperialism was countered, if not quite expiated, by his defense of the common man. His affection for the soldier and the sailor was real and reciprocated. Kipling disdained the “Balliol prig” and genuinely championed the callused class. In the wake of the Boer War, Kipling savagely attacked the athletic but indolent aristocracy that ran the empire in “The Islanders”: “Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls / With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.”

Kipling would forsake America completely before the American century even began. He and his family left Naulakha in 1896, for political and personal reasons. A farcical Anglo-American dispute over Venezuela’s border had threatened war in 1895 (Roosevelt had been for it, envisioning a successful invasion of Canada). Then, shortly thereafter, Kipling’s fraught relationship with his brother-in-law, Beatty, had boiled over. A death threat, a court case, and mass media attention drove the Kiplings back to England.

Far worse was to come. On a short return trip to the United States in 1899 to visit old friends and “cheer up Teddy,” both Kipling and his beloved daughter, Josephine, were struck down by pneumonia. Rudyard was delirious and in serious condition but recovered. Josephine did not. Kipling’s “Best Beloved,” the light of his life, died at the age of six. Brattleboro-born Josephine was, in her grieving father’s estimation, “almost entirely American in her ways of thinking and looking at things.” Shattered by her death, he would never return to America.

His lungs permanently damaged by the pneumonia, Kipling was advised by doctors to spend his winters in a more congenial climate than England’s damp chill. He chose South Africa and was almost immediately an intimate of Cecil Rhodes, the continent’s colossus. When war between the British and the Boers came again in 1898, Kipling was quickly on the scene.

Sarah LeFanu’s Something of Themselves examines the South African odysseys of Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mary Kingsley (who was to die tending Boer prisoners in Cape Town). LeFanu gives us a Kipling who, as in Vermont, was beguiled and then betrayed by a new land. He was a ceaseless propagandist for empire in Africa. “If,” Kipling’s most celebrated poem, was inspired by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, ringleader of an eponymous 1895 fiasco that amounted to an African Bay of Pigs on horseback.

Unlike Kingsley and Conan Doyle, Kipling saw the Boers as villains, thieves, and cowards who deserved everything they got. The concentration camps, in which tens of thousands of Boer civilians and Africans died, were an afterthought. But British magnanimity in victory infuriated Kipling. After 1908, the Kiplings were to spend their winters in the Swiss Alps.

Benfey and LeFanu stray from their ostensible focus occasionally, but both ultimately deliver highly readable accounts of this singular genius. Both also make a strong case for Kipling’s enduring relevance as a writer and as a man. Uncomfortable in his own country, endowed with uncommon empathy and enormous blind spots, he embodied the contradictions of empire. With a new Great Game potentially upon us, Americans would do well to pick up Kipling anew.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

Grading Trump’s Foreign Policy


Donald Trump came into office nearly four years ago promising to be the most disruptive foreign policy president in decades. On the campaign trail he had attacked both competitors like China and longtime allies, boasted that he knew more about war than the generals, and promised an “America First” foreign policy.

On a debate stage in South Carolina during the 2016 campaign, Trump attacked the invasion of Iraq and the president who ordered it — points that should have been obvious a full decade earlier but still qualified as sacrilege in the Republican Party of 2016.

The majority of senior GOP national security figures denounced Trump, even after he became their party’s nominee. Thanks at least in part to his foreign policy heresies, Trump defeated over a dozen other Republican candidates, broke both the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and won perhaps the most shocking presidential election in American history.

For advocates of foreign policy realism and restraint, November 8, 2016 was the high point. But both at home and abroad, Trump has since led and governed as a mostly conventional Republican, albeit with an extra dollop of incompetence and chaos. America First has become little more than a slogan and an attitude. With a few important exceptions, the reality of President Trump has not matched the rhetoric of candidate Trump.

The Middle East

President Trump inherited three major wars and several smaller counterterrorism campaigns in the Greater Middle East from President Obama. His record in handling them has been a mixed one: he is the first American president since Jimmy Carter to not start a war, but he has ended none of the conflicts he was saddled with.

Like Obama, Trump folded to “his” generals on Afghanistan, allowing himself to be talked into a small surge of forces that failed to change any of the underlying realities of America’s longest war. Unlike his predecessor, Trump seems willing to acknowledge those realities. His withdrawal agreement with the Taliban may be a fig leaf, but it is a long-overdue recognition that American forces have little reason to remain in Afghanistan.

It is with Iran that Trump has come closest to foreign policy disaster and yet, paradoxically, has demonstrated prudence at the eleventh hour. Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, exiting an agreement that had broad international support and had constrained Iranian nuclear ambitions. The “maximum pressure” policy that followed has ravaged Iran’s economy but not Iran’s proxies, who remain ascendant in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

Despite creating this problem, Trump ultimately turned away from war three times: after the Iranian downing of a U.S. Global Hawk drone in June 2019, in the wake of the Iranian missile strikes on the Saudi oil refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais that September, and after a symbolic, bloodless Iranian missile strike on a U.S. base in response to the U.S. killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January. All three near-misses were due to Trump’s own decisions — cases of an arsonist deciding to extinguish his own blaze.

Nonetheless, the president ultimately chose to turn away from war, in line with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. That aligning with 87 percent of the country qualifies as an act of political courage is a testament to the size of the chasm separating most Americans from their politicians and foreign policy elites.

Yet “ending endless wars” has thus far amounted to little more than an applause line for the credulous and the craven. Like Infrastructure Week, bringing the troops home is always just out of reach. There are more U.S. service members in the Middle East now than there were when Trump took office. Even in Afghanistan, the numbers are virtually identical to what they were in January 2017.


Trump entered office as NATO skeptic. He seems to have instinctively felt that alliance members were free riding on the U.S. security blanket — which in fact they are. Many in Washington feared he might damage or even destroy the Atlantic alliance.

Yet in practice, Trump has merely settled on a more abrasive version of the standard U.S. president’s NATO playbook: browbeat the other alliance members to spend more on collective defense while expanding the alliance with ever more free riders. Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined on Trump’s watch, despite their tiny armies and the president’s fear of being drawn into a war by their “very aggressive people.” Even the recent announcement of a partial U.S. troop withdrawal from Germany is something of a shell game.

Promises have been made and European defense spending has ticked up, but with budgets busted by COVID,. even that minimal progress will disappear. The United Kingdom, one of the alliance’s heavyweights, is now talking about mothballing all of its tanks.

Despite — or perhaps because of — his 2016 campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, the Trump administration has probably been the most hardline on Russia since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. American troops continue to patrol the undefendable Baltics while American weapons arm Ukrainians fighting Russian proxies. A continent away, American and Russian forces have had several near-misses and one unofficial battle.

The realist objective of at least creating some daylight between Russia and China has apparently been discarded, in favor of maintaining a bankrupt status quo in Europe that diverts American resources and attention from other, more serious security challenges.


It is on China that Trump deserves the greatest credit for actually making a break with the assumptions and failed policies of his predecessors. Trump has long dissented from the free trade consensus that immiserated many Americans and made the country demonstrably less secure. His National Security Strategy rightly recognized that China is a far graver threat to America than terrorism. But there is little evidence yet of serious economic decoupling, even in sectors critical to national security. Fixing the dysfunctional U.S. Navy has barely begun.

COVID, regardless of its origins in China, has demonstrated anew that national security starts at home. America’s inept handling of the pandemic has gravely undermined faith in U.S. competence even among close U.S. allies.

Luckily, the Chinese have not done themselves any favors either, alienating potential fence sitting nations through bullying “wolf warrior diplomacy” and regular skirmishes with neighbors both at sea and on land. As Harvard professor Stephen Walt has noted, the United States and China seem to be competing to see who can hemorrhage power and influence faster. Bismarck’s old adage about the United States’ special providence may yet hold.


What accounts for the Trump’s failures as a foreign policy president? The old cliché that “personnel is policy” best explains the president’s inability to effect the agenda he campaigned on. Whether they are conventional hawks like the retired general James Mattis or zealous ideologues like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s key advisors and appointees have nearly always steered him back to the comforting cant of American primacy, power projection, and “leadership.”

Iran is perhaps the best example. Trump evinces no hostility for either the Iranian regime or the Iranian people and openly pines for some kind of agreement. But by surrounding himself with ultrahawks and de facto foreign lobbyists like former national security advisor John Bolton, Trump and the United States remain one incident away from a disastrous war in a secondary region with a third-tier power.

Trump’s erratic judgment and refusal to do the reading have also had real costs. His apparent yellow light to Libyan general Khalifa Haftar may have been a final factor in Haftar’s unsuccessful assault on Tripoli last year. Trump’s reversal on withdrawal from Syria has left Americans and Syrians with the worst of both worlds: a minor stake in someone else’s civil war, enough to do little more than obstruct. U.S. forces maintain a small desert redoubt at al-Tanf and control much of Syria’s oil — apparently making the president happy while impeding a Syrian reconstruction efforts that even U.S. partners are eager to join.

As both a candidate and a president, Donald Trump was willing to challenge America’s national security elite and give expression to the inchoate foreign policy desires of a majority of Americans. Given the oppressive orthodoxy of “the blob,” this is no small thing. His willingness to give peace a chance and negotiate with the likes of North Korea and the Taliban is welcome, however meager its yield. The Overton Window on American foreign policy has moved since 2016.

Yet as John Bolton’s boyhood hero, Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, told his teammates before every game: “Talk is cheap.” There has been little action to match Trump’s words. For those hoping for a fundamental reappraisal of America’s role and goals in the world, the Trump administration has been a disappointment to date.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

Resist the Siren Song of Big Tech ‘National Champions’


President Donald Trump gave Chinese social media phenomenon TikTok a slight reprieve last week, issuing an executive order that allowed the company 90 days to find a U.S. buyer. America is overdue in taking social-media-as-surveillance seriously, especially when these platforms are at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party. But the search for an American buyer of TikTok highlights a dangerous myth: the idea that Big Tech must save us from Big China.

July’s congressional antitrust hearings provided another example of this narrative. Though only Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg explicitly mentioned China in his opening statement, the People’s Republic was an unspoken counterpoint to every CEO’s inspiring personal narrative of “only in America.”

For some time now, tech’s defenders have made the case that the United States needs big, unconstrained tech “national champions” to fend off the likes of China’s Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei. Antitrust enforcement, the argument goes, may need to be revised or ignored to allow American monopolies to compete globally with their Chinese rivals.

There are three major reasons to be skeptical of the China defense employed by America’s new would-be national champions.

First, there is increasingly little reason to think of America’s biggest tech companies as American companies. Though currently eager to embrace that label, Silicon Valley’s stars are global firms who do much of their business abroad (and hide their enormous profits there). China is a key supplier, and a potential key market, for Big Tech.

Google may or may not be “seemingly treasonous,” as Peter Thiel has alleged, but the company did attempt to build a censored search engine for China while declining to continue work on artificial intelligence for the U.S. Department of Defense. Amid a trade war and talk of economic decoupling, Apple has sought to deepen its supply chain in China.

TikTok, increasingly the subject of scrutiny, was only able to penetrate the U.S. social media market due to heavy advertising on Facebook. Facebook may still be shut out of the Chinese mainland, but it’s not for lack of trying. In 2015, Zuckerberg reportedly went so far as to ask Chinese President Xi Jinping to name his unborn child.

Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple wrap themselves in the American flag when convenient. All four, when pressed by Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO), abjured the use of (Chinese) slave labor in making their products. But their past actions and continuing palpable hunger for Chinese profits undermine any claim to be American national champions.

We have been here before. In the lead up to World War II, American monopolists helped fuel Nazi Germany’s war machine through cartel agreements—while at home, they hindered war production to keep prices high. Six months before Pearl Harbor, Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior, said: “If America loses this war, it can thank the Aluminum Corporation of America.”

Second, the scale and dominance of America’s biggest tech companies has created, not closed, unique national security vulnerabilities. This is especially true in social media.

Even the most zealous China hawk isn’t afraid of a physical Chinese invasion of the United States. But subversion and disinformation is another matter. America, beset by internal problems and vitriolic political partisanship, increasingly feels like a powder keg. Social media disinformation during both the 2016 election and the coronavirus pandemic, some of it driven or amplified by foreign actors, has deepened these divisions.

The First Amendment need not be a bar to at least identifying and rebutting foreign propaganda before it infects America’s public discourse. But the size and the advertising-driven model of Facebook, YouTube and other platforms prevents effective oversight and moderation. The business model of these companies may be fundamentally irreconcilable with basic corporate responsibility. Facebook hosts billions of post a day—and is run by an algorithm that apparently promotes Holocaust denialism.

Finally, if left unregulated and unfettered, America’s Big Tech national champions are likely to follow the path of most monopolies: away from innovation and towards sclerosis, financialization and rent-seeking.

America’s defense industry is instructive. In the 30 years since the end of the Cold War and the consolidation of defense into a handful of behemoths, the United States has endured a ceaseless wave of defense procurement disasters. Whether it is the trillion-dollar F-35 or the militarily useless Littoral Combat Ship, system after system underperforms at exorbitant cost. At the mercy of its defense monopolies, the United States has lost the ability to make an affordable and effective warplane or ship, even as competition—if not conflict—with China looms.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos invoked Boeing in his opening statement to the antitrust subcommittee, as a testament to the power of scale. Boeing, in fact, now stands as one of the best warnings about monopoly and the national champions narrative.

In the two decades since it merged with McDonnell Douglas, Boeing has gone from being the crown jewel of American manufacturing to a scandal-ridden, financially-distressed giant that kills its customers. Numerous journalistic accounts have shown that as Boeing became America’s jet monopoly, its corporate culture evolved from engineer-driven innovation to outsourcing and financial optimization. The lesson for America and for Big Tech couldn’t be clearer.

Intel’s July announcement that it was considering outsourcing semiconductor manufacturing was another body blow to both American prestige and national security. Like Boeing, Intel was considered a cornerstone of American high-tech manufacturing. Its failure further demonstrates the folly of relying on Big Business and Big Tech to save America.

Yet despite these inconvenient realities, expect to hear more about China if the political pressure on tech monopolists continues. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s famous take on patriotism: The China defense may be the last refuge of the Big Tech scoundrel.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

Article originally published at Newsweek.

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