The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A conservative think tank turns away from Reagan and toward Trump

Ukrainian troops prepare to fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on July 14. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

In the battle for the soul of GOP foreign policy between establishment Republicans and Trump-style national conservatives, the former still hold the levers of official power but the latter are gaining ground. The Heritage Foundation’s turn toward the “new right” is the clearest symbol yet that the MAGA movement’s foreign policy is becoming institutionalized but moving further away from the Republican leadership.

The Heritage Foundation has been an influential brain trust for GOP administrations since the Reagan years — and still claims to stand for Ronald Reagan’s doctrine of “peace through strength.” But beginning in the Trump era, and even more so now under its new president, Kevin Roberts, Heritage is moving away from that tradition, according to several foreign policy staffers who recently left the foundation.

Half a dozen foreign policy analysts have left the foundation this year, while several other former employees are publicly accusing Roberts and Heritage of abandoning the national security principles and policies that it (and the Republican Party) once stood for.

“This pivot on foreign policy is ignorant, reckless, and it is clearly elevating partisan opportunism over literally decades of principle,” former Heritage foreign policy analyst Klon Kitchen, who left last year, told me. “It’s sad to see, and that’s why Heritage is hemorrhaging foreign policy expertise.”

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After Heritage Action, the organization’s political wing, opposed the $40 billion Ukraine aid bill in May, two of the foundation’s top Russia analysts resigned. Since then, three senior members of Heritage’s Asia team, a top defense budget analyst and a top trade analyst have all departed. Their replacements include several senior Trump administration National Security Council and State Department officials.

Some former staffers told me Roberts has prioritized political messaging over policy formation. As Heritage becomes beholden to the MAGA movement’s political whims, these analysts allege, the organization is now following the mob rather than leading it, rendering serious policy work irrelevant. But the mixing of politics and policy at think tanks is nothing new.

What’s more interesting is the result. On Ukraine, Heritage has broken with center-right think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute and is now aligned with the Center for Renewing America (run by Donald Trump’s former budget director Russ Vought), the Koch Institute, and conservatives at the Quincy Institute, who all argue for “restraint,” meaning the opposite of the long-standing internationalist bipartisan D.C. foreign policy consensus.

In an interview, Roberts told me he is trying to position Heritage to be relevant to both sides of the conservative foreign policy world. Calling himself a “recovering neocon,” he said Washington is caught in a false dichotomy between interventionism and isolationism.

“Heritage is moving toward an explicit embrace of restraint, that’s true,” he said. “But we’ve always talked about restraint.”

He said Heritage’s opposition to the Ukraine bill passed by Congress in May was based on a lack of accountability in the text. Eleven GOP senators and 57 GOP House members voted against it. This week, as weapons provided under that bill are helping Ukraine to liberate areas from Russian occupation, center-right conservatives are attacking Heritage and others opposed to a new Ukraine aid package pending in Congress as “useful idiots.”

Roberts claimed the next batch of Ukraine legislation would fund “social justice programs being spent through USAID” and “nefarious things the State Department wants to do.” He has personally talked with several GOP lawmakers about the issue and predicts more no votes this time around: “That’s where the conservative movement is going on foreign policy.”

While Roberts tells mainstream newspaper columnists he wants Heritage to be a big ideological tent, he sometimes strikes a different tone when talking to the Trump base. This week at the National Conservatism Conference, Roberts said, “I come not to invite national conservatives to join our conservative movement, but to acknowledge the plain truth that Heritage is already part of yours.”

After being criticized for Heritage’s stance on Ukraine aid in May, Roberts praised Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for his “leadership” in opposing aid, a not-so-subtle jab at the GOP’s actual leadership, which he called “swampy” for supporting the assistance package.

Last year, when he was still chief executive of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Roberts said “nation-building advocates within the Trump administration became part of the deep state” and were “treasonous.” In July on Fox News, Roberts said it’s time for the United States to declare independence from the “liberal world order.”

There are certainly important lessons to be learned from past failed U.S. interventions abroad. And no foreign policy can be successful without the support of the American people. The “new right” foreign policy vision touches on some legitimate grievances, and there’s no doubt that adherents have the enthusiasm within the Republican Party. But they don’t have the majority or the power — yet.

Heritage is positioned well for success among the conservative base — while the GOP is in opposition. But when Republicans eventually return to power, Roberts and Heritage will no longer be able to straddle the fence. Will the party of Reagan really become the party of foreign policy “restraint”? For the sake of the country and the world, let’s hope not.