The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hostility toward the foreign policy community, explained

It used to be about the foreign policy, man.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn arrives for a status hearing related to his guilty plea on charges that he made false statements in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation, at U.S. District Court in Washington, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

As is true of everything in the Age of Trump, last week’s dust-up between Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Trump administration envoy Elliott Abrams will soon fade from our memories. Before that happens, however, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would like to consider the fury that particular episode unleashed.

Obviously, the human rights atrocities that took place in Central America in the early 1980s inspire real anger at Abrams from progressive activists. But this goes beyond Abrams. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp gets at this in his wrap-up column on the whole affair:

A longstanding left-wing critique of American foreign policy is that it is incredibly insular and notoriously slanted in favor of US military intervention abroad, regardless of which party is in the White House. The Washington foreign policy debate is typically between centrists and neoconservatives over how heavily to intervene in foreign conflicts, rather than whether the United States should intervene at all.
A key reason this situation persists, critics (including me) argue, is that there’s a culture of elite impunity in Washington in which those responsible for previous policy disasters not only face virtually zero professional consequences (let alone legal ones) for their actions but in fact are welcomed back into cushy academic, think tank, and government positions.

Beauchamp gets at part of the problem with this analysis, but I’m not sure it reflects the genuine contempt that some groups of elites feel toward foreign policy elites. Because let’s be clear, almost none of this rage is coming from the mass public. As Spoiler Alerts has pointed out repeatedly, the American public has shifted toward the liberal internationalism that much of the foreign policy community embraces. Indeed, the few areas where the public is not on board with the foreign policy consensus are the areas in which it is closest to Trump’s populist nationalism. The truth is that the public largely does not care about foreign policy. This is elite-on-elite rage.

My favorite recent example of this genre comes from the National Interest’s Hunter DeRensis earlier this month. After noting the recent exchange between Francis Fukuyama and Stacey Abrams in the pages of Foreign Affairs, DeRensis goes on an extended rant directed at that periodical: “There is no little irony in Foreign Affairs becoming a forum for the side of 'oppressed’ minorities, the marginalized segments of society, and the quest for full equality. That’s because the magazine, much like the original Council on Foreign Relations, a redoubt of the once-proud WASP establishment, is itself the prototypical example of an elitist magazine.” He concludes, “Far from being a voice for the underclass, Foreign Affairs epitomizes what the identity politics movement fights hardest against: privilege. Perhaps this old vessel of upper-class thought sees choppy waters ahead for anyone who doesn’t join the diversity wave.”

I have so many questions after reading DeRensis’s essay, but I think the principal one is: When in its entire history has the National Interest ever been thought of as a voice for the underclass? If the National Interest is attacking Foreign Affairs for being too elitist, you know things are rough out there.

Still, just because this anger is not broad-based does not mean it lacks foundation. And a recent interim staff report to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform helps to highlight a legitimate reason for such animus. The report explains how former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump confidant Tom Barrack attempted to push a plan through the National Security Council to sell U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Barrack and Flynn pushed for this even though such a move would have violated U.S. law. The report suggests that they both stood to gain financially from such a move.

Even the harshest critics of the foreign policy community would acknowledge that Flynn is not exactly a member in good standing. According to NBC News’s Ken Dilanian, however, some of the other people involved are another story:

The proposal, which involved enlisting the U.S. nuclear power industry to build nuclear plants across the Middle East, was backed by a group of retired generals who formed a firm called IP3. Flynn described himself in financial disclosure filings as an “advisor” to a subsidiary of IP3, IronBridge Group Inc., from June 2016 to December 2016 — at the same time he was serving as Trump’s national security adviser during the presidential campaign and the presidential transition, the report says....
The proposal, dubbed by its backers a “Middle East Marshall Plan,” involved IP3 International, which is short for “International Peace Power & Prosperity.” Among those involved with IP3, according to published reports, were Gens. Keith Alexander, Jack Keane and James Cartwright; former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross; George W. Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend; and Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s national security advisers. Keane was considered by Trump for secretary of defense.

And here we get to one nub of the problem. It is one thing for a foreign policy professional to stake out a position and then be proven wrong. It is another thing entirely to do that and then monetize one’s foreign policy expertise through consulting that undermines the national interest.

As the Ideas Industry becomes big business, former government officials seem to have less compunction about cashing in their expertise. It is hard to blame other elites for their ire about the phenomenon.