From left: David Friedman (Credit:US Ambassador to Israel); Nikki Haley (Gage Skidmore/Flickr); H.R. McMaster (Munich Security Conference 2018/Flickr)
Nikki Haley’s ‘American Strength’ manifesto is more weak hawk sauce

The group is a who’s who of discredited hardliners who haven’t had an original foreign policy idea in 20 years.

A new Republican advocacy group, Stand for America, recently released a “policy book” outlining its views on both domestic and foreign policy. But the foreign policy views contained in this “book” are a grab bag of conventional hawkish nostrums. Moreover, the contents of the foreign policy section read like a litany of propaganda talking points focused on railing against China, Russia, and Iran, all of which are painted simply as rapacious enemies bent on conquest and destruction. 

The group’s stark Manichean rhetoric seems like a throwback to the earliest days of the “war on terror,” complete with references to clashes of civilizations and combating barbarism. The contributors themselves are mostly a Who’s Who of discredited hard-liners — beginning with the organization’s founder, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. The roster goes on to include President Trump’s National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, former ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) president John Hagee. 

The heavy representation of former Trump officials is a reminder of just how hawkish the Trump administration’s foreign policy was, demonstrating how little change there has been in Republican thinking on foreign policy over the last five years. 

Haley sets the aggressive tone in her introduction to the foreign policy section: “On the one side is freedom, embodied in America. On the other side is tyranny — brutal, barbaric tyranny. We face enemies who don’t just want to defeat us. They want to destroy our way of life and bring the world back to the Dark Ages.” One might have thought that the last 20 years of fruitless crusading would have killed off such simplistic ideological zealotry, but the many failures of hawkish policies seem only to have made Haley and her allies more confrontational. 

Haley claims that China “is striving to control and conquer the world,” and warns that Iran is “plotting” terrible things against America. Her discussion of these countries never rises above reflexive vilification. She also casts Russia as “more aggressive” and concludes that Russia “won’t stop until it starts paying a steep price.” It never occurs to her to ask whether imposing that steep price serves U.S. interests. It is taken for granted that inflicting punishment is desirable. 

Meanwhile, H.R. McMaster merely restates his boilerplate arguments on China. According to him, U.S. policies have nothing to do with anything China does, and he rejects the idea that any of our policies in the region have increased tensions. He derides critics of a new Cold War by accusing them of strategic narcissism when he is the one incapable of understanding how anyone else sees the world. As the Quincy Institute’s Ethan Paul has explained before, McMaster doesn’t understand China or the concepts of strategic empathy or strategic narcissism, and those same errors crop up again here. He wrongly claims that critics of more aggressive policies toward China “attribute causality to us [the United States] alone.” It is much more accurate to say that McMaster refuses for ideological reasons to acknowledge that U.S. policies can sometimes backfire and provoke dangerous reactions from other states. 

Rep. Michael Waltz, a Republican Congressman from Florida, has quickly emerged as one of the most strident hawks since he was first elected in 2018. He recites a familiar list of complaints about withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the bizarre objection that evacuating Bagram air base deprives the U.S. of the ability to threaten China from the west. Some of his strongest objections to the withdrawal are that it will make it more difficult to start new wars. He laments that Iran “no longer fears a U.S. attack on its eastern flank,” as if there were a legitimate reason to be attacking Iran from any direction. Waltz repeats his call to designate the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, which would compound the already severe humanitarian and economic crises that Afghanistan now faces. He says that the U.S. should not turn its back on the Afghan people, and then proposes to wage economic war on them.

David Friedman’s contribution on Iran may be the most misleading of all. He repeats many false claims that the Trump administration has made about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and he echoes bad faith criticisms of the agreement that have been circulating for more than six years. At one point, he sneaks in a blatant falsehood when he says that “the deal was intended to slow down the Iranian nuclear weapons program” when Iran didn’t and doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the sweeping and far-reaching demands that the Trump administration made as part of the failed “maximum pressure” campaign, which he risibly calls “Donald Trump’s campaign of strength.” 

Naturally, Friedman doesn’t admit that it was “maximum pressure” and Israeli sabotage efforts that have driven the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program over the last two years, and he has nothing to say about the serious hardships that sanctions have created for tens of millions of ordinary Iranians. To create a sharper contrast with Biden, he wrongly describes the president as “desperate to overturn the Trump administration’s Iran policy and revitalize the JCPOA.” It would be wonderful if Biden’s Iran policy were different enough from his predecessor’s to merit such a description, but that isn’t true, either.

If all that weren’t enough to read like a parody of a hawkish argument, Friedman declares, “Iran is an evil empire that respects only strength.” This is the same crude thinking that brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war more than once during Trump’s presidency, and it will take us to the same place again if these views shape policy in a future administration.

John Hagee’s submission isn’t really a policy argument so much as it is a paean to the supposed virtues of the U.S.-Israel relationship, whose importance Hagee, the head of CUFI, can’t help but exaggerate. To call his article a whitewash of the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t do justice to how uncritical his expressions of support and admiration are. He asserts that “Israelis value human and civil rights,” but of course does not so much as mention the millions of Palestinians whose rights are routinely violated and denied under Israeli rule. That is not surprising coming from an ideologue as extreme as Hagee, but Hagee’s inclusion in this group reflects how extreme this new organization is on issues related to Israel.

Unsurprisingly for a document called “American Strength,” the main emphasis in almost all the entries is on coercion and military power. When diplomacy does come up, it is only so the contributors can dismiss and denigrate it as foolhardy and a waste of time. If someone wanted to find the antithesis of foreign policy realism and restraint distilled into one collection of articles, this “book” would be a good candidate. The good news for advocates of restraint is that the arguments contained in it are exceptionally weak and they shouldn’t appeal to many people except other hard-liners.

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