Even if Donald Trump loses on November 8, his insurgent campaign for the White House will have accomplished something remarkable: running the hawks out of the Republican Party. Until Trump came along, this small but potent band of scholars, commentators and ex–government officials controlled GOP foreign policy for more than two decades, steering the U.S. into a disastrous invasion of Iraq.
The group formed after voters swept Bill Clinton into the presidency in 1992. William Kristol, who had served as Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff under George H.W. Bush, was suddenly out of a job. Around Washington, Kristol was known as “Dan Quayle’s brain,” which no doubt limited his prospects. So he teamed with former Department of State speech writer Robert Kagan, and together they dreamed up an audacious stunt: Urge Clinton to go to war against Iraq.
Calling themselves the Project for the New American Century, Kristol and Kagan convinced 23 former government officials, including three ex–Cabinet members—former secretary of education William Bennett and former secretaries of defense Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—to sign PNAC’s statement of principles to “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values.” Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein topped their list.
The old idea of turning Afghanistan into some version of Iowa—the American people won’t go for it anymore.
President Clinton ignored them, and they were left waiting for a president to influence. By 2000, the hawks saw Governor George W. Bush of Texas as their mark. But there was a problem: Bush campaigned by arguing for a “humble” U.S. foreign policy. “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it’s got to be,’” Bush argued. This position flew in the face of the hawks’ interventionist agenda.
Then Bush put Cheney in charge of selecting his vice president, and Cheney selected himself. After they won, the Bush-Cheney team reinstated Rumsfeld as secretary of defense (the position he’d held during Gerald R. Ford’s presidency) and let about a dozen other hawks into the White House. After 9/11, the hawks finally had the momentum they needed for a Middle East invasion. Bush’s then secretary of state, Colin Powell, warned against an invasion, not only because Iraq had never attacked the United States but also because Powell feared what he called his Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.
“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all,” Powell told Bush.
It’s been almost 14 years since the hawks got their war, and Powell’s warning still rings true. That hasn’t stopped the hawks from holding sway in GOP circles. A year ago they had Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio advocating for more overseas adventures. All that ended with Trump.
“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake,” Trump said in one of the GOP debates. “Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We have destabilized the Middle East.” Later, in an interview with The New York Times, he added, “If our presidents would have just gone to the beach and enjoyed the ocean and the sun, we would’ve been much better off in the Middle East.”
For the neoconservatives, this was heresy. That the message got traction with voters made them apoplectic. Leading neocon Peter Wehner charged in The New York Times that Trump is “erratic” and “unprincipled” and “possesses a streak of crudity and cruelty.”
“Those objections are just a camouflage for deep policy differences,” says Faith Whittlesey, a senior advisor and U.S. ambassador in Ronald Reagan’s White House, and a Trump supporter. “The [hawks] are Brahmins in the imperial city of D.C., and their policies reigned supreme. Trump comes along and challenges their basic assumptions, and they don’t want that.”
They also realize voters have no taste for new wars. “The old idea of going in and turning Iraq or Afghanistan into some version of Iowa—the American people won’t go for it anymore,” says conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan. “They’re going to have a hellish time making their case for future interventions.”
If Trump wins, the hawks face a total shutout. “They’re going to have zero influence in the Trump administration—zero,” is how one of his advisors puts it. “The neocons are going to be persona non grata.”
In early September there was talk of a potential resurgence should the presidency go to Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war. But when Clinton declared on NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops,” the lights dimmed at neocon central.