The Challenge of Setting in Motion US Foreign and Defense Policy Regime Change: The Perspective of Ron Maxwell


2017-07-31 In a piece published on July 31, 2017 by Ron Maxwell, the writer and director of the Civil War trilogy of movies: Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, Copperhead looks at why the legacy dominates, and why new approaches remain in the wings.

How Romney Loyalists Hijacked Trump’s Foreign Policy

Those who play the game by establishment rules are waived in. Those who would challenge the status quo are kept out.

In 2015, as Trump’s rise in the polls raised alarms among establishment Republicans, notable proponents of the neoconservative foreign policy began hedging their bets. Ready to back anyone but Trump, they laid plans for a fallback position in case their favored candidates, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, failed to stop Trump’s populist insurgency. In public expressions and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, they supported Hillary Clinton over the rising Trump. These were die-hard globalists who had argued for every military intervention in the recent past (Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq 1, Afghanistan, Iraq 2, Libya, Syria, Yemen), and they would become the vanguard of the Never Trump counterinsurgency.

Mitt Romney positioned himself as the standard bearer for the Never Trump forces. As the most recent Republican presidential candidate, he was expected to become an insurmountable obstacle to Trump’s hopes for the nomination with pronouncements such as the following: “Donald Trump tells us that he is very, very smart. I’m afraid that when it comes to foreign policy he is very, very not smart….Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud.”

Romney then hatched a plan to block Trump’s path to the nomination: “Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.”

Within hours of Trump’s emergence as the putative Republican nominee, the Never Trump cadres initiated numerous rearguard actions designed to elect Clinton, whom they correctly saw as the candidate who would implement their neocon foreign policy of regime change, nation-building, humanitarian intervention, meddling in foreign civil wars and domestic affairs, spreading democracy, confronting Russia, maintaining America’s state of perpetual covert and overt war, and requiring the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of troops in every corner of the globe costing billions of taxpayer dollars.  

Romney and his Never Trump network even initiated a last-ditch plan in the event the polls narrowed: throw Utah to an independent candidate. In a close election, they reasoned, neutralizing Utah’s electoral votes could foreclose an Electoral College majority, thus throwing the election into the U.S. House of Representatives. There, establishment loyalists of both parties might throw the victory to Clinton. 

It was not to be. Although many issues influenced the race, certainly one was the antipathy American citizens held for the pointless nonstop wars perpetrated by Beltway political elites. To cite just two indicators, among many: South Carolina primary voters selected Trump over Jeb Bush even after Trump’s over-the-top criticisms of his brother’s decision to go to war in Iraq. A recent study described in the Kansas City Star reveals that Clinton could have won the presidency  if the burden of war was lower in key states. The headline: “Higher war casualties in key swing states may have swung November’s presidential election away from Hillary Clinton.”  

Hardly anyone could miss Trump’s style in victory. If he could have had a Triumphal Arch constructed at government expense on the Washington Mall, he would have done so, along with his own version of Hadrian’s wall at the southern border. His ubiquitous post-campaign rallies are modern day equivalents of Caesars’ triumphal processions through the streets of Rome.

And it wasn’t surprising that the unlikely victor would summon the defeated Mitt Romney for what looked like rounds of public submission and humiliation. Romney was all too eager to oblige, proving once again that those who lust for power can be easily manipulated. 

But through all of that, in thought, word, and deed, the highly networked neocons demonstrated their fierce devotion to the globalist, internationalist, interventionist cause. No amount of failure, death, destruction, or proliferation of failed states in the wake of their implemented strategies compelled a rethinking of their goals or a modification of their utopian theories. 

While prominent neocon and establishment luminaries who derided Trump from the beginning couldn’t expect seats at the Trump table, their lesser known minions infiltrated key precincts of Trump’s transition teams. Their astute sponsors, the neocon bigwigs, knew the neophyte president could not know who was who in the political and policy firmament of Washington. Neocon cadres had had at least a quarter century to embed themselves into every nook and cranny of the federal bureaucracy—at State, Defense, national security agencies, congressional offices, think tanks, nongovernment organizations, and the national media.

Within weeks a pattern emerged in the new administration. Covert Never Trump Republicans were getting hired; proven and loyal Trump supporters were blocked. Of course, notorious neocon Never Trumpers who had signed public letters knew they couldn’t possibly enlist, so they resigned themselves to moving their protégés and acolytes into positions of influence and power. Occasionally they tried for direct access to appointments for themselves, but this was a heavier lift. Elliott Abrams was a case in point. 

Christopher Halloran /

Rex Tillerson, formidably accomplished in global business, was nevertheless as much a neophyte as his boss when it came to navigating the policy terrain of the D.C. swamp. As is well known, in building his team he relied on those two neocon avatars, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, who had originally promoted his own candidacy for secretary of state. But Rice had been a vocal part of the neocon Never Trump coalition. Her anti-Trump pronouncements included: “Donald Trump should not be president….He doesn’t have the dignity and stature to be president.” The Washington Post greeted her 2017 book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, as “a repudiation of Trump’s America First worldview.” 

Thus it wasn’t surprising that Rice would introduce Elliott Abrams to Tillerson as an ideal candidate for State’s No. 2 position. This would have placed a dyed-in-the-wool neocon hardliner at the very top of the State Department’s hierarchy and given him the power to hire and fire all undersecretaries across the vast foreign policy empire. Rice, one of the architects of George W. Bush’s failed policies of regime change and nation building, would have consolidated a direct line of influence into the highest reaches of the Trump foreign policy apparatus. 

Not only was Abrams’ entire career a refutation of Trump’s America First foreign policy, but he had spent the previous eighteen months publicly bashing Trump in harsh terms. Cleverly, however, he had not signed either of the two Never Trump letters co-signed by most of the other neocon foreign policy elite. Abrams almost got the nod, except for a last-minute intervention by Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who was armed with every disparaging anti-Trump statement Abrams had made. Examples: “This is a question of character.…He is not fit to sit in the chair of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln….his absolute unwillingness to learn anything about foreign policy….Hillary would be better on foreign policy.…I’m not going to vote for Trump….”

But Abrams’ rejection was the exception. As a high profile globalist-interventionist he could not easily hide his antipathy toward the Trump doctrine. Others, whose track records and private comments were more easily obscured, were waived in by gatekeepers whose mission it was (and remains) to populate State, DoD, and national security agencies with establishment and neocon cadres, not with proven Trump supporters and adherents to his foreign policy. 

But how did the gatekeepers get in? Romney may have disappeared from the headlines, but he never left the sidelines. His chess pieces were already on the board, occupying key squares and prepared to move. 

Once the president opened the door to RNC chairman Reince Priebus as his chief of staff, to Rex Tillerson at State, to James Mattis as defense secretary, and to H. R. McMaster at NSC, the neocons just walked in. While each of these political and military luminaries may publicly support the president’s policies and in some instances may sincerely want to see them implemented, their entire careers have been spent within the establishment and neocon elite. They don’t know any other world view or any other people. 

Donald Trump ran on an America First foreign policy, repeatedly deriding George W. Bush for invading Iraq in 2003. He criticized Clinton and Obama for their military interventions in Libya and their support for regime change in Syria. He questioned the point of the endless Afghan war. He criticized the Beltway’s hostile obsession with Russia while it ignored China’s military buildup and economic threat to America.

Throughout the campaign Trump made abundantly clear his foreign policy ethos. If elected he would stop the policy of perpetual war, strengthen America’s military, take care of U.S. veterans, focus particularly on annihilating the ISIS caliphate, protect the homeland from Islamist radicalism, and promote a carefully calibrated America First policy. 

But, despite this clear record, according to Politico and other Beltway journals, the president has been entreated in numerous White House and Pentagon meetings to sign off on globalist foreign policy goals, including escalating commitments to the war in Afghanistan. These presentations, conducted by H.R. McMaster and others, were basically arguments to continue the global status quo; in other words, a foreign policy that Clinton would have embraced. Brian Hook and Nadia Schadlow were two of the lesser known policy wonks who participated in these meetings, determining vital issues of war and peace.

Brian Hook, head of State Department policy planning, is an astute operative and member in good standing of the neocon elite. He’s also a onetime foreign policy adviser to Romney and remains in close touch with him. Hook was one of the founders, along with Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman, of the anti-Trump John Hay Initiative. Hook organized one of the Never Trump letters during the campaign, and his views are well-known, in part through a May 2016 piece by Julia Hoffe in Politico Magazine. A passage: “My wife said, ‘never,’” said Brian Hook, looking pained and slicing the air with a long, pale hand. ….Even if you say you support him as the nominee,” Hook says, “you go down the list of his positions and you see you disagree on every one.” 

One might wonder how a man such as Hook could become the director of policy planning and a senior adviser to Rex Tillerson, advising on all key foreign policy issues? The answer is: the Romney network. 

Consider also the case of Margaret Peterlin, assigned as a Sherpa during the transition to guide Tillerson through the confirmation process. Another experienced Beltway insider, Peterlin promptly made herself indispensable to Tillerson and blocked anyone who wanted access to him, no matter how senior. Peterlin then brought Brian Hook onboard, a buddy from their Romney days, to serve as the brains for foreign policy while she was serving as the Gorgon-eyed chief of staff.

According to rumor, the two are now blocking White House personnel picks, particularly Trump loyalists, from appointments at State. At the same time, they are bringing aboard neocons such as Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute and notorious Russia hawk, and Wess Mitchell, president of the neocon Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). As special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Volker is making proclamations to inflame the conflict and further entangle the United States. 

Meanwhile, Mitchell, another Romney alumnus and a Brian Hook buddy from the John Hay Initiative, has been nominated as assistant secretary of state for European and Erurasian affairs. Brace yourself for an unnecessary Cold War with Russia, if not a hot one. While Americans may not really care whether ethnic Russians or ethnic Ukrainians dominate the Donbass, these guys do.

Then there’s Nadia Schadlow, another prominent operative with impeccable neocon credentials. She was the senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, where her main job was to underwrite the neocon project by offering grants to the many think tanks in their network. For the better part of a decade she pursued a PhD under the tutelage of Eliot Cohen, who has pronounced himself a “Never Trumper” and has questioned the president’s mental health. Cohen, along with H.R. McMaster, provided editorial guidance to Schadlow for her book extolling nation-building and how we can do more of it. 

Relationships beget jobs, which is how Schadlow became deputy assistant to the president, with the task, given by her boss H.R. McMaster, of writing the administration’s National Security Strategy. Thus do we have a neocon stalwart who wrote the book on nation building now writing President Trump’s national security strategy.

How, we might ask, did these Never Trump activists get into such high positions in the Trump administration?  And what was their agenda at such important meetings with the President if not to thwart his America First agenda? Put another way, how did Trump get saddled with nearly Mitt Romney’s entire foreign policy staff? After all, the American people did not elect Mitt Romney when they had the chance. 

Trump is a smart guy. So is Barack Obama. But even Obama, Nobel Peace Prize in hand, could not prevent the inexorable slide to violent regime change in Libya, which resulted in a semi-failed state, tens of thousands killed, and a foothold for Al Queda and other radical Islamists in the Maghreb. He also could not prevent the arming of Islamist rebels in Syria after he had the CIA provide lethal arms strictly to “moderate rebels.” Unable or unwilling to disengage from Afghanistan, Obama acquiesced in a series of Pentagon strategies with fluctuating troop levels before bequeathing to his successor an open ended, unresolved war.

Rumors floating through official Washington suggest the neocons now want to replace Tillerson at State with Trump critic and Neocon darling Nikki Haley, currently pursuing a one-person bellicose foreign policy from her exalted post at the United Nations. Not surprisingly, Haley and Romney go way back. As a firm neocon partisan, she endorsed his presidential bid in 2011.

As UN ambassador, Haley has articulated a nearly incoherent jumble of statements that seem more in line with her own neocon worldview than with Trump’s America First policies. Some samples: 

“I think that, you know, Russia is full of themselves. They’ve always been full of themselves. But that’s – its more of a façade that they try and show as opposed to anything else.” 

“What we are is serious. And you see us in action, so its not in personas. Its in actions and its what we do.” 

“The United States …calls for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.” 

One must ask: Is Ambassador Haley speaking on behalf of the Trump administration when she says it is official U.S. policy that Russia, having annexed Crimea, must return it to Ukraine? Is the Russo-American geopolitical relationship to be held hostage indefinitely because in 2014 the people of Crimea voted for their political reintegration into Russia, which they had been part of since 1776? 

Since there is as much chance of Russia ceding Crimea back to Ukraine as there is of the United States ceding Texas back to Mexico, does this mean there is no possibility of any meaningful cooperation with Russia on anything else? Not even in fighting the common ominous threat from Islamist radicalism? Has Haley committed the American people to this dead-end policy on her own or in consultation with the President? 

On July 14, the Washington Examiner wrote that “Haley’s remarks…set the tone for Trump’s reversal from the less interventionist, ‘America First’ foreign policy he campaigned on.” Little wonder, then, that in a little-noticed victory lap of her own, coinciding with the release of her book, Condoleezza Rice acknowledged the near complete takeover of Trump’s foreign policy team. “The current national security team is terrific,” she said. She even gave Trump her anointed blessing following their recent White House meeting, during which the septuagenarian schoolboy received the schoolmarm’s pat on the head: “He was engaging,” she said. “I found him on top of his brief….asking really good questions.” That’s a far cry from her campaign-season comment about Trump that he “doesn’t have the dignity and stature to be president.”

American foreign policy seems to be on auto-pilot, immune to elections and impervious to the will of the people. It is perpetuated by an entrenched contingent of neocon and establishment zealots and bureaucratic drones in both the public and private sector, whose careers, livelihoods, and very raison d’etre depend on an unchallenged policy of military confrontation with the prestige, power, and cash flow it generates. Those who play the game by establishment rules are waived in. Those who would challenge the status quo are kept out. This is the so-called Deep State, thwarting the will of President Trump and the people who voted for him.

This isn’t merely a story of palace intrigue and revolving chairs in the corridors of power. Brave Americans in the uniform of their country will continue to be sent into far-off lands to intercede in internecine conflicts that have little if anything to do with U.S. national security. Many will return physically shattered or mentally maimed. Others will be returned to Andrews Air Force Base in flag-draped coffins, to be saluted by serial presidents of both parties, helpless to stop the needless carnage.

This article is republished with the permission of the author. 

Editor’s Note: The Maxwell article highlights a a key challenge to restructuring US foreign and defense policy, namely the continued dominance of the Washington high priesthood.

A key challenge to restructuring US foreign and defense policy is the Washington high priesthood.

President’s may come and go but the establishment remains and establishes the bounds of the permissible.

The only problem is that legacy US and defense policy is not viable in meeting the rapidly challenging world of this decade of the 21st century.

The reset of the strategic elite is crucial if the kinds of intellectual thought necessary to fuel a successful adaptation to the new realities of global competition.

As we wrote earlier this year:

The strategic certainties and alliances of the post Cold War world are all now facing severe challenges.

The certainties of the period of globalization are clearly contested on many fronts.

The causes of this crisis are multiple.

Some see the causes as originating in the imperial overreach of the United States in the Middle East. Others blame the imperial overreach of Europe to the borders of Russia. Some blame Russia and Putin for the seizure of the Crimea.

But these causes will be the subject for future historians.

What is clear now is that a new phase is beginning which requires clear headed analysis.

The tectonic plates are shifting and the United States needs to think carefully about the prospects and consequences of these profound changes between (and within) nations, and how best to respond to this new world order (or disorder).

The coming of Trump to Washington could have ushered in this kind of rethink.

It has not happened so far, and, in part, it is the weight of the legacy Republican Party in this case projecting the verities of the past as proper policy.

But one can ask how legacies of nation building and stability operations are going to help the US to get ready for the kind of high tempo and high intensity threats on the doorsteps of the nation?

One can ask how the nation will be respond the last NORAD and Northcom’s Commanders plea to ramp up to deal with the threats from the 10 and 2 O’clock to the nation?

This is a notional rendering of the 10 and 2 O’Clock challenge. It is credited to Second Line of Defense and not in any way an official rendering by any agency of the US government. It is meant for illustration purposes only.

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The Challenge of Regime Change: Ron Maxwell Looks at Why Resetting US Foreign Policy is Stalled