In the latest example of how foreign policy no longer neatly aligns with party politics, the Charles Koch Institute — the think tank founded and funded by energy billionaire Charles Koch — hosted an all-day event Wednesday featuring a set of speakers you would be more likely to associate with a left-wing anti-war rally than a gathering hosted by a longtime right-wing institution.
At the event, titled “Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy,” prominent realist and liberal foreign policy scholars took turns trashing the neoconservative worldview that has dominated the foreign policy thinking of the Republican Party — which the Koch brothers have been allied with for decades.
Most of the speakers assailed the Iraq War, nation building, and regime change. During a panel event also featuring former Obama Pentagon official Kathleen Hicks, foreign policy scholar John Mearsheimer brought the crowd to applause by denouncing American military overreach.
“We need to pull back, stop fighting all these wars. Stop defending rich people who are fully capable of defending themselves, and instead spend the money at home. Period. End of story!” he said, in remarks that began with a denunciation of the dilapidated state of the Washington Metrorail system.
“I completely agree on infrastructure,” Hicks said. “A big footprint in the Middle East is not helpful to the United States, politically, militarily, or otherwise.”
Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, decried U.S. thinking on toppling foreign governments. “One has to start questioning the basic premise of regime change, whether it is to be accomplished by invasion and occupation or by covert action or the empowerment of NGO activity on the ground or other means,” he reflected. “Frankly, it generally doesn’t go well.”
“If you want to know why our bridges are rickety … our children are educationally malnourished, think of where we put the money,” concluded Freeman, pointing to the outsized military budget.
Over lunch, Stephen Walt, the Foreign Policy columnist and Harvard realist foreign policy scholar, said the presidential election is providing evidence that the military-restraint camp is starting to make progress. “On the campaign trail, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have gotten receptive audiences when they questioned certain aspects of foreign policy. Really, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate defending the status quo,” he boasted. “I think those public doubts are not surprising because … our current policy has been a costly failure.”
Walt dubbed his own prescription for foreign policy “offshore balancing” — a middle ground between full-scale military engagement and isolationism, where the U.S. would engage diplomatically and economically first and foremost, and retain the capacity to militarily intervene only when major power imbalances occur, where one state would be able to threaten global security.
Mearshiemer, Walt, and Freeman are particularly despised by neocons, and not simply for their starkly different policy prescriptions. Walt and Mearsheimer’s 2006 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy was critical of the U.S.-Israel relationship, arguing that it was overly influenced by domestic interest groups. Freeman’s nomination to an intelligence post in the Obama White House was derailed by behind-the-scenes accusations that he wasn’t sufficiently pro-Israel.
Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake, a hawkish supporter of Israeli government policies, expressed horror at their appearance on institute panels in a column on Wednesday, writing that “the Kochs have stayed away from the uglier fringes that blame Israel and its supporters for hijacking U.S. foreign policy. That is, until now.”
The lone prominent hawk among the panelists was Michael O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institute scholar and liberal interventionist. But perhaps in deference to the audience’s skepticism of nation building and sustained military engagement, even O’Hanlon said we need to be “very selective about when we actually employ military force,” insisting that he preferred utilizing economic sanctions rather than war in possible future confrontations with Russian and Chinese spheres of influence.
Still unresolved is whether the institute intends to take on neoconservative orthodoxy on a regular basis. “Part of what the Charles Koch Institute can do is to help increase the range of arguments on the table, have that marketplace of ideas, so the best ideas can win so that our country can flourish,” said William Ruger, the institute’s vice president for research and policy. Ruger told The Intercept that numerous additional foreign policy-centric events are planned.
“I certainly think we’re uneasy with the status quo. It doesn’t seem like the status quo is making us safer, especially given the cost of this to our soldiers, especially given the high expense in terms of our fiscal situation. Also in terms of some of the ways it affects our civil liberties as well as our standing in the world. We want to make sure that we’re not missing opportunities for ideas to be added to this conversation.”