“Merchants of death” was a sobriquet once applied to the arms industry, notably by the journalists F.C. Hanighen and H.C. Engelbrecht in the title of a book they published in 1934. Today the real merchants of death are not the arms dealers but those who sell the idea of war within America’s policy elite, both inside and outside of government. They possess a monopoly on respectability, and politicians who thirst for respect from the real governing class need little incentive to adopt the ideas of the smart set. Those who don’t play along get the treatment meted out to Ron Paul or Tulsi Gabbard—or Donald Trump.
Trump does not crave respectability. He supplies whatever desire for approval he feels from his own reservoir of self-esteem. This makes him seem arrogant and perversely proud of his ignorance, so far as his enemies see it, but in fact it means he is largely immune to the ideological virus to which virtually all other politicians are susceptible. Trump knows that the foreign policy establishment is bankrupt. And that’s what makes him a president who can actually give peace a chance.
Expert opinion holds that the U.S. should be deeply involved in Syria, even to the point of fighting a two-front war with Bashar al-Assad and groups like the Islamic State. The same experts believe that the U.S. should not plan to leave Afghanistan any time soon. On the contrary, in moments of candor, many a general and think-tank apparatchik will remind you that the U.S. has happily had forces in Germany and Japan for about 70 years, so why not Afghanistan, too? Toward Russia, our policy must be one of renewed Cold War. NATO should expand indefinitely. War with Iran is inevitable, at least as far as the Republican part of the foreign policy establishment is concerned. Saudi Arabia’s wars are our wars, too. And North Korea should cause us all to lose sleep at night.
Trump dissents from almost all of this, with the regrettable exception of his support for Mohammed bin Salman’s war in Yemen. He would like to get out of Syria and Afghanistan. He has mused about pulling out of NATO, whose members, he believes, are taking advantage of American generosity without contributing to our security. He sees Russia as a potential partner, not a permanent enemy, and Kim Jong-un as a self-interested dictator with whom it’s possible to cut deals, not as an implacable psychopath bent on nuclear terror. He has, to be sure, abandoned Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran. But he has done so without adopting a war program—his approach to Tehran is one of containment, not active regime change.
If Trump had an administration full of people like himself, the U.S. would be assuming a far more restrained grand strategy. Our military would still be the largest in the world—Trump has not been one to scale back outlays for the armed forces—but our wars would be fewer and our commitments no longer open-ended. He would, for the first time since World War II, halt and even reverse the extension of American power into ever more distant lands. By degrees, American engagements have extended from Western Europe and the Pacific Rim deep into the Islamic world and Eurasia, with an increasing tempo of operations in Africa as well. Trump’s mind is as one with millions of ordinary Americans who wonder just when they agreed to this global administrative project.
Yet Trump does not have an administration full of people like himself—he has an administration half-full of people like John Bolton. Trump may not care anything for respectability among the policy-making classes, but the officials who serve under him are for the most part entirely conventional creatures, and they have been conditioned to think that a respectable foreign policy is a foreign policy with expert imprimatur. They want a general or a John Bolton at the head of the National Security Council. And without men of his own to put in place, the easiest thing for Trump to do is to go along with the consensus—even if it means selecting personnel who are in some respects antithetical to his own instincts. The upshot is that the president’s intention to pull our troops out of Syria and Afghanistan gets delayed and diluted, perhaps to the point of no policy change at all. The president is one man versus an entire class of war-loving technocrats. And the truth is that our government is run not by an elected president but by a governing class. That Trump defies this class in so many ways is the real reason he is hated not only by Democrats and liberals but by Republican and neoconservative technocrats, too. He represents a challenge to the regime.
In this, Trump merits some comparison to Dwight D. Eisenhower. The 34th president’s Farewell Address harkened back to the fears of Hanighen, Engelbrecht, and the Nye Committee about “merchants of death,” who in Eisenhower’s more temperate language became “the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower acknowledged the necessity of a great military and arms industry for meeting the needs of the Cold War. But he cautioned against their corrupting influence and warned that “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded…in holding scientific discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Already in 1961, Eisenhower saw democracy losing ground to technocracy. What he did not know was that in the decades following the end of the Cold War, technocracy would become progressively more ideological and detached from strategic realities.
Trump represents a return to reality: the reality that the wars we have fought since the first Bush administration have not improved American security or established a sustainable “liberal world order,” and the reality that the American public has limited patience with foreign excursions that serve no discernible national interest. Trump’s opponents in the foreign policy establishment imagine that their resources for remaking the world are infinite—that America’s morale as well as blood and treasure is inexhaustible. Trump knows otherwise, as do the Americans who must pay for and fight the wars that the policy elite dreams up.
Trump is a peace president on balance, but he also shows the limitations of having only a president who wants foreign policy restraint. To carry through on Trump’s promise of realignment in American grand strategy will require a class, or counter-elite, to help him or future presidents like him. There was a time between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and the first Persian Gulf War when our country had a policy-making class that included realists and skeptics of overextension. They were particularly influential within the Republican Party, as it happens. Trump cannot conjure into existence a new generation of Republican realists, but his commonsense attitudes toward retrenchment have widened and redefined the national conversation. And he’s shown that the cult of respectability can be beaten by a leader who is willing to call the wares of our merchants of death exactly what they are—grotesque mistakes and the dreams of fools.
Trump has shown what even one man who dares speak impolitic truths can accomplish. Imagine what an entire class of such people could do.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and editor-at-large of The American Conservative.