Twilight of the Wise Man

The 2012 election may well mark the last gasp of the Republican foreign-policy establishment. But what’s more remarkable is that it lasted as long as it did.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In September 2005, two U.S. senators walked into a Soviet-era weapons factory in Donetsk, Ukraine. The elder of the two, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, was such a familiar face in the world of international disarmament that he was waved past security at even top-secret Russian nuclear weapons facilities, according to a Chicago Tribune reporter who accompanied the lawmakers’ weeklong tour of the remnants of Cold War arsenals in the former Soviet Union. But his traveling companion, a Democrat 29 years his junior and not even a full year into his first term, was in much less practiced terrain. "All of the workers have masks on," Barack Obama asked Lugar. "Why don’t we?"

The white-haired Lugar, august enough to have briefed Dwight Eisenhower as a young Navy officer, was a shrewd choice of a mentor for Obama, then a rising star with presidential prospects but little international experience. Lugar had devoted his career to working on such unglamorous but significant issues as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, passed by Congress in 1992, which reduced the swollen American and Soviet nuclear arsenals and kept dangerous materials from ending up in the hands of terrorists. Lugar’s measured approach, which prompted Time to name him in 2006 as one of America’s 10 best senators, necessarily involved crossing the aisle: "Even while you remain a strong advocate for your personal worldview, as President you must maximize bipartisan support and frequently seek bipartisan consensus on foreign policy issues," he cautioned in his 1988 book Letters to the Next President. "Lugar still refers to this chapter as a basic primer to the domestic politics of foreign policy," Lugar aide Andy Fisher told me via email.

This kind of above-politics deal-making on matters of global importance was once the hallmark of a whole caste of Republican policymakers, the so-called "wise men": avatars of the establishment who always maintained that foreign affairs is a lofty sphere to be left untainted by partisan bickering. So Lugar, who was enthusiastic about his apprentice as well, did not object when, during the 2008 presidential debates, Obama repeatedly invoked his name. Obama also aired advertisements in Indiana stating that Lugar belonged to a small group that has "shaped my ideas and will be surrounding me in the White House." The message was clear: Obama was anything but a radical and would compensate for his foreign-policy inexperience by seeking the counsel of elder statesmen. When Obama ran into Republican opposition in his efforts to get New START — which continued nuclear arms-control reductions with Moscow — ratified late last year, Lugar worked with his fellow nonproliferationists across the aisle to move it forward. The treaty passed and relations with Moscow improved.

But the same willingness to compromise and work with members of the opposition — be they Russians or Democrats — that made Lugar a venerated figure in the Senate has marked him for destruction by some in his own party. Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, incensed by Lugar’s failure to repudiate the 2008 Obama advertisements and his support for the Supreme Court nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, formally launched the insurrection in February, announcing his Tea Party-backed primary campaign against Lugar: "It is bipartisanship," he said, "that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy."

Mourdock and his supporters have since gleefully picked through the incumbent’s history of close work with Obama, among other things releasing a video in July of the highlights of their friendship titled "Dick & Barry: The Unforgettable Bromance." After Lugar voted in favor of the eleventh-hour debt-ceiling deal that Congress passed in early August, the conservative Citizens United put out a mocking news release declaring that "Dick Lugar just wants to be Barack Obama’s friend." As of a mid-August poll from the Club for Growth, Mourdock — a former mining-company geologist whose political résumé consists of five years as treasurer and a stint as a county commissioner — is narrowly leading Lugar. Lugar’s own internal polls find him up by 14 percentage points, but even so the challenge has already had an effect. National Review’s John J. Miller reported, approvingly, that Lugar hopes to earn new credibility with the right: "He boasts of his votes against Obamacare, cap and trade, and new financial regulations. He has also become a born-again detractor of Obama’s foreign policy, especially on Libya."

It isn’t just the career of the Senate’s senior-most Republican that is at stake here; it is an entire tradition of Republican foreign policy that is being repudiated by the party faithful. As one September letter to the editor of the Indianapolis Star put it, "It is time for [Lugar] to go and it is time for ‘establishment, ruling-class’ Republicans to wake up and support Richard Mourdock or, at least, get out of the way." But Lugar’s predicament is wholly predictable. It’s the logical terminus, you could even say, of a career devoted to a party that has always been divided between the presumptions of its grandee class on the one hand and a resentful and bellicose populist movement on the other. Over the decades, those resentments have repeatedly been papered over, only to re-emerge with increasing virulence. Perhaps the surprising thing isn’t that Lugar and his fellow remnants of the establishment are on the run. It’s that they survived as long as they did inside a party that often regarded the idea of a patrician elite with consternation.


The Republican foreign-policy establishment traces its roots back to the upper-crust Republicans of the late 19th century, a class that saw itself as essentially above politics, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. The Republican elites of the day were conservatives, but not reactionaries; they believed in American power but also in international law and free trade. They saw foreign policy as a calling, one that demanded they serve presidents regardless of their political affiliation, which, again and again, subjected them to the charge of being opportunistic trimmers. Nothing was more important to them than the appearance of personal rectitude and service to the nation.

Perhaps the leading such figure — the archetypal wise man — was the Republican reformer and conservative Elihu Root. Root embodied what would come to be establishment traditions. A secretary of war under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, he supported U.S. entry into the League of Nations and unsuccessfully tried to persuade Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge to drop his campaign to kill it — an early skirmish between internationalism and unilateralism within the GOP, one that the rumbustious Republican reformer Roosevelt had managed to straddle successfully.

No one, however, would become more vital to the perpetuation of the wise-man tradition than Roosevelt’s close friend and Root’s protégé, Henry Stimson. Stimson was an internationalist and reformer in the mold of his mentor. In 1884, when the GOP nominated James G. Blaine — a former senator from Maine known to his many detractors as "Slippery Jim" — for the presidency, Stimson backed reform-minded Democrat Grover Cleveland. It was a taboo-breaking decision roughly equivalent to Colin Powell supporting Obama over John McCain in 2008, but it stopped short of a revolution; for Republicans like Stimson, the notion of actually joining the Democratic Party — a motley crew of Southern Bourbons, Western populists, and Eastern European immigrants — was anathema. Like many liberal Republicans, Stimson was caught in an intellectual bind. As Leonard and Mark Silk observe in The American Establishment, he believed in the progressive thinking espoused by Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic — the conviction that state intervention was necessary to control private corporations from running roughshod over democracy — but could not bring himself to abandon the GOP.

Matters only got worse for Root and Stimson following World War I, when the GOP, after repudiating U.S. entry to the League of Nations, lurched toward isolationism. Stimson and Root, who had always been viewed with misgivings within the party for their reformist instincts, were now relegated to the sidelines. As Stimson tartly observed in his memoirs, he "shared the oblivion which overtook most of the Eastern Republicans during the early 1920’s." Stimson became secretary of state in 1929, but once again disappointment loomed: In 1930, Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which flouted free trade precepts. Stimson felt betrayed. By October 1937, when he condemned "the wave of ostrich-like isolationism which has swept over us" in a letter to the New York Times, he was condemning his own party.

It was the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, viewed as a traitor to his class by many wealthy patricians, who improbably rescued the surviving remnants of the Republican establishment. Under Roosevelt, Stimson became secretary of war and Frank Knox, who had been the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1936, became secretary of the Navy. The wise men viewed doing so as a matter of duty, in accordance with their belief in serving the president over political interests. The GOP, however, would have none of it, and at the 1940 Republican convention, Stimson and Knox were officially booted out of the party. Stimson voted for Roosevelt and mused that "once the central issue of partisan opposition is removed, there are few roses so sweet as those that grow over the party wall."


World War II offered a chance at redemption for the wise men. The conflict relegated the isolationist right to a cranky and often anti-Semitic fringe that commanded no public credence. The establishment was in charge, able to carry out a grand strategy — the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO — to transform the United States into a global power and counter Soviet expansionism, both in Asia and Europe. President Harry Truman’s advisors — Dean Acheson, George C. Marshall, George F. Kennan, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, John McCloy, and others — represented the second generation of the establishment and one that largely emanated from the same influential New York law and business circles that Root and Stimson had emerged from half a century earlier. In his memoir, A Thousand Days, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. astutely noted that Roosevelt and Truman relied on Republicans in part to "avail themselves of Establishment competence, partly to win protective coloration for policies which, with liberals in front, would have provoked conservative opposition. It was never clear who was using whom; but, since it was never clear, each side continued to find final advantages in the arrangement."

But even being a Cold Warrior was no protection from the likes of Joseph McCarthy, William Jenner, and other conservative Republican senators who noisily blamed the Truman administration for losing China following the country’s 1949 communist revolution. Acheson scornfully referred to these critics as "the primitives," and indeed, the fight was as much cultural as it was political. McCarthy called Acheson a "pompous diplomat in striped pants." Nebraska Sen. Hugh Butler declared, "I look at that fellow, I watch his smart-aleck manner and his British clothes and that New Dealism in everything he says and does, and I want to shout, ‘Get out! Get out! You stand for everything that has been wrong in the United States for years.’" When the archconservative John Foster Dulles took the reins of the State Department in 1953, the purges of the Asia division began. Kennan was banished. Acheson’s name was mud.

The wise men’s years in the wilderness were ended, once again, by a liberal Democratic president: John F. Kennedy. Kennedy appointed Kennan ambassador to Yugoslavia, gave Harriman a berth in the State Department, and made Dean Rusk secretary of state and McGeorge Bundy — former amanuensis to Stimson and dean of Harvard University — head of the National Security Council. But the establishment’s moment of rejuvenation set the stage for its splintering: The Vietnam War devolved into a bloody catastrophe, the establishment turned against itself, and the Democratic Party moved left.

Henceforth, the wise men’s patrons would once again be Republicans. President Richard Nixon, who had denounced Acheson as the "Red Dean" in the early 1950s, would consult him during the Vietnam War. It was also Nixon who hired as his national security advisor the man who would become the iconic embodiment of the establishment for the generation to come: Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, then an advisor to liberal Republican New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, worshipped the wise men who had preceded him and sought to become one himself. In his memoir, White House Years, Kissinger recalled, "For the entire postwar period foreign policy had been ennobled by a group of distinguished men who, having established their eminence in other fields, devoted themselves to public service. [They] represented … an aristocracy dedicated to the service of this nation on behalf of principles beyond partisanship."

But such an aristocracy requires a host — and if the Democrats had just delivered a hammer blow to the establishment from the left, the Republicans would soon deliver one from the right. It came in the form of neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, at the time an aide to hawkish Democratic Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, who blasted Nixon and Kissinger as soft on communism. Détente was the neocons’ enemy; Ronald Reagan their champion. The neocons and the right piled on: Kissinger recounted in Years of Upheaval that "Nixon, great tactician that he was, never conceived that he, the renowned Cold Warrior, would in the end be attacked from his old base on the right wing of the Republican party."

This amounted to a return, in rather more sophisticated form, of the atrabilious hatreds of the 1950s radical right. The neocons supplied a patina of intellectual respectability to older arguments about appeasement and traitorous liberal intellectuals residing in the State Department, intent on handing over America’s secrets to the Reds. For good measure they pilloried the rest of the establishment institutions — the New York Times, Harvard, the Ford Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, and so on. But the neocons added a crucial new twist: Israel, support for which became de rigueur on the previously anti-Semitic right.


George H.W. Bush — chauffeured to grade school, graduate of Andover and Yale — was the last scion of the establishment, even as he made obligatory moves to try to disguise his patrician origins. But Bush’s establishment impulses came through again and again — particularly when it came to Israel, which had never been a high priority for foreign-policy realists. They generally saw Israel as an irritant to smooth relations with the Arab states; most members of the establishment in the Truman administration — James Forrestal, Kennan, Marshall, and others — opposed recognizing the country in 1948.

Bush, who was feeling triumphant in the wake of the Gulf War, infuriated Israel’s supporters in 1992 by making new loans to Israel to resettle Russian immigrants conditional on a freeze in settlement activity. During the uproar, Bush referred to himself as "one lonely guy" facing "a thousand [pro-Israel] lobbyists on the Hill." Bush fared poorly with Jewish voters that year, and no subsequent Republican has made the same mistake: Speaking at the Citadel military academy on Oct. 7, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced, "I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state."

It was Bush’s own son, George W. Bush, who finished off what was left of the establishment during his presidency, rejecting Bush Sr. national security advisor Brent Scowcroft’s advice against invading Iraq and emasculating Colin Powell, the last prominent realist holdout in his administration. Since then Powell has occupied a political no-man’s land.

The Republicans like Stimson who crossed party lines to vote for Cleveland in 1884 were known as Mugwumps; they find their descendents in the modern wise men who in recent years have drifted toward the Democratic Party, or at least Obama himself. Scowcroft, for example, unofficially advises Obama on foreign affairs. Powell endorsed Obama for the presidency in 2008. Asked in August whether he would reiterate his support, Powell told Face the Nation — in what amounted to a quintessential establishment statement — that "In the course of my life I have voted for Democrats, I have voted for Republicans, I have changed from one four-year cycle to another, and I’ve always felt it my responsibility as a citizen to take a look at the issues, to examine the candidates, and pick the person that I think is best qualified for the office of the president in that year, and not just solely on the basis of party affiliation."

Meanwhile on the right, the revolt against the establishment is taking an even more virulent and debased form in the 2012 Republican primary. Texas Gov. Rick Perry assails the Washington elite and threatens to bring the whole rotten mess crashing down. He told radio host Laura Ingraham, "I am not an establishment figure. Never have been, and frankly I don’t want to be. I dislike Washington." Meanwhile, Tea Party godfather Rep. Ron Paul has accused Obama of believing in "one world government." His book Liberty Defined is a prolonged broadside against the wise men’s outlook: "The American Empire is the enemy of American freedom," he writes. "It is every bit as much the enemy of American citizens as it is of its victims around the world." Perry, for his part, has consulted with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Defense Undersecretary Douglas J. Feith, the impresarios of the war with Iraq. Only Jon Huntsman, among the longest of long-shot candidates, offers a hearing to the likes of Scowcroft. Even Romney, whom the party powerbrokers seem to have however reluctantly accepted as the standard-bearer of sensible conservatism, evinces little interest in the policies of the wise men, instead endorsing neoconservatism in calling for a new ‘American century.’"


It’s true that a patrician class that could loftily announce, as Walter Lippmann did in 1929, that dispassionate elite experts must provide the American people with "what they will learn to want" has probably had it coming for a long time. The truth is that the wise men have never made much secret of their claim to superior wisdom over the hoi polloi. The establishment’s aloof impartiality has always appeared to the populist right as unvarnished hauteur, a cloak in which the wise men wrap themselves as they propound upon and execute policies independent of, or simply oblivious to, the will of the American people.

But this time something may be different about the battering that establishment is suffering. As historian Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in his important new book Rule and Ruin, "The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed the final decline and virtual extinctions of moderates’ power and representation in the Republican Party." Whatever its past shortcomings and foibles, the demise of the wise-man tradition in the GOP should evoke apprehension in anyone who thinks that America’s leading role in the world has, by and large, been a force for good. In defining itself by opposition to the idea of an elite, the party is willfully abjuring one of its noblest legacies. If the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as William Blake observed, then the GOP might eventually rediscover its heritage. Perhaps the first sign of a return to wisdom in the GOP would be acknowledging rather than scorning the wise men and their accomplishments.

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