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The Cable

Trump’s Counterattacks on GOP’s ‘Failed Washington Elite’ Miss the Mark

The GOP nominee is brushing aside criticism from dozens of senior Republican foreign policy experts by linking them to miscues that took place after they'd left office.


Fifty former Republican national security officials and foreign policy thinkers published a missive against Donald Trump on Monday saying they would not vote for their party’s nominee because he “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

The response from the Manhattan real-estate magnate, who of late has threatened to unravel NATO, attacked the parents of a fallen Muslim-American Army captain, and invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to hack rival Hillary Clinton?

Thank you.

“The names on this letter are the ones the American people should look to for answers on why the world is a mess, and we thank them for coming forward so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place,” Trump said in a statement Monday night, with the subject line: “On Politically Motivated Letter.” “They are nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.”

Trump went on to blame the signatories — who range from former NSA head Michael Hayden to former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge — for the decision to invade Iraq, the deadly attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, and the rise of the Islamic State. He also lumped them in with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

There’s just one problem: many of these particular Republican national security and foreign policy veterans weren’t closely linked to Iraq, and both Benghazi and the rise of the Islamic State took place during the Obama administration, when the signatories were out of government. The Islamic State’s rapid and unexpected territorial gains, meanwhile, took place after Clinton herself had left her post at the State Department.

More broadly, Trump lumps the neoconservative Republicans who signed the letter in with Clinton even though the two camps have often been at odds with each other. While Clinton voted for the invasion of Iraq as a senator in 2002, she has since said she regrets that vote and advocates instead for “smart power” that emphasizes diplomacy first and selective use of U.S. military force as a last resort.

That’s not to say that the Republican nominee’s letter is entirely off-base. Several of the signatories did play key policymaking roles during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the initial phases of the war.  Eric Edelman, for instance, was a top aide to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but also served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, by many accounts the chief proponent of the Iraq War, from 2001 to 2003.

It could also be good politics. Majorities of Americans from both parties believe that the Iraq War was a mistake, and many Republicans too remain uneasy about the surveillance state that Bush helped to create and the broad expansion of executive branch authority he claimed to implement new counter-terrorism measures at home and send U.S. troops into both Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it’s also typical of Trump’s habit of glossing over of inconvenient facts – or uttering complete falsehoods — for political gain, like his recent allegation that a hacked Clinton email led to Iran’s recent execution of a prominent nuclear scientist (it didn’t).

The mogul’s “America First” foreign policy vision has so far been marked by threats to abandon years of bipartisan agreement on the Israel-Palestine peace process and remove the U.S. from alliances Republicans helped establish and nurture during their years in power. More worrisomely to many Republicans, Trump has also spoken admiringly of strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom the mogul and several of his top aides have murky financial ties, and even complimented ousted dictators like Saddam Hussein.

That’s a far cry from the language in the new Trump statement about pursuing a policy that “stands up to foreign dictators instead of taking money from them” or “seeks peace over war.” He uses both phrases to contrast his positions with those of Clinton, as well as of the letter writers.

The Trump statement also doesn’t address the fact that he himself initially supported the invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Libya even though the mogul now claims that he always opposed them, and argues that they set the stage for the 2012 Benghazi attacks and the rise of ISIS.

Still, Trump’s statement underscores his strategy for dealing with the steady trickle of Clinton endorsements from retired senior officers and former senior Republican national security policymakers: argue that they left the world a more dangerous place, and that Clinton would only make it worse.

While the Clinton campaign was aware of the letter, and has supported Republican national security hands making “Never Trump” arguments, it did not play a role in its drafting, according to the New York Times. But Trump’s response effectively puts Clinton and her aides in the position of once again defending her 2002 vote for the Iraq War, as well as pushing back against the narrative that she’s somehow directly responsible for the spate of foreign policy crises that’s beleaguered both Bush and Obama, however different their doctrines.

And while the U.S. public may not recognize former deputy secretaries of state, the names it does know are Bush and Clinton. Trump is tapping into a reality that the average American voters may not be entirely happy or comfortable with concept of the presidency being handed off from one political family to another, particularly if each has ties to an administration that may have inadvertently left the world a far more unstable place.

Photo credit: Sara D. Davis / Stringer

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