Jacob Heilbrunn

What now for the neocons in Trumpland?

What now for the neocons in Trumpland?
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Former State Department official Eliot A. Cohen is a prominent neoconservative who has led the 'Never Trump' faction of the Republican party. After Trump was elected, he suggested that younger Republican national security wonks might consider working for him. But it didn’t take long for Cohen to rescind that advice: 'After exchange [with] Trump transition team, changed my recommendation,' Cohen said on Twitter. 'Stay away. They're angry, arrogant, screaming 'you LOST!’ Will be ugly.'

The battle between Trump and the GOP national security establishment has now been joined. Trump’s principal opponents may not be Democrats, who are cooing over his talk of a massive infrastructure bill, but Republican hawks, who oppose his call for aligning America with Russia in the fight against terrorism. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is declaring that Trump is a 'natural ally', but on Tuesday the Republican-led House of Representatives fired a preliminary shot at Trump, passing a bi-partisan bill called the 'Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act' that calls for sanctions on Syria, Iran and Russia for committing crimes against humanity.

At the same time, Senator John McCain, incensed by Trump’s phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, issued a statement blasting Moscow. A détente with Russia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said, is 'an unacceptable price for a great nation'. McCain added on Twitter, 'When America has been at its best, it’s when we’ve stood w/those fighting tyranny—that’s where we must stand again'.

And just where does the president-elect stand? As always with Trump, his intentions remain murky. As Trump remains immured in his eponymous tower, his transition team is enmeshed in turmoil. It seems more intent on adhering to Trump’s credo of 'You’re fired' than to hiring staffers to fill the executive branch. Anyone associated with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is being purged from the campaign, including establishment types like Congressman Mike Rogers who has been advising the Trump team on national security. Rogers was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and being touted as a possible head of the CIA.

No longer. Instead, foreign policy ultramontanists such as Frank Gaffney, the head of something called the Centre for Security Policy, are clambering on board. Once upon a time, Gaffney was a hardline opponent in the Reagan administration Defense Department of arms-control with Moscow. He resigned in a huff over the 1987 INF Treaty. Since then, he has drifted to the fringes of the far right. Joining the Trump transition team gives him a new lease on life.

Gaffney’s claim to fame is that he believes that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the White House and National Security Agency. He alleges that Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax crusader, is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. His deputy Clare Lopez has spread the theory that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin is a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. She is reportedly a candidate to join the national security council.

At the same time, Trump is considering hardliners such as Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for national security adviser. Flynn, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency and was eventually fired by Obama, is the author of a tract called Field of Fight, written with the leading neocon Michael Ledeen. It demands a permanent crusade against the Muslim world: 'We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people'. Are we? Or is Flynn the champion of a half-baked crusade that will only create further misery for America and the Middle East? Flynn’s ardour for new conflicts in the Middle East brings to mind Hobbes’ observation in Leviathan:

'All men that are ambitious of military command, are inclined to continue the causes of war; and to stir up trouble and sedition: for there is no honour military but by war; nor any such hope to mend an ill game, as by causing a new shuffle'.

Conflict with Iran is also a pet cause of the leading candidates for secretary of state, former UN ambassador John Bolton and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The libertarian Senator Rand Paul, who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced on Tuesday that he would vote against either of their nominations, observing 'It’s important that someone who was an unrepentant advocate for the Iraq War, who didn’t learn the lessons of the Iraq War, shouldn’t be the secretary of state for a president who says Iraq was a big lesson'. Trump may end up choosing an entirely different set of advisers, but he is already confronting a Republican Senate that is prepared to do battle with him.