Since 9/11, numerous groups have launched aiming to make the neoconservative, interventionist approach the only acceptable foreign policy for candidates on the Right. The newest member of this club, the formerly little known John Hay Initiative, just had something of a coming out party in Washington, holding two high-profile events with GOP rising stars in the last few weeks.
Named after the secretary of state to Teddy “carry a big stick” Roosevelt, and consisting largely of the former Mitt Romney foreign policy team, the Initiative has been around since 2012. But it stepped into a more prominent place last month, when it held its first public event, a September 17 speech by Sen. Marco Rubio; on September 28, it hosted Speaker of the House aspirant Rep. Kevin McCarthy to explain his foreign policy views. The group, which does not have a website, has reportedly released a book entitled Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World, though it has not yet appeared on Amazon.
The Initiative, which as an IRS 501(c)4 nonprofit is permitted to both lobby officials and conceal its donors, was founded and is still headed by Brian Hook, a former Romney adviser and a George W. Bush political appointee as assistant secretary of state. He is joined by Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman, familiar hardliner figures also from the second Bush administration. Hook says that the group supports “American leadership abroad” and is concerned about “neo-isolationism in both parties. We want to be a resource to…those who are interested in conservative internationalism and promoting American leadership and ideals.”
With Mitt Romney himself on its advisory council, the Hay Initiative claims to have 200 experts on tap to provide commentary and “viewpoints” on global developments, who are themselves divided into 20 policy working groups focused on specific issues like Iran. The Initiative issues a weekly newsletter called “The Hay Bulletin” and prepares policy white papers. It claims to have advised half of the 17 candidates who were initially competing for the GOP nomination, which explains why so many of them sound the same when speaking about foreign policy. The list of current and former clients includes Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham.
Initiative “experts” reportedly wrote the foreign policy talking points used by candidates Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina in the second Republican debate. They undoubtedly scripted Carly’s astonishing menu for her first day in office in which she would immediately call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pledge undying fealty, followed by a call to the Iranians to read them the riot act as a prelude to cutting off their money supply. She also pledged not to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin as she has nothing she wants to say to him.
A number of Initiative-affiliated individuals have also made the logical transition to actually join the campaigns of several candidates, including Michael Chertoff and Michael Hayden, who are both advising Jeb Bush. They and others of a like mind would presumably step up to become the foreign policy team if a Republican is elected to the presidency in 2016.
The Hay Initiative is only the newest addition to the virtual alphabet soup of organizations that have shaped Republican foreign policy over the past decade. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) regularly briefed the White House in the lead-up to the disastrous Iraq War. Since that time AEI’s resident scholars as well as their counterparts from the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), the Hudson Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) have been regular fixtures on talk radio and television, as well as in front of Congressional committees. They all produce their own newsletters and position papers but are also supported from outside by the battery of publications that regularly promote neoconservative views, including The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and National Review, as well as Rupert Murdoch properties such as The Wall Street Journal.
The various foundations and institutes compete for the same pool of dollars—and have experienced some internal conflicts over message and timing—but they are all essentially united in their belief that the United States must project “strength” in promoting democracy (and, peripherally, free markets). As a general rule, these organizations have enthusiastically supported bombing Serbia, invading Iraq, continuing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, attacking Iran, changing the regime in Libya, overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, increasing U.S. strikes against ISIS, supporting Georgia and Ukraine in their conflicts with Russia, and pushing back against Chinese expansion in Asia. And defending perceived Israeli interests is always part of their agenda.
These groups have also been generally uncritical of abuses like torture, renditions, and secret prisons, while supporting legislation frequently criticized by civil libertarians, including the Patriot and Military Commissions acts and the various iterations of the Authorization to Use Military Force. This muscular foreign policy inevitably comes with a costly price tag—and unsurprisingly much of the funding for neoconservative foreign policy groups comes from defense contractors and pro-Israel sources.
As every candidate is listening to the same tune sung by the same choir—and has virtually the same Hay Initiative-provided enemies list of bad guys and rogue states—the only disagreement evident in most GOP debates is who to attack first: Iran or Russia. Carly Fiorina breaks the mold by appearing to want to go after both of them simultaneously.
One critic of the Hay Initiative describes the organization and its associates as constituting a GOP Walmart for foreign policy, noting with particular irony how the “experts” have experienced no career damage from having been completely wrong on every significant foreign policy development during the past 15 years. And their shaping of the Romney campaign from a foreign policy perspective might best be described as incoherent. Of course, the Hay Initiative folks would argue that if Washington had doubled down instead of retreating from its leadership role, everything would be coming up roses.
The solution is to expose the putative candidates to some alternative opinions—but that might be asking too much. Do any of the GOP aspirants read The American Conservative or peruse any of the established outlets that offer constructive and fact-based commentary on global issues? I know that some of their campaign staffers do so, but have to be skeptical whether any of it permeates up to the top level.
I suspect the candidates are resistant to changing course because they do not want to be perceived as altering their message. Thus, the insertion of John Hay Initiative experts into their campaigns at a relatively early point may stifle consideration of any contrary points of view. But I also have to wonder if, within their own hearts, any of the GOP stalwarts are insightful enough to realize that they are being fed a load of hokum by their handlers. As with any number of issues, it would be very interesting to learn what leading politicians actually think about foreign policy when they are not performing on stage.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.