The Heritage Foundation should not adopt a populist pose on foreign policy.
A mentor once told me, “When you speak, try not simply to share your opinion or to criticize the opinions of others. Instead, try to clarify ambiguities and to bring a common understanding of an issue—even if there is no agreement on what to do about that issue.” This is good advice and it’s at the forefront of my mind as I weigh in on a topic that’s somewhat fraught for me.
You see, for three years I worked at the Heritage Foundation as a senior fellow and as the founder and director of its Center for Technology Policy. Heritage was good to me and any success I enjoy was in part made possible by this organization. My colleagues—particularly those in the national security and foreign policy shop—were thoughtful, kind, committed, and supportive. I gave that institution my very best for the entirety of my time there, and I continue to believe Heritage can be a helpful voice on critical issues. But we have a profound disagreement on an important topic and Heritage President Kevin Roberts has asked for a debate—so I’m going to take him up on his offer.
Before getting into the details, readers of this newsletter need to understand a few things about Heritage and how it operates. First, the organization prides itself as being a “do tank.” By this it means that it deliberately seeks to affect policy—not just study it academically and write about it. Relatedly, second, Heritage has a legally separate—but functionally integrated—entity called Heritage Action for America (HAFA) that is an explicit lobbying entity tasked with promoting Heritage’s policy preferences. Finally, Heritage employees operate under a “one voice” policy that basically says, once the institution has taken a position on an issue, all Heritage staff are expected to support that position, or at least not contradict it publicly. I’m not going to comment on the advisability of this structure, but I do think it’s important for understanding how and why Heritage does what it does.
With this prologue out of the way we can turn to the specific topic at hand: a recently passed aid bill for Ukraine and the future of conservative foreign policy more broadly. I believe Heritage is adopting a troubling perspective on these issues and I feel compelled to air my concerns precisely because the organization enjoys the influence that it does.
This all started when Congress took up an aid bill to gives Ukraine $40 billion to support its defensive war against Russia. Importantly, this money does more than buy arms and directly support Kyiv military. It also makes funds available for the United States to replenish its own military supplies, to assist the Ukrainian government in sustaining itself and its fundamental ability to govern, and to assist Ukrainian refugees who have already been approved for relocation to the United States and elsewhere. In response, HAFA issued a press release titled “Ukraine Aid Package Puts America Last,” saying the following:
This proposed Ukraine aid package takes money away from the priorities of the American people and recklessly sends our taxpayer dollars to a foreign nation without any accountability. America is struggling with record-setting inflation, debt, a porous border, crime and energy depletion yet progressives in Washington are prioritizing a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine – more than the entire annual budget of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Soon thereafter, Roberts published this tweet:
He then responded to The Dispatch’s own David French with this tweet:
David French @DavidAFrenchThe national interest in defeating or stalemating the Russian offensive is overwhelming. The aid package is a bargain compared to the military ramp-up necessary to deter a victorious Russia. https://t.co/K084uHz1sR
So then, to summarize Heritage’s critiques of the bill: 1) This was a flawed process that rushed through a massive spending bill unnecessarily; 2) This was a flawed bill that isn’t paid for, has no accountability, and has no guarantees of matching contributions from European allies; and finally, 3) This bill prevents resources from being spent on domestic priorities like border security and rising energy costs. I’ll take each of these criticisms in turn.
Regarding the bill’s failed process: I totally agree. For years Congress has abandoned “regular order,” bypassing the refining and moderating influence of the committee process. This tends to create hyperpartisan legislation that is often presented in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion and that minimizes debate. In my view, this is a dereliction of a fundamental responsibility, and it should be stopped immediately. But there’s no indication this will change anytime soon, and we cannot hold all legislation hostage until Congress unscrews itself. Even more, there have been plenty of bills Heritage supports—like the 2017 tax reform bill, for example—that have gone through the exact same process and this criticism was nowhere to be heard.
On the bill’s flaws: There’s plenty of room among conservatives for debate. The provision certainly has a high price tag, but the national security interests at stake more than justify this investment. As David observed last week:
Consider for a moment the staggering costs of a Russian breakthrough. First there would be the utter shock to Europe of a humanitarian crisis that could dwarf even the horrors we’ve seen to date. Then we’d face the challenge of large-scale, long-term military reinforcement to deter any further Russian aggression as it rebuilt its own suddenly victorious forces.
In other words, if you think funding a Ukrainian victory is expensive, just imagine the cost of its defeat. I, too, would like the price tag to be offset by reductions in American spending and for it to be matched with allied contributions. But, as with the process criticism, it makes no sense to delay our support until these funding ideals are met. Ukraine is literally fighting for its survival. This is the very definition of making the perfect the enemy of the good. There are plenty of legislative alternatives where this principled stand can be made without endangering the people of Ukraine or American national security interests.
When it comes to concerns about a lack of accountability, we simply disagree. The bill creates separate, monitored accounts for the spending of this money and both the secretary of defense and the Pentagon’s inspector general (IG) are required to report back to Congress on how these resources are allocated. This is on top of the IGs at the State Department and other agencies who are already tasked with overseeing portions of these funds. Sen. Rand Paul and Roberts, however, call for an entirely new IG office to be created. I don’t think this is necessary, and I believe it could even result in less, not more, effective oversight. The Defense and State IG offices are among the largest, best-resourced IG offices in the U.S. government. They’re up and running and have the people and systems to do this work. A brand new office would need to re-create all of this from scratch while having to ramp up to the speed of war. We need to lessen the friction of providing help to Ukraine, not add to it.
Finally, regarding the argument that this spending takes away from domestic priorities: This simply isn’t true. It is certainly the case that American wealth is not limitless, that we are in a time of economic distress, and that government spending is out of control. But it's not the case that, if this bill had not passed, Congress would somehow be willing and able to address border security, inflation, or a host of other pressing challenges. While $40 billion is a lot of money, it is decimal dust in comparison to the nearly $7 trillion of total government spending. Any meaningful reduction in government spending will necessarily come at the expense of U.S. entitlements, and insinuating that support for Ukraine will have any impact on this calculus is patently false.
So, there you have it. Those are my brief answers to Heritage’s substantive criticisms of the Ukrainian aid bill. But earlier this week, Roberts gave comments to Axios and published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing this policy debate is about more than just Ukrainian aid—it's about the future of conservative foreign policy.
In the Axios article, he explains, “We're going to come out on the back end of this — probably in a period of months, but certainly by 2024 — with a strong conservative and libertarian consensus about a more restrained, but still very robust, American foreign policy.” Amplifying this point in his op-ed, he says, “The war in Ukraine may finally force conservatives into the intramural foreign policy debate they have put off for more than 30 years.” Well, that’s interesting but rather opaque. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really explain what this means but he did reportedly tell Axios that Heritage’s donors have come down “firmly on the restraint side of the foreign policy fight.”
That word, “restraint,” means something in foreign policy circles. Frequently emanating out of the “realist” camp, scholars and practitioners (though very few are actual practitioners) calling for “restraint” argue that the United States is too arrogant, has too many military commitments, and is constantly embroiled in “endless wars.” While a longtime feature of foreign policy debates, the restraint camp has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, most notably among the so-called “new right.” This perspective was recently articulated in a New York Times essay by Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin. In it, they argue the following:
Today’s nationalist hawks often speak of an obligation to defend democratic allies dotting the peripheries of revanchist powers like Russia and China. But if they had their way, the real-world effects would be little different from those of their hawkish predecessors: protracted and destabilizing conflicts that would distract us from domestic reform — not to mention imperil the lives of overwhelmingly working-class young Americans in uniform.
I wrote a long response to this essay that you can read here, concluding with this:
Their entire argument is predicated on a neoconservative boogeyman, galloping around the globe wantonly sowing death and destruction. Such a notion is false and simply another manifestation of the authors’ proclivity for “us” versus “them” arguments. They also fail to move beyond the soft edges of self-righteous rhetoric by not offering even the most basic practical proposals or accounting for what their implementation would require. They claim “restraint” for themselves and condemn all others as “crusaders.” In short, last week’s essay in the New York Times is swollen with rhetoric but starving for applications to the real world.
If Heritage is aligning with Ahmari, Deneen, and Pappin, this would be a dramatic departure from its own long standing views. In its most recent Index of U.S. Military Strength, Heritage’s flagship foreign policy publication, the authors specifically push back on the idea that the United States can secure itself by withdrawing from the world and simply prioritizing domestic spending:
No matter how much America desires that the world be a simpler, less threatening place that is more inclined to beneficial economic interactions than violence-laden friction, the patterns of history show that competing powers consistently emerge and that the U.S. must be able to defend its interests in more than one region at a time. … Winning the support needed to increase defense spending to the level that a force with a two-war capacity requires is admittedly difficult politically. But this does not change the patterns of history, the behavior of competitors, or the reality of what it takes to defend America’s interests in an actual war. … Looking at the world as an environment in which U.S. forces would operate to protect America’s interests, the Index focused on three regions—Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—because of the intersection of our vital interests and actors able to challenge them.
While it’s possible Heritage is embracing the new right and its neoisolationist policies, I doubt it. If it is, the folly of these policies will be shown in short order. If the organization isn’t joining national populism, though, it is certainly appropriating its rhetoric and this is almost as bad.
In his Wall Street Journal article, social media posts, and near-daily media interviews, Roberts constantly decries “elites,” “the GOP establishment,” and the “Washington Swamp,” saying these and other nefarious forces are “putting Americans last.” While some might see political advantage in using such language, I believe it to be self-harming and incongruent with reality.
It’s self-harming because, once you embrace the new right’s criticisms and talking points, you quickly run out of reasons for not subscribing to their policy prescriptions. This has already happened with Heritage on technology policy. An organization that once fought for the free market, for freedom of expression, and for the protection of intellectual and private property, now calls social media companies “an enemy of the people” (a phrase heavily favored by totalitarians like Mao and Stalin, by the way), advocates for government intervention in the private sector, and publishes pseudo-analysis that the CATO institute rightly describes as, “marked by imprecision, factual errors, and vague political rhetoric,” whose, "most substantive recommendations ultimately represent a retreat from long-established conservative policy principles consistent with a free economy and free society.” If you don’t think the same thing will happen on foreign policy, just wait.
It’s incongruent with reality because if Heritage is not part of the policy “elite,” then I don’t know who is. The organization is quick to remind everyone that it is “the most influential think tank in the world,” and its own website says that, in 2021 alone, it had more than 400 meetings with congressional staff, 120 meetings with members of Congress, 47 candidate briefings, 168 events on Capitol Hill, and 30 congressional testimonies. These statistics are impressive examples of an active and influential “do tank.” They are not, however, the marks of an organization set apart from the “D.C. swamp.” You cannot claim to be the world’s most effective influencer of Washington, D.C, while also claiming to be outside of the corridors of power where this influence is practiced.
In the coming weeks, I’m likely to join Heritage in calling on President Biden to explain his strategy for Ukraine. A lot has changed since the war began, and the American people deserve to know how we’re going to pursue our own national interests as we assist Ukraine in defending its own. But, if Heritage is adopting the foreign policies of the new right, I will oppose it at every turn. If it does not hold these views and is only adopting populist rhetoric for some perceived political advantage, I would respectfully warn them not to go down this road—it is self-harming, incongruent, and unbecoming of a great institution.
That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week!