Billionaires vs. the Blob. Behind a Challenge to the "Forever War" Foreign Policy Consensus

As columnist Damon Linker has noted, the announcement that rival philanthropists George Soros and Charles Koch are teaming up to create a new think tank may finally mark the end of The Blob’s 25-year domination of U.S. foreign policy. The Blob is the phrase that critics apply to the bipartisan consensus in favor of foreign policy hawkishness that prevails in the leadership of both parties, the Pentagon, the State Department, the intelligence agencies and the think tanks. The Soros- and Koch-backed venture, a striking marriage of convenience, aims to disrupt the Blob’s hegemony—although my guess is that the alliance between these two heavyweight donors will become fractious in the longer term.

The Quincy Institute’s Purpose: End Endless Wars

The new think tank—called the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—will  “lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint.” It is named after President John Quincy Adams, who famously warned Americans against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” 

The co-founders include Trita Parsi, the former president of the National Iranian American Council; Suzanne Dimaggio, who has called for negotiated settlements to conflicts with China, North Korea and Iran; Columbia University historian Stephen Wertheim, and Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University.

“The Quincy Institute will invite both progressives and anti-interventionist conservatives to consider a new, less militarized approach to policy,” Bacevich told the Boston Globe in the announcement. “We oppose endless, counterproductive war. We want to restore the pursuit of peace to the nation’s foreign policy agenda.”

Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Foundation have both contributed a half-million dollars. Other donors have donated another $800,000. The institute hopes to open in September. 

Philanthropy’s Best Use

Although Stanford political scientist Rob Reich staunchly criticized billionaire philanthropy in his book Just Giving, he conceded that one of its justifiable uses is to advance fringe positions and greater pluralism. Given the uncritical bipartisan acceptance of military force and U.S. hegemony, the creation of the Quincy Institute certainly meets this criteria.

While a bipartisan consensus on anything is difficult to imagine in our stridently partisan era, both sides of the political aisle have long embraced a foreign policy doctrine that goes something like this: The United States is an exceptional power, and its role is to lead the liberal international order to end conflict, fight terrorism, promote democracy, and defend human rights everywhere, often with military force. This requires us to maintain military supremacy over every country in the world.

During the 1990s, liberals—including Soros and the Open Society Foundations—got over their Vietnam hangover and came to support military intervention globally under the doctrines of humanitarian intervention and just war. In the 2000s, many liberals continued to support—or at least didn’t oppose—the counterterrorist wars and military interventions in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. Although centrist liberals called for “humanizing” the practice of these wars, they did not endorse an abolitionist or anti-war position. On the right, under Bush 43, mainstream Republicans also shifted their foreign policy views, abandoning realpolitik restraint and endorsing military intervention on both counterterrorist and neoconservative pro-democracy grounds.

Over the past few years, dissenters have emerged in both parties to challenge the liberal hegemony doctrine. On the right, during his primary campaign, President Trump instigated the conservative insurgency on foreign policy, calling for a drawdown of America’s military engagement in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Politicians on the progressive left, such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna have also lambasted America’s militaristic and hawkish foreign policy. These dissenting views align with the views of the vast majority of Americans. According to a new study by the Center for American Progress, voters support “restrained engagement” in international affairs—namely, a strategy that favors diplomatic and economic tools over military action.

Since taking office, Trump has been both unwilling and unable to pivot U.S. foreign policy in a less interventionist direction, despite campaign vows to do exactly that. Although the national defense strategy unveiled in 2018 called for shifting attention to China and Russia, Trump has not managed to extricate the United States from conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. On the contrary, the Trump administration has escalated tensions with Iran, increased drone strikes in the region, and has walked back promises to withdraw American troops from Syria after intense criticism from The Blob. Meanwhile, in Africa, Stars and Stripes recently reported that the military’s main operational hub in Africa at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti would become permanent, and that its mission would shift from counterterrorism to strengthening American influence on the continent.

These experiences demonstrate that even with a president who possesses instincts in favor of a more restrained foreign policy, the consensus in support of military intervention is deeply entrenched. 

By creating a new think tank, Soros and Koch are signaling their commitment to create a new intellectual infrastructure to support the creation and dissemination of an alternative foreign policy paradigm. This is not Koch’s first grant toward this agenda. Over the past few years, he has given millions to several universities, including Harvard and MIT, to generate less militaristic foreign policy ideas.

Spending More for Less

The new think tank is a long overdue response by philanthropists, who have neglected U.S. foreign policy—especially peace activism—even as military spending has dramatically increased, diverting national resources from so many of the causes foundations care about. Many astonishing facts about the military budget clearly haven’t made a dent in the public discourse. The most important is that despite the gargantuan increase in military spending and intervention since 9/11, violence and instability in Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East hasn’t decreased. We now have a 20-year dataset that proves military intervention doesn’t work.

In FY 2018, the defense budget surged to more than $1 trillion for the first time ever, and is projected to grow. In FY 2019, the defense budget was about 60 percent of the discretionary federal budget. As this report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes, the force structure is becoming increasingly expensive, and the military is spending more for less. This is mainly a result of the Department of Defense’s escalating labor costs, according to the CSIS report.

Only a trained Talmudic scholar would have the patience to interpret the 800-page National Defense Authorization Act, which describes the byzantine details of defense spending. Even the table of contents is 23 pages. But in general, this budget of $1 trillion funds the military’s procurement of weapons and equipment, labor costs of the troops, including health and retirement benefits, the maintenance of more than 800 military bases abroad, and the training and equipping of foreign military forces.

What is perplexing is that under the Obama administration, the United States supposedly transitioned to a “lighter footprint” military strategy, which combined “indirect” military intervention—that is, “training and assisting” local military forces—with “direct” action by smaller contingents of American special operations forces, in addition to drone warfare. One of the justifications for the lighter footprint strategy was that it was supposed to be cheaper. But military spending has steadily increased since 2008.

This astronomical American investment hasn’t made the world any safer. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED), between 2008 and 2019, the number of armed conflict events and fatalities in Africa, the Middle East and Asia dramatically increased. For example, in May 2019, there were 12,660 armed conflict events globally with 12,808 fatalities. 

But despite the recent increase in violence, for the most part, these low-intensity conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and Africa do not threaten America’s vital interests. Most of these conflicts have gone on for decades—if not centuries—and any Islamist component is layered onto other internal political and ethnic grievances. It is not worth continuing with a failed and expensive military-centric strategy when vital interests are not imperiled.

A Contentious Marriage?

Soros and Koch, two of America’s richest men, are well positioned to instigate a major foreign policy revolution. Soros is one of the key philanthropists behind the modern human rights movement, which was largely responsible for the last sea change in American foreign policy, in which human rights became a central U.S. objective.

Still, the marriage between the left-wing Soros and the libertarian Koch is likely to prove contentious over the longer term. Although they agree that diplomacy should replace military force as the primary tool of American foreign policy, they may eventually butt heads about the role of economic strategies. As a libertarian, Koch may not view foreign aid, economic sanctions and market regulation as useful foreign policy tools, while Soros’ Open Society Foundations has recently created an Economic Justice program to promote “equity, openness and accountability in fiscal and economic systems around the world.” Of course, the devil is in the details, and even Koch’s domestically oriented Economic Freedom program recognizes that “cronyism or corporate welfare corrupts the economy and undermines American prosperity.”

Say what you want about Trump—love him or hate him. But it is clear that his idiosyncratic approaches to both domestic and foreign policy are fueling unlikely philanthropic partnerships, and stoking the fires of policy revolutions in both spheres.