By their advisers shall ye know them
Presidents set the terms of foreign policy and make military commitments, not their advisers and assistants. As Harry Truman rightly acknowledged, the buck stops in the Oval Office. But that doesn't mean that advisers, formal and otherwise, don't matter.
Without Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, there probably would have been no invasion of Iraq in 2003. Without Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, there probably would have been no intervention in Libya in 2011. And without Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, there might have been no involvement in Syria.
So Americans considering for whom to vote in November, and who care about foreign and defense policy, probably should pay some attention to the formal and informal policy advisers with whom the presumptive major party nominees are surrounding themselves, as well as others whom they've neglected.
Those advising Ms. Clinton include both alumni of her own State Department ó folks like Jake Sullivan and Laura Rosenberger ó and outsiders like former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy.
While all these people worked in the Clinton or Obama presidencies or both, others such as columnist Jennifer Rubin, former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, and Obama foreign policy critic Max Boot are more closely associated with the intervening George W. Bush administration.
All, however, are linked in one way or another with the foreign and defense policies of the past two and a half decades. So if you liked those policies, you presumably would like those likely to characterize a Hillary Clinton presidency ó which is to say, policies that continue to invest U.S. military and financial resources globally, seek to transform other nations' governing arrangements, and constrain U.S. relations with other great powers like Russia, China, and Iran according to their domestic behavior.
Donald Trump's foreign policy inclinations are less reliably predictable, for several reasons. To begin with, few of those whom he's cited as purveyors of foreign policy advice are publically known.
They include terrorism analyst Walid Phares, formerly a fellow of the pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general with ties to anti-Muslim activist Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, retired Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Kellogg, who briefly ran the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, and two businessmen, international energy lawyer George Papadopoulos and former investment banker Carter Page, neither well known in foreign policy circles.
Trump's principal political adviser is Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a four-term Republican serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, about whose foreign policy views we know relatively little.
But the real challenge in visualizing a Trump foreign policy is the Donald himself, who famously claimed to be his own principal consultant. Perhaps in an effort to mute the resulting negative reactions, on Wednesday, Trump sat down with former Secretary of State and Republican elder statesman Henry Kissinger, a revered but also controversial foreign policy figure.
What that conversation produced remains at this writing unknown. What we do know is that, at least for campaign purposes, Trump opposes what he sees as an overly interventionist and insufficiently self-interested U.S. foreign policy, which he of course associates with both President Obama and Ms. Clinton.
The unfathomable aspect of all this is the apparent unwillingness of either candidate to ask an obvious question of potential foreign policy advisers: what has been their track record?
In Trump's case, the answer for all including Sen. Sessions would be "none." Not much comfort there.
For Ms. Clinton, the answers might be even less comforting, since the policies with which virtually all of her advisers have been associated have produced an almost unrelieved succession of disasters, from the deadly impact on U.S.-Russian relations of NATO's unwise enlargement, to the invasion of Iraq and its deadly aftermath, to the chaos in Libya and Syria and the destabilization of much of the rest of the Levant.
In contrast, neither candidate seems to have made any effort to consult those who called any or all of those challenges correctly. Regrettably, they no longer can consult the late George F. Kennan, father of Containment, who was right about Russia in 1946, right about Vietnam in 1965, and right about Iraq in 2003, though ignored in all three cases.
But they could consult his intellectual heirs, scholars and practitioners like former NSC Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt, the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, and retired soldier and historian Andrew "Skip" Bacevich.
These and other "realist" foreign policy critics have repeatedly ó and correctly ó warned against the unbridled interventionism that has drained America's wealth and damaged its reputation for far too long.
Presidents dispose, but advisers propose. For better or worse, in November we'll be electing both.