defense

George Soros and Charles Koch take on the 'endless wars'

Organizers are aiming to seize on what one considers a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to galvanize growing support on the right and left for a less interventionist foreign policy.

George Soros

George Soros and Charles Koch don't agree on much. But they are linking arms to advance a major foreign policy objective they both share: winding down America's "endless wars."

The leading financier of liberal causes and the billionaire backer of the conservative movement are combining their influence to upend the orthodoxy in Washington that the use of military force must remain a primary instrument of American power around the globe.

A new think tank backed by their foundations, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is opening its doors on Wednesday a few blocks from the White House. It boasts a roster of leading academics mostly from outside Washington, along with several Pentagon and State Department veterans who all desperately see a need to "reassess some of the first principles" and inject more restraint into U.S. foreign policy.

Organizers aim to seize on what one considers a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to galvanize growing support on the right and left for a less interventionist foreign policy — thanks in part to President Donald Trump's dogged efforts, so far unsuccessful, to extricate troops from what he calls America's "endless wars" in the Middle East.

"Suddenly, you have a scenario in which there are elements in both parties that are favoring an orientation towards a different approach to the world,” said Trita Parsi, a former member of Sweden's mission to the United Nations and longtime proponent of democracy in Iran who serves as the new think tank's executive vice president.

"Trump has created this scenario by breaking a lot of the taboos, rather fast and quickly," he added.

The think tank, which will start out with a dozen full-time staff members, is named for John Quincy Adams, the former U.S. president, secretary of State and member of Congress.

Adams insisted in a speech on July 4, 1821, that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Doing so, he warned, "would involve herself beyond the power of extrication" in "wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom."

"She might become the dictatress of the world," Adams predicted in the address to Congress. "She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."

Retired Army colonel and longtime international relations professor Andrew Bacevich, president of the new think tank, says that two centuries later, "to some degree, we think that's the path we've gone down in recent years — we've gone abroad searching for monsters to destroy."

"U.S. foreign policy has become excessively militarized, and this has not served the nation well," he added, citing the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other military interventions in the past decade from Libya to Syria to Yemen.

"Frankly," he concluded, "I think it has undermined American leadership in the world."

The Quincy Institute is backed by a bank of donors, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropy that seeks to advance peace and justice; the Arca Foundation, which is dedicated to human rights; and the Ploughshares Fund, which promotes the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It also has a "large number of private donors that have come in," Parsi said.

What has raised the most eyebrows, though, are the grants from the Open Society Foundations, one of Soros' main conduits for shaping progressive policies, as well as the Charles Koch Foundation, which is part of the network of Koch family foundations that have provided millions to libertarian and Republican Party causes.

Yet, it's not the first time the strange bedfellows' polar partisan positions have merged in the debate over national security and foreign affairs.

Soros' foundation finances VoteVets, a left-leaning veterans group, while Koch has supported Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative counterweight. Both vets groups have worked together this year to try to persuade Congress to exert more oversight and repeal the original 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has served as the legal justification for the war on terrorism for nearly two decades.

“Our objectives align with the Charles Koch Foundation around trying to wind down the post-9/11, globe-encircling counterterrorism wars, and in getting Congress to do constitutionally mandated oversight of the use of military force," said Lora Lumpe, the advocacy director for security sector governance at the Open Society Foundations in Washington.

Will Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, a sister Koch family organization that advocates less reliance on military force and more on diplomacy, views the challenge through a very similar lens.

"Over the last 30 years, U.S. foreign policy has failed to make us safer or more prosperous," he said. "Part of the reason for that failure is that the conversation in elite policymaking circles about America’s role in the world has been too narrow while facing little serious challenge.

"The marketplace of ideas hasn’t been very robust, and the country has suffered as a consequence," he added.

The Koch foundation is trying to "broaden the debate about U.S. foreign policy by working with institutions like the Quincy Institute that aim to challenge the status quo," Ruger said.

Also spearheading the effort is Suzanne DiMaggio, who for two decades has played a prominent role in back-channel diplomatic talks and who helped facilitate some of the first official discussions between the Trump administration and the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in 2017.

The Quincy Institute's full roster of more than 40 specialists, who will contribute studies, policy papers and participate in public events, mostly hail from outside the Beltway. And that's by design, its architects say.

"Some of the critiques of our current foreign policy are actually very, very common, if not even dominant, in academia," Parsi explained. "But it doesn't really have much of a place within Washington and the existing think tanks. So, part of this effort is aimed at making sure that that expertise does find its way into the Washington debate."

Bacevich agreed a new policy organization is needed..

"Almost all of them tend operate within the current paradigm," he said. "A lot of other folks, mainly outside of D.C., have reached the conclusion that many of the problems that exist today cannot be resolved within the current paradigm because they're actually a product of this paradigm."

Still, the former tank commander has no illusions that it will be easy to change the conversation about the role of military operations versus diplomacy and other nonviolent means of advancing American interests.

"There's hardly any transpartisan think tank in town who has defined it as their mission to actually reassess some of the first principles of American foreign policy," said Bacevich, whose son Andrew, an Army lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007. "The object of the exercise is to change the way people think. That is not easily done given the habits that I think that have ... become more deeply entrenched since the end of the Cold War."

But Parsi maintains there is also a rare opportunity, especially with Trump's sustained effort to pull U.S. forces out of places like Afghanistan and Syria.

"That has opened up the opportunity for deeper conversations than existed before," he said.

Powerful elements on both sides of political divide are ready to join in.

"On the progressive side and the Democratic Party, you have a very important, rising political force that doesn't have a foreign policy platform or framework yet," Parsi said. "It's something that actually would be much more compatible with what progressives see as their values. And at the same time, it has a tremendous amount of support as well in certain conservative circles."