Donald Trump’s decision to release the names of five foreign-policy advisers on Monday may have been meant to dispel mounting anxiety over the GOP front-runner’s unfathomable worldview. If that was his intent, the move failed miserably. Far from assuaged, many in Washington’s foreign-policy crowd are now more apprehensive than ever about the people who have Trump’s ear. Most had never heard of any of the advisers, and what they have heard hasn’t exactly inspired confidence. Nearly all say that Trump’s move to surround himself with neophytes and fringe players suggests he doesn’t grasp how Washington’s network of decision-makers collaborate on important global decisions. Should he become president, most believe that lack of understanding would bode ill for America’s geopolitical future.
“Either [Trump] doesn’t care about experience — understandable at one level, though his list of advisers would seem to overdo the appeal of young and fresh blood — or no one wants to taint his reputation by working for a guy whose views are often so harsh and unthinking,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a national-security scholar at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “Those are both troubling possibilities.” Joseph Schmitz, a former Defense Department inspector general revealed as one of Trump’s top global advisers this week, doesn’t run in the same circles as Washington’s foreign-policy crowd. In fact, since his resignation from his Pentagon position due to a slew of corruption allegations in 2005, he’s largely been off the grid. So it wasn’t easy finding someone to help explain the thought process of a man now helping to shape the worldview of the likely Republican nominee.
One well-respected expert at a conservative think tank tells National Review that neither she nor her co-workers had heard of most of the names on the list. But she did know Schmitz. “He’s just a nut,” she says, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely. “I mean, he’s just widely held in contempt throughout Washington. And he was held in contempt when he was at DOD.”
She details an apparent obsession Schmitz has with Baron von Steuben, a Prussian noble and founder of the modern office of inspector general. Schmitz once replaced all inspector-general seals in his offices with the Steuben family motto, and in 2005 he tried to use taxpayer dollars to attend a ceremony honoring the baron in Potsdam, Germany. She says that’s part of a strange preoccupation his family has with all things German. “They’re obsessed with Germany in a way that’s really unhealthy,” she says. “His father was a member of the John Birch Society. There’s just a lot of weirdness there.”
As an afterthought, she adds: “He’s also not a foreign-policy expert by any standard — doesn’t really know anything about foreign policy. Previously, he was in the field of aviation law. The whole thing is just bizarro.” Other than this one think-tank scholar, few in D.C.’s foreign-policy establishment seem to know much about Schmitz. But most had at least heard of Walid Phares, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. and a lower-level adviser to the Romney campaign in 2012. That pedigree seems to put Phares in a different class from his fellow Trump advisers. “He’s a serious man who is accomplished in writing and scholarship and who understands the Middle East well but who has often been slandered by the Left,” says Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. By “slander,” Rubin is referring to Phares’s alleged ties to a Lebanese Christian militia accused of killing hundreds of Palestinian refugees in 1982.
But potential problems in Phares’s past aren’t the only thing giving some Washington experts pause. Despite his frequent appearances on Fox News, most say they’ve never had a conversation with Phares, and they certainly don’t see him as a valued colleague. “I don’t think it’s anything other than that he’s a capable self-promoter,” says the above-mentioned conservative expert, speaking anonymously. “I’ve certainly never seen him in any serious conversation in what to do about terrorism. He’s a spouter-offer.’” “Phares has moved in circles that I don’t think many of the traditional Middle East experts have, in terms of his public activities,” says another foreign-policy scholar, who also requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “He’s not a name that I’ve seen on the typical round of announcements for events — at a conference being held at Brookings, or a roundtable at Heritage, or whatever.”
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