The Creepily Influential Trumpist Foreign-Policy Think Tank You’ve Never Heard Of
Herb London used to be a fringey, failed conservative candidate in New York. Now he’s a fringey, successful guru who’s helping to shape U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era.
“We are embarking on a new era of national renewal! Donald J. Trump’s cabinet makes Ronald Reagan’s cabinet look like The Politburo,” declared Deroy Murdock to laughter and whoops. It was January 2017, just as Trump was preparing to be sworn in as president, and Murdock was speaking to a roomful of dark suits and grey heads at the Union League Club, a grand social club in Manhattan that traces its roots back to the Civil War.
“You know you are doing something right,” Murdock continued, “when the most liberal member of your cabinet is the CEO of Exxon Mobil.”
Murdock, a political commentator and columnist, wasn’t the only speaker that evening heralding a new era of American greatness. There was the economist David Goldman, who hailed the new era at the Environmental Protection Agency led by Scott Pruitt and the elimination of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, both of which had been “a millstone around the neck of American small business.” Lawrence Mead, a professor at New York University, declared that Trump had been elected because he had broken the taboo around certain subjects, among them that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans “see life in terms of survival,” that there are “ethnic differences, racial differences, cultural differences that are frankly too big to ignore.” Trump should be commended, he added, for asking of American inner cities, “Why is that this part of America can’t maintain order?”
The occasion was an event called “A New Chapter in American History” sponsored by the London Center for Policy Research, a foreign policy think tank based in Lower Manhattan. It is a group founded and led by Herbert London, a conservative intellectual and failed New York State candidate for governor and comptroller in the 1990’s. Calling the London Center obscure would be an understatement. It operates out of small office at King’s College, an equally obscure 600-student evangelical college founded by Campus Crusade for Christ in 1999 that once employed the conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza as its president before he resigned in a sex scandal. The London Center has only three employees and has never raised more than $400,000 in its four years of existence. In order to get a sense of where the London Center fits in the foreign policy establishment, I reached out to a dozen leading foreign policy intellectuals, veterans of both Republican and Democratic administrations. None had heard of the London Center.
“I actually don’t know anything about them,” replied Kori Schake, a former top National Security Council and State Department official in the George W. Bush White House. “Sorry I can’t be helpful.”
“I don’t know the top leadership at all personally,” replied Peter Feaver, another veteran of the Bush national security team. “I know some of the fellows, but I just don’t know this think tank well enough to comment, I think.”
“Until receiving your email, I’d never heard of the place,” replied another veteran of the Bush and Reagan White Houses who asked that his name not be used to preserve his relationships in Washington. “Never seen a thing they produced.”
“Never heard of the organization until now,” added Robert Kagan, a former advisor to John McCain and member of Foreign Affairs Policy Board under Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. “With some exceptions, they look like the usual collection of conservatives-turned-cranks.”
But as most of the foreign policy establishment has eschewed anything to do with the Trump White House and State Department, the London Center lists 32 “senior fellows” on its website, and among that group are several who have at one time or another been either inside or outside advisers to the early days of the Trump administration.
Most prominently there is Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor who had to resign when it was revealed that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. But besides Flynn, among the London Center fellows are Monica Crowley, who was in line for a top national security job until she resigned in the wake of a plagiarism allegation; James Woolsey, a former CIA chief who served as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign and transition; Allen West, the fiery former Florida congressman who met with Trump twice in two days at Trump Tower in December to discuss national security issues; Emmett Tyrell, the editor of the American Spectator who predicted that Trump would win long before the rest of the conservative intelligentsia figured him out; Walid Phares, who advised Trump on Middle Eastern policy during the campaign; Betsy McCaughey, who advised the president on economic matters; Clare Lopez, a former CIA operations officer and anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who believes that the Muslim Brotherhood had secretly infiltrated the Obama White House and who was in the running for a national security job; and Bud McFarlane, a former Reagan national security advisor who met with Trump during the transition as well. Other former Trump officials, like Sebastian Gorka and K.T. McFarland, are also affiliated with the London Center but have no formal role.
Indeed if there is such a thing as “Trumpism” in the foreign policy realm, it appears to be being cooked up in the London Center’s suite of offices at King’s College.
“All of these people are very much interested in a tabla rasa creation of policy, and an examination of what Obama did or didn’t do over the last eight years,” said London in an interview in his King’s College office, one of a series of interviews conducted over the first 10 months of the Trump administration with London himself and others affiliated to the think tank.
“I think there would probably be a consensus that a weakness that has been displayed to the world, a feeling of aimlessness on the part of the Obama administration, and that there is a need for a world in which the United States provides the leadership without the deployment of a hundred or two hundred thousand troops on the ground. But if you were to ask what brings all of these folks you mentioned together, it is a desire to think through policies different from what we have experienced over the last eight years.”
If this is vague, it is by design, much in the way that Trump himself commits to no fixed ideology other than seemingly the opposite of whatever Barack Obama was doing. Tony Shaffer, the center’s communications director who was a Flynn protege and also in line for a top Trump administration job dating back to last year, said that the London Center is a “think-and-do-tank,” one that prides itself on being non-ideological, and putting forward practical solutions grounded in the real world experience of the expertise of its fellows, which explains why so many of them have military experience.
“Most think tanks are big on providing opinions about various issues. Our focus is different: This is a great policy but how do you make it work? How does it fit into other things you are trying to do. It’s more about practitioners, more about the practical application of policy.” Shaffer told me.
But still some important themes emerge from the white papers, books and speeches that London Center fellows produce, and taken together they provide a possible template for how the Trump administration will proceed in its foreign policy, especially if Trump sheds some of his current minders and reverts back to the kind of people who were advising him during the campaign and the transition.
There is among London and others little faith that nations like North Korea or Iran will peacefully give up their nuclear weapons. “It’s been a policy of appeasement,” Shaffer said of the Hermit Kingdom, adding ominously. “It’s time to end the conflict.”
They call for strong borders and national sovereignty similar to what Trump called for in his speech to the United Nations. “Obama went to Berlin and said I am a citizen of the world. Trump made clear he doesn’t get his passport from the world,” London said. They call for Islamic nations to do more to confront radicalism in their midst, and believe that the world is engaged in a battle of ideas.
“For a considerable period we have been on the defensive in what I would describe as the extraordinary developments of western civilization, and here I think about the rule of the law, the protection of individual rights, the free market, personal conscience,” London added. “We have been on the defensive from the left, that argues that western civilization has promoted slavery, bigotry, imperialism, exploitation.
The London Center tends to not support a runaway military buildup, fearful that deficits strain national security as much as an enemy abroad would. There is a consistent through-line on most of the London Center fellows writing that the existing international institutions, like NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are failing, and new multilateral but limited institutions should arise in their place.
London and his stable of fellows call for a foreign policy stance somewhere between the neoconservative interventionist tendencies of the Bush administration and non-interventionist backlash to that led by Rand Paul and others. London calls for what he has termed “Defense Condominiums” in global hotspots, micro-alliances of friendly nations convened by the U.S. to counter global rivals, such as a South Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese/Taiwanese alliance in southeast Asia to confront a rising China and a bellicose North Korea, or an alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to counter Iran.
“I am not an isolationist, nor am I an internationalist. My feeling is that the United States has gone through a very difficult period as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and we have to think of something between unilateral investment of American blood and treasure in certain parts of the world, and at the same time the avoidance of what is happening on the international front,” London said. “The notion that our choices are isolation or war strikes me as not understanding the alternatives. There is a possibility of creating defense arrangements where nations with similar points of view come together and provide the military assets that are necessary for stabilization.”
Foreign policy experts said that such a notion was intriguing, but that the details would need to be worked out. Would China or Iran view such an arrangement, convened by the Americans, as a threat?
Such a “split the difference” approach, according to Peter Feaver, a veteran of the National Security Council of both the Bush and Clinton White Houses would “likely require some redesigning of the alliance structure, but precisely how is unclear. In some ways, the election of President Trump both underscored the divisions within the Republican Party and delayed a complete reckoning, because President Trump’s foreign policy vision is very much a work in progress.”
London saw this vision reach its fullest reckoning in Trump’s speech in Riyadh, when he called on Middle Eastern leaders to combat “a crisis of Islamic extremism” and hailed their efforts in countering the rise of Iran. The speech shared many ideas with a London Center white paper that called for a “Gulf and Red Sea Treaty Organization” that would act as a Sunni NATO with American support.
According to London, former White House spokesman Sean Spicer sent him a letter thanking him for producing the white paper. “If you read the speech and you read our statements, they are almost exactly the same,” London said. “So I feel very confident in saying we played a role.”
Unlike other conservative think tanks, which have morphed into full-on lobbying shops, pressuring members of Congress to vote a certain way and rallying their supporters against them when they don’t, the London Center remains at a remove from the hurly-burly of legislation. The center does convene regular meet-ups with members of Congress and foreign dignitaries on topics such as Kurdistan independence, U.S. policy toward Qatar, and the future of U.S/Israel relations. The policy lunches tend to attract a fringe element of the Republican caucus: members like Steve King, Walter Jones and Joe Wilson. And the group connects senior White House officials with conservatives of a similar mindset serving in foreign governments, like Derk Jan Eppink, a member of the European parliament and a London Center fellow who has warned about immigration bringing about the end of Europe.
“There is an awareness of human nature that they have that makes them unique in the think tank world,” said one senior Hill aide who has sat in on several of the London Center sessions. “Their kind of thing is that we don’t need to send 200,000 troops into Syria and turn it into a bicameral legislative constitutional Jacksonian democracy, or anything like that, but that we need to identify realistic goals that we can accomplish that will shore up American security.”
By far the closest affiliation between the Trump White House and the London Center is in regards to the administration’s policy toward Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Regarded by many as a brutally repressive military dictator--he was never invited to the Obama White House, and the Obama administration briefly withheld foreign aid to the country--Sisi was one of the few foreign leaders whom Trump met with during the campaign, a meeting arranged by London Center fellows close to the campaign. Trump called Sisi “a fantastic guy” after that meeting, and has warmly embraced the strongman in a meeting at the White House.
London has led several delegations to Egypt, meeting with Sisi and other senior officials along with two retired military generals, former New York Times journalist Judy Miller and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. At one recent London Center event, London singled out from the audience the Consul General of Egypt, Ahmed Farouk: “He goes to every event I do, and I go to every event he does.” Shafik Gabr, a billionaire Egyptian industrialist, has attended several London Center events, and during last summer’s United Nations, the London Center hosted a boat ride around Manhattan for London Center fellows and dozens of Egyptian dignitaries close to the regime.
“Egypt has been a very reliable ally to the U.S. in the Middle East, and the London Center has seen that relationship go down the drain under the Obama administration,” said Michael Morgan, am Egyptian-born London Center senior fellow whom London has described as his adopted son and who hosts a weekly TV program broadcast in Egypt called “American Pulse.” “Sisi took back the country after it was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Herb was able to see very clearly from the outset that a stable Egypt was in America’s interests and central to a stable Middle East.”
Whether there is a financial arrangement between figures close to the Sisi government and the London Center is unclear; the financial documents that the London Center files to be considered a tax-exempt non-profit do not list the group’s donors, despite widespread practices among think tanks to be transparent about funding. Shafik Gabr, a wealthy Egyptian industrialist who supports the Sisi regime, has been photographed at several London Center events, but London told The Daily Beast that to reveal the group’s donors would be a violation of its privacy.
London is pleasantly surprised that his gang of senior fellows, many of whom were far outside the consensus of even Republican foreign policy circles, have suddenly found themselves with a direct line to the White House. London himself was a Trump sceptic through much of the primaries, supporting Ted Cruz.
“I think Trump was lacking an intellectual curiosity and it disturbed me,” he said in an interview before the inauguration. “When it became Hillary Clinton versus Trump to me it became Falstaff against Lady Macbeth. And while I am not a great admirer of Falstaff as a fool, I admire Falstaff more than Lady Macbeth. He’s a wild card, and wild cards are scary. This is scary. But Hillary Clinton was treasonous.”
Among old Washington foreign policy hands contacted for this story, there was serious doubt about the London Center’s sway with the White House. “I just wonder who they talk to inside,” said one former Bush foreign policy hand, who like nearly everyone contacted for this story was familiar with some of the London Center’s senior fellows but not the center itself.
Tony Shaffer, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a protege of Flynn’s who serves as the London Center’s communications director, pushed back vociferously on this notion.
“Look at my Instagram. Look at my social media,” he said, pointing to photos that show Shaffer with White House chief of staff John Kelly and housing secretary Ben Carson. “We are not here to brag. You can judge for yourself. It is not our job to promote ourselves. It is our job to work on policy issues.”
Shaffer said that he is in near daily contact with members of the Trump administration, and London cited several administration officials who here has recommended for White House jobs, including Crowley, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council Michael Anton and undersecretary of the treasury David Malpass. Eli Gold, the London Center’s vice-president and one of only three paid staffers, frequently posts on social media photos of himself arriving at the White House.
A senior White House official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, confirmed that administration officials are in regular contact with fellows from the London Center.
“There aren’t very many folks in the conservative foreign policy world who have their kinds of views,” the official said. “They are really unique in that sense.”
For London, this last year has been a pleasant surprise. After a long career on the periphery of conservative intellectual thought, he has gathered up a rogue collection of fellow travelers who suddenly find themselves in the center of power. Depending on how the wheel turns in the administration, many of their ideas and policy recommendations could become central to how the White House conducts foreign policy.
“You talk to people at the Council on Foreign Relations, where I am a member, and probably 80 percent of them, on the left and the right, opposed Trump. They have become so ossified in the views they have about the past, that they can’t consider the changes that are occurring on the world stage,” London said. “Many of them just can’t accept Trump. I can.”