On March 31, 2021, a hotel in Washington, D.C. hosted a swanky conference for politicos—not exactly an uncommon occurrence. Yet, in a town where conservatives are often expected to back the latest war, “Up from Chaos: Conserving American Security” bucked that resurgent trend.
“As far as we can tell, this is the first major event for right-wing realists that’s happened in D.C. in the last twenty years,” said Saurabh Sharma, one of the event’s organizers, in an interview with The Epoch Times.
Sharma, 24, and Nick Solheim, 25, are the founders of American Moment, an educational group that aims to credential the sort of young people who could staff a future Trump administration.
The two host a podcast, “Moment of Truth,” with guests from an extended universe of conservative populists and Trump administration alumni, from Steve Bannon and Dr. Scott Atlas to filmmaker Amanda Milius, a Trump State and White House alumna, and Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn, who chaired the 1776 Commission.
American Moment’s stated priorities include combatting China, limiting immigration, curbing the power of multinational corporations, and putting America first in foreign policy.
Sharma and Solheim organized “Up from Chaos” with The American Conservative (TAC), a magazine founded in 2002 by Pat Buchanan and other paleoconservatives who opposed the neoconservative push for a war in Iraq.
The host committee and major supporters include Turning Point USA, Young Americans for Liberty, the Conservative Partnership Institute, the Claremont Institute, and the John Quincy Adams Society, as well as investor F. Francis Najafi and Rockefeller heir George D. O’Neill, Jr. Speakers included Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
While few at “Up from Chaos” are big fans of President Joe Biden, some still gave him credit for resisting direct U.S. and NATO involvement after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“There’s one person near the levers of power whose rhetoric is bad, but who at least then says, ‘We’re not going to give them a no-fly zone,’” said Michael Anton, a Hillsdale College professor who served in the Trump administration.
In September 2016, Anton made the case for his future boss in a famous piece, the “Flight 93” essay.
Meanwhile, interventionists on the Republican side of the aisle came in for criticism.
One target was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who publicly asked for “somebody in Russia” to “take out” Russian President Vladimir Putin. Graham’s comments were condemned by lawmakers running the gamut from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
During one panel discussion, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist speculated that Republicans may feel compelled to take the interventionist line for fear of being branded traitors if they dissent—a convenient situation for the anti-Republican corporate media if the intervention is, in her words, “politically toxic.”
“We’re not trying to be partisan hacks here,” Sharma told The Epoch Times. “Liberal internationalism is a bipartisan exercise.”
Recent Ukrainian reports of mass civilian killings in and near Kyiv, including the town of Bucha, have intensified demands for action against Russia, beyond the weapons shipments, direct financial aid, and sanctions that have already been put in place.
Russians have asserted they did not kill civilians in the town, arguing that the Ukrainian photos were staged. Recent satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies appears to show bodies in the streets of Bucha during March, in line with reporting from journalists for multiple news agencies on the ground.
With Bucha fresh in mind, some figures in media and politics have stepped up calls for greater action again Russia and Putin.
On April 2, Ali Velshi of MSNBC advocated “direct military involvement” by NATO and the United States, stating, “If ‘never again’ means anything, then this is the time to act.”
“They [America’s policymaking class] have no way to reconcile the idea that we can oppose the actions that Mr. Putin has taken, while simultaneously being extremely, extremely skittish about escalating the conflict from the American side of things,” Sharma said.
He argued that interventionists are increasingly similar to each other, regardless of their ideological trappings, claiming that Bill Kristol, the neoconservative journalist who promoted the invasion of Iraq, is “basically a leftist now.”
“I believe that the future of restraint has to be on the right this decade, as the left seems utterly captured by a hegemonic global corporate class that loves war and pays none of the costs of it,” Sharma told The Epoch Times.
The roots of conservative restraint run deep in America.
George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, a touchstone for many at “Up from Chaos,” famously counseled Americans to beware of entanglements and permanent alliances abroad.
The mid- to late-twentieth century saw greater U.S. engagement abroad, including through the Reagan-era defense buildup that helped break up the Soviet Union.
Yet, several decades (and wars) later, long after the end of the original Cold War, dissatisfaction with the foreign policy status quo helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.
Sharma derives inspiration from Trump’s 2016 foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel.
In those remarks, Trump advocated foreign policy that would put America’s interests first, including through a tougher approach to China, rebalanced NATO contributions, and “improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only.”
On Fox News last month, Trump described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “crime against humanity.”
“We live in the world of Trump’s Mayflower speech,” Sharma told The Epoch Times. “Without him, none of these gains would have been on the table.”
Some dovish Trump detractors fault his presidency for continued military interventions, such as the targeted drone strike on Qasem Soleimani and the presence of U.S. troops in Syria.
In addition, while Trump did arrange for a withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 as part of the Doha Agreement, the United States did not actually exit the country until Biden was in office, in an evacuation that was heavily criticized by many military commanders.
Trump may even have been kept in the dark on key issues by his subordinates.
In November 2020, the United States’ outgoing special representative to Syria told a reporter he and his colleagues “were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.”
“At the end of the day, he’s the first president in my lifetime to not start a new foreign war,” Sharma said.
One Trump administration alumnus at the conference offered an explanation for what happened.
Russ Vought, Office of Management and Budget Director under Trump, argued that a network of elites in the foreign policy world actively tried to undermine Trump’s vision of foreign policy, succeeding in part because few experts would stand up for an America First perspective.
Asked about who made up that network of elites, a spokesperson for Vought said he was referring specifically to H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser in 2017 and 2018, and John Bolton, McMaster’s successor in the NSA role through mid-2019.
At “Up from Chaos,” Vought asserted that foreign policy in the White House was “completely disconnected” from what Trump thought. He listed many “paradigm-shifting questions” that he said were never adequately addressed:
“Why are we still in Afghanistan? Why are we on a collision course with Russia? Why haven’t you brought our troops home from Europe? Shouldn’t we prioritize a China fight above all else? Are Japan and Taiwan ready to defend themselves? Why is it the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force just so happen to have the same share of the budget?”
The specter of neoconservative foreign policy, on the upswing as events have unfolded in Ukraine, alarmed many speakers.
“The world is not Manichean, and it’s not always 1938—and when it is, we should take it quite seriously,” said William Ruger, a realist foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute who Trump nominated to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.
Dan Caldwell, a Marine Corps veteran who serves as vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, said Congress needs to stop being so afraid of generals.
Some speakers went even further in questioning the United States’ current approach to the world.
Both Massie and Ohio GOP Senate primary candidate J.D. Vance voiced skepticism about NATO, with Massie deriding it as a “Cold War relic.”
An entire panel session was devoted to dissecting the media’s role in pushing for conflict.
“War is the only grand narrative allowed to media in a mass society, where every other story is personal and subjective—the further liberation from the chains of history, tradition, and biology,” said Micah Meadowcroft, managing editor of the American Conservative and an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appointee under Trump.
“Incidentally, the personal profile of journalists and CIA analysts appears to be converging,” Meadowcroft later added.
Meadowcroft’s concerns echoed those of Rachel Bovard, senior director of the Conservative Partnership Institute and a veteran of policy and staff positions in the House and Senate.
In an earlier talk, she highlighted the “unaccountable, non-transparent power” of intelligence agencies in setting U.S. foreign policy.
Lee Smith, a columnist for multiple papers and host of EpochTV’s “Over the Target,” put it most bluntly.
“We’ve always known that the press tends to lean to the left. That’s not what we’re talking about anymore. We’re talking about the press as a part of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. That’s what it is,” he said. “These are the apparatchiks who push out propaganda on behalf of the regime and against the public.”
Smith said this insidious change first began in connection with the Iran deal during the second half of the Obama administration. Smith noticed the press echoing “regime talking points” more and more closely.
“The most important component of Russiagate was the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Why was that? Because they were taking leaks of classified information, and shaping that to undo an American president,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, “Up from Chaos” has already come under media scrutiny.
Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Ben Jacobs conceded the event “wasn’t a Putin apologia,” instead calling it a gathering of “Putin is bad, but” Republicans.
“As Putin’s deadly and unprovoked assault drags on, the GOP is also going to war—against itself,” wrote Politico’s Jacob Heilbrunn, the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.”
“I think what was very clear was that many of the authors of these pieces came in expecting to hear crazy things. And when no one gave it to them, they had to turn otherwise reasonable things into crazy-sounding things,” Sharma told The Epoch Times.
“If there was a smoking gun—us saying, ‘We love Vladimir Putin’—you bet they would have led with that.”