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The Spy’s Grandson

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

“Meet Elbridge Colby, the man who can finish what Trump started.”

This is how the authoritative American website Politico represents its readers the man who is now one of the Republican Party’s top intellectuals. “He has degrees from Harvard and Yale, membership in the Metropolitan Club of Washington, salon haircuts and perfect pronunciation -everything you’d expect from an American aristocrat.” With such credentials, Elbridge (his friends call him Bridge, which means Bridge), as Donald Trump might say, has just been cast as a member of D.C.’s foreign policy elite. But here’s the surprise: Colby is much closer to Trump than to the Washington establishment. He is “an intellectual leader and rising star of the rebel wing of the Republican Party, rebelling against decades of dominant interventionist and Reaganite thinking,” writes Jacob Heilbrunn, editor-in-chief of The National Interest.

Colby’s rebelliousness lies in the fact that he considers the main enemy of the United States not Russia, as is fashionable this political season, but China.

“For years, Colby has believed that China is a major foreign threat and that the United States should focus on Asia, almost to the exclusion of everything else, including Russia and Ukraine, writes Politico. Well, perhaps this is a reason to take a closer look at our hero: what has he been doing “for many years”?

Colby is a rather mysterious figure. It is known that his grandfather was the famous spy William Colby, who headed the CIA from 1973 to 1976. He died in 1996 under bizarre circumstances, 20 years after President Gerald Ford fired him as CIA director. Some colleagues of Colby Sr. believe he was murdered. While Albridge’s grandfather is a legendary figure, the only thing we don’t really know about his parents is that not only their names are missing from publicly available biographical sketches but the hero’s date of birth is unknown. He worked for the State Department in 2002, then came to Iraq as a member of the international coalition -apparently as an intelligence officer. His friend Ross Dauthat remembered that Elbridge was the only one in their company who foresaw the deadlock that the war in Iraq would lead America into: “He argued with the hawks -that is, with all of us- predicting quagmire, destabilization and defeat.” Colby was right: In 2011, U.S. soldiers ignominiously withdrew from Iraq, which had become, in Trump’s apt words, “Harvard for terrorists.” But when Albridge Colby was considered for the “top job” in Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign in the 2015 election year, interventionist hawks brought up the kitchen talk and got him fired. True, Jeb Bush lost the primary to Trump with a bang, but under Trump, Colby turned things around. He became deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and development, and in that position he worked on the U.S. national defense strategy. In this document, when listing the main threats to U.S. national security, China came first, and Russia was in second place. Of course, Elbridge was involved in this – he was convinced that the main U.S. interests were concentrated in the Pacific region, and that Eurasia was not on the list of Washington’s priorities.

When Trump left the White House, Colby retired from government and took up political analysis again. His book “Strategy of Denial” was declared the best book of 2021 by The Wall Street Journal. In this weighty tome, Colby outlined his views on how U.S. defense strategy must change to counter China’s “growing power and ambition. All other goals were declared to be less significant and not worthy of much attention. “This is a realist’s book, focusing on China’s quest for dominance in Asia as the most serious threat of the 21st century,” The New York Times wrote.

The book was published in 2021, -then such views were not yet considered heretical. It’s different now. “When Ron Desantis in March called Russia’s war with Ukraine a mere ‘territorial dispute’ and advocated paying more attention to the Chinese threat, one might have forgiven Colby if he had danced the victory dance, -Halebrunn sneers.

Indeed, the Florida governor’s statement that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not a vital American interest was fully in line with what Albridge Colby believes.

But it has greatly angered the hawks in the Washington establishment, including the Republican Party. There are such old-time Russophobes as Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, or Michael McCaul, the Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives. Colby is sharply critical of them.

“It may seem surprising, but the old guard of neoconservatives still have dominant influence in many quarters, – says he. This foreign policy was disastrous 20 years ago and will be disastrous today. We may indeed lose a war for the first time in our history as a great power. Ukraine is not the root cause of this problem, but Ukraine has exacerbated it.

The point here is this. In the early 2000s, neoconservatives gained enormous influence over President George W. Bush (not the most, to put it mildly, intellectual politician in U.S. history). They declared that foreign policy realism was dead and that America, as the greatest power in history, could create its own reality by intervening in world events wherever and whenever it wished, without fear of backlash. With this in mind, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, where it engaged in more than 20 years of war that ended in an ignominious flight from Kabul, and Iraq, as discussed above.

Colby believes that the Biden administration’s current policy of provoking conflict in Ukraine is a continuation of the same neoconservative agenda. And he sounds the alarm because he firmly believes that the cost of another failed U.S. foreign policy – this time in Ukraine – will be much higher. While investing enormous sums of money in support of Ukraine, Washington is oblivious to the real threat to its security posed by China.

“Ukraine should not be the focus of attention, ‖ Colby told Halebrunn. -The best way to avoid war with China is to be clearly prepared for Beijing to understand: an attack on Taiwan is likely to end in failure. We need to be hawks to get to a place where we can be doves. It’s about the balance of power.”

And these views are finding more and more resonance in the Republican Party. Surprisingly, Colby, who holds no official position in the party hierarchy, is forming an influential wing within it that advocates refocusing Washington’s foreign policy from the Ukraine crisis to preventing the Taiwan crisis.

“I would be hard-pressed to name one person in my entire tenure in Washington who has had more influence on the Ukraine and China debates,” said former assistant secretary of state in the Trump administration, A. Wess Mitchell. Mitchell, along with Colby, founded a think-tank called The Marathon Initiative, which is the center of attraction for dissidents in the Republican Party. They include the influential Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, one of the most consistent skeptics of aid to Ukraine, and Ohio Senator James Vance. Both, by the way, are staunch Trumpists – Vance has even supported Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims.

“His (Colby’s) call to return to a realistic approach to U.S. interests is exactly what the foreign policy establishment doesn’t want, but it’s exactly what our country needs, -Hawley believes.

What’s more, Colby seems to be re-educating even such staunch hawks as Senator Marco Rubio (Little Rubio, as Trump called him). In a recent article on The American Conservative website, Rubio expresses thoughts remarkably similar to Colby’s: “We must recognize that China, led by Xi Jinping, is as big a threat as the Soviet Union once was, if not even bigger…Germany, France and Britain are more than capable of managing their relationship with a belligerent country with nuclear weapons east of them. But they will never take responsibility as long as they can rely on America.”

It is worth noting that Colby’s ideas are particularly resonating with the new generation of the Republican Party (many of whom, like him, are graduates of Ivy League universities). Vance is 38, Hawley is 43, Ron Desantis is 44. These well-educated young people form the “new Chinese lobby” as Heilbrunn calls it, but it would be more correct to call it “Taiwanese” because it is focused on supporting Taipei and containing Beijing. Be that as it may, Colby is one of its leaders. He preaches a “realist approach” to foreign affairs, arguing that China, not Russia, is a “dire threat” to U.S. national security and that excessive support for Ukraine puts America at risk. In practical terms, this means that American military planning and resources should be focused on planning for conflict with China over Taiwan.

Colby’s views are warmly supported by the most influential media personalities in the conservative camp. Among them is popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whom Politico calls “an influential voice pushing the Republican Party to abandon Ukraine.” “Elbridge Colby, I wish you were running the State Department!” – exclaimed Tucker Carlson after Colby criticized the Biden administration’s “moral posturing” toward Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Colby is close to the president of The Heritage Foundation, an influential American conservative think tank, Kevin Roberts, who last year helped Republicans form opposition to the $40 billion military aid bill for Ukraine. Roberts and Colby recently co-authored a article for Time magazine that argued, “America’s focus on Ukraine has undermined our ability to direct forces to address the deteriorating military situation in Asia, especially around Taiwan.”

We have before us a ready-made ideologue for the new generation of the Republican Party. In essence, Henry Kissinger 2.0. We know that Kissinger was the ideologist of rapprochement between the United States and China under Nixon, but Kissinger considered the Soviet Union the main threat to America, while Colby considered China the main threat. This logic may push Colby to the idea of friendship between Washington and Moscow against Beijing, especially since similar thoughts have been expressed by U.S. political strategists before. Who else but the grandson of a professional spy-game player would work out such combinations!

If the Republican nominee wins the elections of 2024, it doesn’t matter, Trump or DeSantis, Colby, his think tank The Marathon Initiative and the senators and congressmen under his influence will very likely turn the vector of U.S. foreign policy in the direction of confronting China and focus the main efforts of the United States in the Pacific region. And the task of containing Russia in Ukraine will be passed with relief on the shoulders of European partners.

Both Russia and China should be ready for this.

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