Why Is Soros Joining Forces With Koch - and What Does It Mean for Israel and the Mideast?

Co-founder Stephen Wertheim says the newly formed Quincy Institute wants to address U.S. foreign policy, including its relations with Israel and the Middle East

George Soros, left, and Charles Koch. Both men contributed $500,000 to new think tank The Quincy Institute.
Ronald Zak, AP / AP

WASHINGTON — One of the co-founders of a new U.S. think tank that includes the unlikely combination of liberal philanthropist George Soros and libertarian billionaire Charles Koch says the idea was to bring together people who will challenge U.S. foreign policy, regardless of their other political views.

The Boston Globe reported Sunday on the unique collaboration that involves Soros, one of the most prominent donors to left-leaning organizations and politicians in recent decades, and Koch, who has for a long time played a similar role on the right.

They have joined forces to support The Quincy Institute, which will work in Washington to promote “a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint.” The initiative is named after sixth U.S. President John Quincy Adams, whose quote adorns the think tank’s newly uploaded website: “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Soros and Koch each donated $500,000 to the institute. The think tank is still preparing for its launch but has five official founders. One of them is conservative writer and retired army colonel Andrew Bacevich, who has been an outspoken critic of ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bacevich’s only son died while serving as an officer in Iraq in 2007.

Historian and writer Stephen Wertheim is another co-founder. He told Haaretz on Monday that “the unusual collaboration” between liberal and conservative donors, as well as scholars, “surprised a lot of people.”

The new initiative has been in the works for almost a year, he says. “From the beginning, the idea was to bring in people with different points of view, but who share a belief that we need to have a different kind of conversation on foreign policy,” he adds.

Wertheim says the most surprised responses related to Koch’s involvement. “Some people assume he is in marching lockstep with the Republican Party on each and every issue — and that’s not the case. He has been advocating military restraint and smart diplomacy for a long time, so he was one of the first people on our radar when we began working on the institute,” the historian explains.

Koch, together with his brother David, controls Koch Industries, one of the largest corporations in the United States, and is reviled on the left for his support of right-wing economic and social policies. Soros, who is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, has been demonized by right-wing politicians and organizations for his support of liberal activism and academic freedom, with many of the attacks against him being blatantly anti-Semitic.

‘Cost of foreign wars’

According to Wertheim, the United States has experienced “decades of destructive foreign policy” under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “We need to think more systematically about the cost of foreign wars and how the U.S. can truly best pursue its interests,” he says.

One issue on which the think tank will likely speak out is the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Another co-founder, Trita Parsi, is an Iranian-born activist and writer who previously founded the National Iranian American Council — an organization that worked in support of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Parsi has been highly critical of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the U.S. president’s pressure campaign of sanctions against Tehran.

Wertheim says the Iran nuclear deal was “a major diplomatic achievement” and Trump had been mistaken to withdraw from it. He adds, however, that the new think tank wants to broaden the conversation on foreign policy beyond partisan divisions. It does not want to focus exclusively on Trump but on other actors who are involved in crafting policy, he notes.

Bacevich — the more conservative voice among the co-founders — published an op-ed in the LA Times on Sunday, praising Trump for his decision not to carry out a military strike against Iran after the Islamic Republic shot down a U.S. drone near the Strait of Hormuz last month.

“Whether Trump possesses the tenacity or the attention span to initiate a resolute and courageous liquidation of America’s unsound position in the Persian Gulf will seem unlikely to many,” Bacevich wrote. “Yet should he do so, Americans may yet owe this commander-in-chief a measure of gratitude. And by ignoring those who call for yet more war, he just might begin the process of repairing the damage done of late to this nation’s credibility.”

When asked what kind of policies the think tank will promote regarding Israel, Wertheim says that “we’re not uniform in our views, and we’re going to have debates within ourselves” on different foreign policy questions.

However, he adds that “in general, we think the U.S. has overidentified with its allies in the Middle East,” including Israel, but also other countries such as Saudi Arabia. As an example, he cites U.S. support for the kingdom’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen: “It’s very hard to claim this serves American interests.”

Wertheim says the rare cooperation between liberals and conservatives exemplified by the Quincy Institute could become a broader trend in Washington, where an ad hoc coalition of dovish Democrats and isolationist Republicans has, at times, worked together on questions of war and peace. “There have been some encouraging signs in Congress in recent years, such as the recent debate over how Congress can reassert itself on foreign policy,” he says.

One such example was the bipartisan attempt to stop the Trump administration using military force against Iran without congressional authorization. Another was the bipartisan effort to end U.S. involvement in Yemen. In both cases the administration eventually overcame the opposition, but only after some Republicans joined forces with Democrats to challenge those policies.

“Our group is explicitly bipartisan and one of the areas we will focus on is democratizing foreign policy,” says Wertheim. “We need to make sure that we have a Congress that holds up its constitutional responsibility.”