When a prominent Washington peace activist was asked recently to name the leading anti-interventionists in the Senate, he responded, “Rand Paul and Mike Lee,” both Republicans. Democrats are in the midst of a furious struggle over what they stand for and who is included in their coalition, yet on foreign policy questions, their silence is deafening. When President Trump decided to drop 59 cruise missiles on Syria in response to purported use of chemical weapons, there was more debate about the attack among Republicans than among Democrats.
The Democratic establishment’s record on foreign policy has been disastrous. Most Democratic leaders supported the war of choice in Iraq, the largest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. They cheered the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya that has ended in the humanitarian horror of a ruined country, racked by violent conflicts, where the Islamic State is consolidating a backup caliphate. They applauded President Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan even as that war dragged on year after year. They touted the United States as the “indispensable nation,” demonstrating a predilection for military intervention and regime change that rivals that of Republican neoconservatives. Many considered Obama too weak and too wary of intervention, despite the fact that he left office bombing seven nations, dispatching Special Operations forces to more than 120 countries and calling for increased spending on a military that already consumes nearly 40 percent of the world’s military budget.
In 2016, Trump showed how unhappy Americans were with that record of futility. During the campaign, he lambasted Hillary Clinton for Iraq and Libya. He derided regime change. He argued that the United States had wasted $6 trillion in the Middle East for nothing. He claimed his “America First” policy would focus on the Islamic State and protecting our borders. He intimated that he would seek to work with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take out the Islamic State.
In less than 100 days, Trump has discarded many of his most populist and popular positions. In addition to dropping cruise missiles on Syria and the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, he’s dispatching more forces to Syria, getting the country more entangled in Yemen and Somalia , and girding for a confrontation with North Korea. He calls for pumping the military budget up even beyond levels sought by Obama and paying for it by decimating public services at home — from support for public schools to environmental and worker protections.
Trump has proved more con man than strongman, but Democrats haven’t had much to say about these head-spinning reversals. They largely applauded Trump’s bombing of Syria and were reassured by his flip-flops on NATO and the moderating of his positions on China and trade. Objections to his military budget increase have focused more about the domestic cuts than the idiocy of pumping more money into an already bloated military.
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With Democrats in the political wilderness, having lost the White House and both houses of Congress, this is the time for fundamental debate and reassessment. A challenge to the failed doctrines of the Democratic foreign policy establishment is long overdue. Cries for unity or attempts to police the boundaries of conventional wisdom should be seen for what they are: an attempt to evade responsibility for calamitous failures.
The need for a new course is clear. Our corporate-led globalization strategy has devastated U.S. workers, racked up unprecedented trade deficits, exacerbated inequality at home and abroad, and essentially ignored catastrophic climate change. Our “reflexive interventionism” has left us mired in endless wars. Our assertion that we will police the world has undermined international law and institutions while sparking new tensions with Russia and China. Our bloated Pentagon continues to consume resources desperately needed for rebuilding the United States at home.
Leaders who begin to lay out a common -sense foreign policy of realism and restraint will find a responsive public. This will be true even if Trump manages somehow to avoid triggering a new war or global catastrophe.
Some suggest it will take a war to create an antiwar movement that demands change. But the wars are already ongoing. Our attempt to police the world has already proved too costly. Where is the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren of foreign policy? Many Democrats are positioning themselves to take on Trump four years from now. They’d be wise to seek leadership by demonstrating it.