“His policies are making that worse as our allies see us heading for the exit at the moment when they are facing grave danger and so are we,” said Liz Cheney in July 2012 about President Barack Obama’s feckless approach to Syria.
In 2016, she and her father, former vice president Richard B. Cheney, excoriated Obama for reversing the red line. “Iran isn’t the only adversary benefiting from the age of Obama. Russia is threatening NATO, invading sovereign territory, selling air-defense systems to the Iranians, using its military to defend the Assad regime, bombing American-backed rebels in Syria, and playing a larger role in the Middle East than at any time since Anwar Sadat expelled his Soviet advisers from Egypt in 1972,” they wrote. “Across the region, nations that previously were strong American allies are making different calculations. Russia is seen as a reliable ally standing with Mr. Assad, while the U.S. walks away from its friends.”
Agree with her or not (on this or other issues), Cheney’s case was straightforward: When the United States retreats from the Middle East without completely defeating the Islamic State, Russia and Iran benefit while Israel is put at risk.
Fast-forward to 2018. In an interview on “Face the Nation” this past Sunday, Cheney, now a Republican representative for Wyoming, let loose with one of the most bracing, candid criticisms on President Trump we’ve heard from the right. It’s worth quoting at length:
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. His letter cited concern about the president's lack of respect for allies and lack of clarity regarding competitors like China and Russia. He seemed to invoke a lot of principles that traditionally Republicans do embrace. So do you see this as a call to action for the party that he says the president doesn't believe in these things?
CHENEY: Look, I — I am deeply, deeply concerned and I oppose strongly the president’s decision apparently to withdraw troops from Syria. The apparent decision that- that we’re now going to be looking at withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. I think this president has done a lot of very good things in terms of beginning to rebuild our military, getting out of the Iranian nuclear agreement. But these two decisions would be disastrous. They would really, in many ways, hand the victories to our enemies to Iran, to ISIS in Syria, the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. It’s a very dangerous path to go down and — and we shouldn’t be going down it. We ought to make sure that we keep our troops there in order to prevent the establishment of safe havens from those groups that want to attack us.
BRENNAN: But foreign policy is an area that the president has some leeway on here. I mean is there anything Congress can do, other than implore the president to reconsider?
CHENEY: Well, I think that that’s very important. I think that, you know, what we need to do is talk about the substance of these policies and nobody is talking about, you know, the kinds of things that Senator [Rand] Paul mentions. He seems to really be focused on blame America first and — and unburdened by facts. But if you look at what our troops are doing on the ground in Syria for example it’s about 2,200 special operations forces providing air support, providing some artillery support and that battle — that fight against ISIS isn’t done. You quoted the numbers of, of ISIS fighters still there. We’ve seen how quickly ISIS can reconstitute. If we were to withdraw precipitously from Syria, if we were to withdraw from Afghanistan leave a situation where our enemies could again establish safe havens. There’s no question in my mind the president will regret that and we’ll be in a situation where we probably have to go back at far greater cost, both in terms of treasure but also mostly American lives.
BRENNAN: So you would argue that while the president’s pulling out troops, that things like air support, things like continuing to fund and support allies who are the ground forces, the Kurds, et cetera, should continue?
CHENEY: Well, the troops that are there in Syria. That is exactly what they’re doing. So we should not pull those forces out. We ought to make sure that we continue that mission until ISIS is defeated. This shouldn’t be about, you know, it’s been this many years, it’s been this much time. You don’t just declare victory. You have to say, you know, it is a mission accomplished and that may require that we’re there for a long time because we have to make sure, you know, that, that those who are isolationists in our party — luckily there are a few of them, Rand Paul is one of them —
BRENNAN: But the president seems to agree with him and be one.
CHENEY: Well, it’s very important that the president reverse this decision in my view, because you’ve got to remember, we’re there because we were attacked. And we were attacked by al-Qaeda on 9/11. That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. In Syria, you’ve got Iran, you’ve got ISIS. If we are to withdraw from Syria now we’re basically handing Syria to the Iranians. We’re handing the Iranians the linchpin in the Shia crescent that they need and that they have said is their objective and their goal. It will be very dangerous for the United States, it will frankly decrease our security and it’ll be very dangerous for allies like Israel, and I think it’s important for us to look very closely at what’s happening there but that we should not be withdrawing our forces.
What if Trump doesn’t reverse himself and continues to reject the unanimous recommendations of his military chiefs? It’s hard to see how Republicans like Cheney could stand for a president who now counts Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) among his closest advisers.
Cheney has frequently remarked and written that Obama came into office wanting to shrink the United States’ footprint around the world. That, she said, was foolhardy in a world with rising threats from rogue states and terrorist organizations.
If Republicans like Cheney conclude that Trump is essentially repeating the errors of the Obama administration — and holds its worldview — there could be no the justification for supporting him for another term. If one believes that foreign policy is the most critical responsibility of the president, a primary challenge would be a moral imperative.
Now, perhaps Cheney’s aversion to Obama’s retrenchment was misguided, or perhaps the world is now so safe that American leadership and forward placement of troops is unnecessary. In that case, Cheney and others could in good conscience support a second Trump term. That would be an admission that Obama was essentially right and the hawks were wrong about U.S. leadership.
Somehow, I don’t think Cheney and a slew of Republicans who understand the necessity of U.S. leadership — even those who did not support the full panoply of post-9-11 counterterrorism actions, or who came to view the Iraq War as an error, or who understand the necessity of multilateral institutions, or who reject the notion we can outsource foreign policy to thuggish regimes — are willing to throw in the towel on U.S. exceptionalism. If I’m right, the only intellectually and honest option is to throw in the towel on Trump.