Fringe members of both political parties get the lion’s share of the attention on foreign policy. But most of the new, younger lawmakers with actual national security experience are promoting an internationalist, centrist and increasingly bipartisan vision for U.S. foreign policy in Congress and pushing back against President Trump’s plans for rapid retreat.
The Senate is advancing a package of bills this week promoting a robust U.S. role in the Middle East. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he would add an amendment to push back against Trump’s rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. McConnell’s package got 74 votes to advance in the Senate — and would have gotten even more if he didn’t include legislation protecting localities that punish companies who boycott Israel.
McConnell is urging his own party and Congress more broadly to side with a traditional, internationalist foreign policy that acknowledges Americans’ war weariness without feeding into tempting calls for the United States to abdicate world leadership, a vacuum that bad actors would surely fill.
“We are not the world’s policeman, but we are the leader of the free world, and it’s incumbent on the United States to lead,” he said on the Senate floor.
Over in the House, a makeshift bipartisan coalition of national-security-minded congressmen wants to take that idea one step further. On Wednesday, Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) introduced two bills that aim to steer Trump and U.S. foreign policy down the center lane.
Their “Responsible Withdrawal From Syria Act’’ would restrict the use of Pentagon funds for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria until the Trump administration reports to Congress on the strength and status of the Islamic State there and presents a strategy to deal with the remaining threat and the overall issue.
That legislation was written even before Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified Tuesday that the Islamic State “still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” contradicting Trump’s claims.
Their other bill, the “United States and Republic of Korea Alliance Support Act,” would restrict funds for the Pentagon to withdraw troops below the level of 22,000 from South Korea, unless the defense secretary certifies to Congress that this could be done without any adverse effect on U.S. national security and that the South Koreans could defend themselves and deter conflict without us.
Malinowski and Gallagher are building on the model the House used last week, when it passed legislation seeking to restrict funding Trump might use to withdraw from NATO, by a vote of 357-22.
“What we’re showing this week is a strong bipartisan consensus that it would be a catastrophic folly to withdraw from NATO and South Korea, and that if we leave Syria, we should do it with a plan, not a tweet,” Malinowski told me. “We have to take the president’s desire to withdraw from our global commitments seriously, and recognize that Congress is the only remaining check.”
Internationalist Democrats and Republicans are increasingly finding common cause, not only in promoting robust U.S. foreign policy positions but also in asserting the legislative branch’s role in national security decision-making and oversight.
“Congress has systematically surrendered its constitutional authority on national security issues to the executive branch,” Gallagher told me. “I ran for Congress in order to keep the country safe. That means Congress must play a greater role in strengthening the Free World against revisionist powers like Russia and China.”
These bills might not ever become law, and even if they did, Congress would have a tough time stopping Trump from pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, Afghanistan and South Korea if he were determined to do so. But the symbolism and the message are important — as are the people sending it.
Malinowski and Gallagher are joined as co-sponsors by freshmen lawmakers Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a former State Department and National Security Council official; Max Rose (D-N.Y.), an Afghanistan war veteran; and Rep. Van Taylor (R-Tex.), an Iraq War veteran. Other co-sponsors include Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a former CIA officer; Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), an Afghanistan war veteran and former Naval intelligence officer; and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y), a former George W. Bush White House staffer.
It’s easy to get a headline by quoting wildly inaccurate Pentagon numbers or accidentally using an anti-Semitic trope to criticize Israel legislation, but real action on foreign policy in Congress is not found on the far left or the far right — it’s in the center.
There’s an organized, growing, bipartisan group of next-generation national security leaders who were trained to believe that U.S. foreign policy should be rooted in fact-based and assertive U.S. international leadership. While Trump’s time in office is limited, this bunch is just getting started.