The Senate’s stunning bipartisan rebuke of President Trump’s handling of U.S.-Saudi relations shows that the internationalist, values-based foreign policy of the late senator John McCain still holds significant weight in both parties. With more McCainites on their way to Congress next year, a larger foreign policy battle is set to unfold.
The Trump administration’s tolerance for the Saudi government’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is part and parcel of the president’s overall disdain for McCain’s brand of democracy and human rights promotion, which to be credible must also be applied to allies. But the Senate’s 63-to-37 vote Wednesday to advance a measure that would cut off U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen exposes a growing congressional consensus that the executive branch has veered too far from American values.
“Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking all of the sudden there’s a righteous element in Congress. However, it is encouraging to see senators talking about who are we as Americans and human rights being an essential part of our foreign policy,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me. “And that was John McCain’s approach to foreign policy, that if you disconnect yourself from your values, you lose your standing and hurt your interests.”
To be sure, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s politically charged op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which accused Trump’s critics of opportunism and hypocrisy, had some truth to it. Libertarians who want to disengage with most U.S. allies were quick to pile on Riyadh. Anti-interventionalists in both parties, long opposed to the Yemen war, saw a chance to advance their agenda.
But the factions that pushed the measure over the filibuster threshold were the McCain-style Republicans and national-security-minded centrist Democrats, who are finding increasing common cause in the age of Trump. They believe U.S. foreign policy must have a strong values component and not be based on financial transactions, and they insist there are crimes even allies can’t be allowed to get away with.
No matter what happens on this resolution, the drive to restore a centrist, internationalist foreign-policy consensus in Congress will ramp up drastically next session. The new class of freshman House members — most of them Democrats — is full of national security professionals and military veterans.
Rep.-elect Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, labor and human rights during the Barack Obama administration, worked closely with McCain for many years. He is one of a long list of young foreign policy leaders McCain personally mentored. McCain’s announcement of his illness in 2017 heavily influenced Malinowski’s decision to run for office.
“We desperately need Congress now to show the world the heart and soul of the United States hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s what McCain would be doing right now.”
The new internationalist Democrats must work with the McCainite Senate Republicans to both maintain oversight of the administration’s foreign policy and steer it in wise directions, he said.
Direct McCain disciples such as Graham and Malinowski will find natural allies in a new Congress with freshmen including former National Security Council official Andy Kim, former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger and former Pentagon official Elissa Slotkin. Democrats chose these candidates as a bet that Americans want experienced, centrist foreign policy professionals representing them. That bet paid off.
There is a small but growing political infrastructure for candidates who have an internationalist foreign policy agenda. The nonprofit group Foreign Policy for America marshaled grass-roots and financial support for all the successful incoming freshmen mentioned above.
These Democrats will find, waiting in the House, a group of young national security leaders who are already carrying the internationalist banner and who were all reelected: Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), just to name a few. Together, they will be the next generation of national security leaders in Congress to carry McCain’s torch.
In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, both parties will be forced to battle internally over foreign policy. On both sides, a strong faction promotes U.S. disengagement, economic nationalism and a rollback of American leadership, commitments, deployments and alliances.
Both parties must court young voters. A September poll conducted by the Better World Campaign found that a majority of Americans age 17 to 35 back robust international cooperation and diplomacy, supporting overseas development and defending human rights.
The Saudi crisis and the midterm elections show that, despite Trumpism, there is renewed enthusiasm for a foreign policy that advances interests and values as a shared goal. The more Americans see the results of Trump’s “nationalism,” the more they are choosing the McCain vision for America’s role in the world.