The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Needed: A clear foreign policy of progressive realism

President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 19.
President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 19. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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President Trump’s impulsive belligerence sensibly arouses alarm across the political spectrum. Yet, reflexive opposition to all things Trump can have perverse effects. In 2008, Barack Obama swept to the Democratic Party’s nomination and the presidency, in part, because of his early opposition to President George W. Bush’s catastrophic war in Iraq, a stark contrast to the hawkish support provided by primary opponents Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Now, reacting to Trump, even liberal Democrats are beginning to embrace hawkish postures, pundits and policies.

When Trump abruptly announced he would remove U.S. troops from Syria and would begin pulling them out of Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned, and the foreign policy establishment howled in dismay. Many leading Democrats immediately piled on. Clinton tweeted: “Isolationism is weakness. Empowering ISIS is dangerous. Playing into Russia and Iran’s hands is foolish. This President is putting our national security at grave risk.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called his announcement a “Christmas present to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.” Only a few voices such as that of Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) were prepared to make the sensible case: The intervention is illegal under international law, is not authorized by Congress and makes little sense.

Democratic voters reacted as their leaders did. As Glenn Greenwald detailed for the Intercept, Trump’s action turned opinion upside down. A majority of Democrats went from being skeptical of the intervention to favoring keeping the troops in Syria. A broad majority of Republicans did just the opposite, going from pro-intervention to pro-withdrawal.

Nor was it an isolated case of hawkishness. Democrats — led by the likes of new House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) — have been rabid about the supposed threat to democracy posed by Russian interference in our elections, and most aggressive in demanding stronger sanctions against Russia. Democrats such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) have scorned the president’s slapdash “summit diplomacy” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, warning against loosening sanctions or any other premature concessions. Trump’s vaudeville summit was clearly an ill-prepared public relations stunt. Yet it did defuse an increasingly dangerous confrontation — fueled by Trump’s infantile boasting about the size of his atomic button — and seems to have resulted in North Korea at least temporarily suspending testing of missiles and warheads.

Criticizing Trump from the right has become a staple of liberal media, as well. Neoconservative hawks — discredited for their support of the Iraq debacle — have used opposition to Trump to revive their careers, becoming regulars on leading liberal outlets such as MSNBC that relish their attacks on Trump.

Not all Democrats have succumbed to Trump derangement syndrome. Khanna has organized effective efforts to end the U.S. complicity in the war crimes and human rights catastrophe that is Saudi Arabia’s increasingly genocidal war on Yemen. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), an Iraq War veteran, has made a broad critique of regime change the centerpiece of her politics. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) have kept Democrats focused on the need for sensible trade policy, supporting Trump for taking on the North American Free Trade Agreement and China, while criticizing him for his inept and inadequate measures to date.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is considering a 2020 presidential run, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has already joined the race, are laying out elements of a progressive foreign policy that challenges regime change and wars without end, supports cutting the military budget, and rightly opposes ramping up an arms race with Russia. Yet, even Warren and Sanders are not immune from this syndrome. Warren’s fierce rhetoric about Russia and China suggests that she is ready to embrace a Cold War against both countries. Sanders’s focus on the “axis of authoritarianism” — an unfortunate echo of George W. Bush’s “ axis of evil ” that led to the Iraq calamity — targets the rise of authoritarian regimes that are an expression of the failed global economic order, not the cause of it.

Ironically, Trump’s failure isn’t because he is leading a wholesale “withdrawal” of U.S. military intervention — often euphemistically dubbed “American leadership” — across the world. It’s that he has too often bought into the failed policies of the establishment. During his first year in office, he increased troop levels to Afghanistan and Syria, and escalated interventions in Africa and the Middle East. He has pumped up an already bloated military budget. Despite allegations of collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, he has signed off on tougher sanctions, ramped up the arms race and escalated exercises on sea and land directly along the Russian border. He moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and has remained steadfast in support of Israel’s right-wing government. He has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal and from the Paris climate accord — to the delight of neocons. Despite his rhetoric, Trump has sustained the bulk of the establishment’s policies, alliances and interventionism. And his limited attention span, ignorance of how government works and inveterate flip-flops impede his ability to get anything done — for better and worse. Not surprisingly, the Syrian and Afghanistan withdrawals now seem to have conditions attached and are likely to be postponed.

Democrats can’t allow legitimate outrage at Trump’s presidency to confuse them about the challenges ahead internationally. The United States is mired in wars without end and without victory. The “liberal global order” so praised by the foreign policy community has generated obscene inequality and failed to address the real, present and growing threat posed by catastrophic climate change. The Pentagon, despite wasting billions of dollars , now has a budget greater than that under President Ronald Reagan at the height of the Cold War. Our trade policies have rigged the rules for global corporations and banks, with devastating effects on American workers and communities.

What is needed is a clear articulation of a new strategy of progressive realism. It would focus on the emerging threats to our security and our democracy, particularly catastrophic climate change and a growing inequality. It would embrace realists’ skepticism about regime change and military intervention, while sustaining American support for international law and democracy. It would enlist allies to restructure the global economic rules so that they work for the many and not simply the few. It would focus on rebuilding the United States, making us a beacon rather than a menace. With control of the House and a presidential campaign that has already begun, Democrats have the opportunity to define this positive policy, not simply react to Trump’s provocations.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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