Against the Grain

The GOP Foreign Policy Resistance Against Trump

Rank-and-file Republicans have been loyal to the president’s agenda. But on foreign policy, party leaders are working to undermine the commander-in-chief’s isolationist tendencies.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators following their weekly strategy meeting Tuesday
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 3, 2019, 6 a.m.

This week felt like a political version of Freaky Friday where both parties exchanged roles in Washington—at least when it comes to foreign policy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is routinely caricatured by Democrats as a toadie for President Trump, delivered a scorching Senate floor speech criticizing the president’s planned troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.

McConnell, who rarely comments on any private disagreements with the president, then spearheaded a legislative amendment all but reprimanding the president for a reckless foreign policy. It expressed the view that a “precipitous withdrawal of United States forces from either country could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security.” All but three Republicans voted for it. (Seven others didn’t cast a vote.)

At the same time that Republicans were repudiating their president, leading Democrats were embracing Trump’s isolationist foreign policy perspective. Every prospective presidential candidate serving in the Senate aligned themselves with Trump’s worldview, even as the majority of their party’s members sided with the 68-vote majority. Even the leading pragmatist in the 2020 mix, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, voted against the call for a premature withdrawal. (Sen. Sherrod Brown, campaigning in Iowa, didn’t cast a vote.)

The vote makes the near-unanimous political freak-out over former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s principled resignation over Trump’s hasty withdrawal plans more than a bit disingenuous. And it suggests that if Democrats win the presidency in 2020, their standard-bearer would pursue a similar policy to Trump in Syria and Afghanistan—without the check that the Washington establishment, internal party dissent, and perhaps even the scrutiny that the press has provided during Trump’s presidency.

Put another way, if you believe in a muscular American national security posture, do you vote for the president whose instincts are reckless but is often checked by his party (and more significantly, his top staff)? Or with the party whose leading candidates agree with a Trump withdrawal strategy that much of the foreign policy establishment calls reckless?

Foreign policy is one of those rare issues that has transcended partisanship throughout the Trump presidency. The Senate unanimously voted on a measure blaming the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi Arabia, contrary to the president’s conclusions at the time. Eleven Senate Republicans voted to reverse the president’s relaxation of sanctions against a Russian oligarch closely connected to Putin—including stalwart Trump allies such as Sens. Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley. Democrats have allied with Republicans on many of these votes, especially when it comes to expressing disapproval for Russia’s malicious behavior.

Americans rarely prioritize global affairs at the ballot box, but it is a leading concern for influential elites within both parties. Among the earliest Republican defectors from Trump’s campaign were GOP hawks who were alarmed by Trump’s isolationist posture during the campaign and dismissiveness towards our traditional allies as president. Mattis was Trump’s most celebrated Cabinet pick because of his defense of norms. President Obama won the White House by running against the Iraq War, but growing worries over national security and the spread of ISIS-backed terrorism played a role in Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

In our country’s populist moment, it’s easy to find a constituency eager to bring the troops home and rail against the national security establishment. Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, Ben Rhodes, notably mocked the experienced voices in the foreign policy field as part of a blob who “whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.” It’s no coincidence that the Obama administration made similar moves to Trump, withdrawing troops prematurely from the Middle East and forcing Mattis out of a critical leadership position at Central Command. Sound familiar?

But Trump is facing an unyielding Republican resistance, working to check his agenda when it runs against long-standing principles. It’s a very rare phenomenon to see such independence in today’s tribal Washington. It’s a reminder that Republicans aren’t all marching in lockstep to the beat of Trump’s drum. And it’s a sign that Trump’s foreign policy views have a lot in common with Democratic dogma—as much as they’d loathe to admit it.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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