There was an unusual roll call in the U.S. Senate this week. Iowa’s pro-Trump senators broke with the president, while a crew of Democratic presidential hopefuls stood on the side of their chief political enemy.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell brought forth an amendment to express disagreement with President Donald Trump’s recent foreign policy moves. “The United States faces continuing threats from terrorist groups,” senators wrote, rejecting the president’s plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
Almost all Senate Republicans voted to rebuke Trump, including Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, who are unabashed champions of Trump’s domestic policy agenda. It was a rare crack in the veneer of Trump’s unified Republican Party.
Most Senate Democrats joined the Republicans, but 21 Democrats sided with Trump, including all of the senators rumored or confirmed to be running for president in 2020. Behold the spectacle: A class of politicians who have effectively signed up to criticize the president full-time for the foreseeable future broke with their colleagues to defend a controversial stance of a controversial administration.
This is a promising development. The vote on the McConnell amendment may be a bellwether of the country’s shuffling foreign policy paradigm. After a generation of bipartisan agreement about the necessity of America’s behemoth global military footprint, a streak of healthy skepticism is emerging among both Republicans and Democrats.
A day later, Trump delivered his State of the Union address, where he dubbed his foreign policy philosophy “principled realism.”
Trump reminded us about the enormous costs of our military activities. In nearly 20 years since we entered Afghanistan, nearly 7,000 Americans have died there and in Iraq, at the same time we have spent $7 trillion on military operations throughout the region. Trump correctly identifies these losses as unproductive and unsustainable.
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“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump declared. It was the best line I can remember from a State of Union address in my lifetime.
To be clear, Trump’s principled realism is not entirely consistent. He sometimes articulates the values of peace and non-interventionism, but other times he works to inflame international conflicts.
In the same speech where he rejected perpetual combat in the near east, Trump defended political intervention in Venezuela, blasted Iran as a state sponsor of terror and rehashed the questionable rationale behind his international trade disputes. Corners of his administration are filled with people who have made careers out of advocating for war.
Similarly, most the Democrats who hope to unseat Trump are not offering a grand vision for ending military adventurism and promoting global diplomacy. They have landed on the right side of some important issues, but we have yet to see most of them their underlying foreign policy principles.
The nation is overdue for a serious discussion about war and peace. Trump and his large field of opponents might give it to us.
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