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The race for Biden’s foreign policy agenda

If 2020 was a normal presidential election, it might have marked a turning point for the Democrats. The growing strength of the progressive wing of the party, the increasing stratification of wealth in the U.S. and the strain on the political and economic systems that resulted from the 2008 financial crisis might have ushered in a sharper turn toward progressive policies than the one we’ve seen.

But 2020 isn’t a normal year. Trump fulfilled the worst expectations of the majority who voted against him in 2016. His first term in office was littered with scandals, and when crises hit — from the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico to the coronavirus to the murder of George Floyd and its resulting uprisings — Trump’s rank incompetence proved disastrous for the country. Joe Biden was able to win the primary based almost entirely on electability, rather than on policy, at a time when polls showed that Democratic voters’ policy preferences were slanting sharply progressive.

For at least another four years, Democrats were able to forestall a reckoning over the party’s future. The feverish desire to do away with Trump’s incompetence, venality, racism, and corruption which have resulted in massive escalations in social tensions and tens of thousands of needless deaths due to the coronavirus has justifiably prioritized his removal above all else for many voters. But it leaves the Democratic future uncertain, and the question of foreign policy is in even more flux than others.

Ex-Republicans at the table

The now-familiar Never Trump crowd — Republicans who actively oppose the 45th president — has assumed a featured position in the Biden campaign. While progressive Democrats have worked on task forces for moderate, but notable, concessions in the Democratic party platform, the Lincoln Project — a group of Never Trumpers, some of whom have left the Republican Party in the last three years — has been actively campaigning against not just Trump but also against many Republican senators.

The Lincoln Project’s decision to go after prominent Republicans aside from Trump signals that they do not expect to return to the GOP’s good graces in the foreseeable future. Any hope for defeating Trumpism and reclaiming the Republican party evaporated when they went after Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and other GOP icons. They surely knew this, and they also know that they will have a key seat at the table with Biden should he win the White House and his party win the Senate in November. The ex-Republicans will legitimately claim that their work was decisive in taking the Senate away from McConnell and his cronies, while progressives have been working on policy issues.

Biden will be eager to demonstrate his ability to work across the aisle, but he is already having problems among Democrats due to his resistance to popular domestic policies. So the Never Trumpers will look to foreign policy.

Many of Trump’s staunchest Republican critics from 2016 had a strong inclination toward foreign policy. Bill Kristol, David Frum, Max Boot, and Jennifer Rubin among others have been vocal opponents of his for the past five years. In their heyday, their neoconservative foreign policy views were not far from the views of some hawkish Democrats.

The ideology of endless war and support for aggressive and interventionist U.S. policies in support of the dubious goal of vague “American interests” has lost a lot of appeal across the political spectrum after the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the voices remain prominent in the Washington discourse, and have managed already to be heard within the Democratic party. Their policy views have not visibly changed in recent years, and their ongoing connections to prominent Republicans as well as with hawkish Democrats could appeal to Biden’s bipartisan inclinations.

Biden’s bipartisanship

Biden has shifted his views since voting to support authorization for the use of military force in Iraq in 2002, voting against the Iraq troop surge in 2007, and opposing the Obama administration’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011. During the current campaign, he said that he intends to revive the Iran nuclear deal and would end U.S. support for the Saudi war against Yemen. He has made it clear that he intends to press for a renewal of the START treaty, a crucial agreement for limiting the deployment of strategic nuclear warheads.

But Biden has demonstrated he can be moved by events and political forces. Neoconservatives have certainly noticed that Biden, while opposing Israeli plans to annex the West Bank has also steadfastly refused to consider moves to exert pressure against Israel to convince it to change its behavior. While many in both parties opposed the Iran nuclear deal, many also opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw without cause, insisting instead on crafting an unrealistic “better deal.” Biden’s stance is that he would re-enter the agreement and press hard for such a better deal, but it’s unclear how much carrot and how much stick he intends to employ. We can be certain that the neocons who are supporting him now will be pushing the stick.

There are concerns about Biden’s attitude toward China, where he seems more aggressive in his attitude toward the Beijing government even while repudiating the blatantly racist language Trump has employed. Four years of Trump’s incoherent approach towards Russia will leave a great deal to clean up, from broken arms control treaties to Russia’s increased reach in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Libya, and the tangled relationship with Turkey.

These issues, as well as the disorder Trump would leave in the Persian Gulf with Qatar, in Afghanistan, in Korea, and in other areas all call for a clear, consistent, and deft diplomatic hand. Little will be gained through the sort of muscle-flexing likely to be urged by the ex-Republicans.

Progressives must, therefore, make a concerted effort at real influence in a Biden administration and at narrowing the space for the Never Trumpers. Getting good planks in the Democratic party platform is fine but will have little real-world impact. 

Focus on Congress too

One race to watch will be for the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The current chairman, Eliot Engel, is almost certainly going to be defeated in his primary race when the last votes are finally counted. The race to succeed him as HFAC Chair has already begun, although no one will say so until Engel officially loses his race.

That race got a bit more interesting Monday, when it was reported that Joaquin Castro of Texas would be vying for Engel’s position. Previously, the contest had seemed to be between Repsresentatives Brad Sherman of California and Gregory Meeks of New York. Sherman, the more hawkish of the two, would certainly have the backing of the strong pro-Israel and conservative lobbyists. Meeks is a more moderate figure, though not as far left as Castro.

Castro is highly unlikely to win this race, but he might be able to pose a challenge, and it might be enough to push the Democrats toward Meeks rather than Sherman. That would represent a major improvement over Engel, even if it would fall short of the sort of overhaul of foreign policy that Castro would represent. If Sherman fails to win the chair, in the wake of Engel’s defeat, it will represent a strong repudiation of the hawkish wing of the Democratic party.

The other step that progressives must take is to be much more visible in the race for the Senate. The failure to put popular issues, even less controversial ones like marijuana legalization, in the Democratic platform were stinging defeats. The lesson there is that progressives need more leverage. They can get that by being visible influences in key Senate races, even if the Democrat running isn’t to their taste. If they don’t, then the Never-Trumpers will get those seats at the table.

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