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Bipartisanship in Congress is a relic, except when it comes to preserving American militarism

With Trump’s recurring calls to end our endless wars, Congress has missed big opportunities to provide coherent and strategic guidance to compel him to follow through.

One of the most common myths about Washington is that Republicans and Democrats can’t find a single thing to agree on. Our parties are so divided, the thinking goes, that it is close to impossible to advance bipartisan legislation on just about anything. If only they could come together, we might be able to solve some of the country’s most pressing problems.

But that’s not quite true. There are actually plenty of goals that both parties agree upon and consistently work together to advance, sometimes to the detriment of the country. Case in point: the long, strong bipartisan tradition of working to prevent the reduction of the American mlitary presence abroad.

There have been far too many recent examples of this phenomenon. During the House Armed Services Committee’s markup on July 1 of the annual National Defense Authorization Act  — a bill which, it should be said, is another perfect example of how the parties are happy to work together when it comes to advancing big military spending and policy — the committee adopted a bipartisan amendment offered by Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) that sought to defund the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan unless certain lofty conditions were met. Despite the fact that the American public and veterans and their families overwhelmingly support withdrawal, the amendment sailed through on a 45-11 vote, foreshadowing another development when the bill went to the full floor of the House of Representatives. There, an amendment by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that sought to actually accelerate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was defeated when 103 Democrats joined 181 Republicans in opposition.

But the bipartisan squeamishness for troop withdrawal isn’t limited to current, messy, controversial operations like those in Afghanistan. There has been similar bipartisan pushback over proposals to pull back troops from deployments that are legacies of wars that have long concluded. When the Trump administration proposed reducing the number of American troops in Germany down to 24,000 from the current level of 36,000, the chorus of opposition sounded off in near unanimity from both Democratic and Republican corners. Quickly — and again, despite opinion in both the U.S. and Germany largely favoring some kind of withdrawal — lawmakers from both parties introduced bills and sent worried letters to the president seeking to constrain the withdrawal. Bipartisanship!

Members of Congress are even able to come together quickly across the aisle to prevent troop withdrawals that haven’t yet been proposed. Though reporting at one point indicated that the Trump administration was considering a small reduction of troops stationed in South Korea, this was likely public posturing to bolster ongoing cost-sharing negotiations between the two countries, as no formal proposal followed. Nonetheless, Democratic and Republican lawmakers hastily introduced a bill to prevent any such thing, and successfully included the measure in the annual defense policy bill.

Similarly, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s mere launching of a “clean slate review” of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Africa set off alarm bells across the ideological spectrum. Again — despite Americans being tired of the endless “war on terror” — members of Congress introduced bipartisan letters and bills  to prevent withdrawal of armed forces from Africa, before such a proposal was actually even on the table.

To be sure, there is plenty of legitimate criticism to go around about each of these proposed or contemplated withdrawals, especially coming from the Trump administration. For example, members of Congress could have focused their ire on Donald Trump’s bizarre rationale for the proposed reduction of troops from Germany (he appears to still be under the impression that NATO countries literally pay membership fees and that Germany was delinquent in paying said fees) or his lack of an accompanying broader strategy to reassess the actual American interests served by maintaining a permanent military presence in Europe and beyond. Instead, members from both parties mostly focused on slamming troop withdrawal itself as a gift to Russia and a sign of weakness.

Similarly, many lawmakers insist they want an end to the nearly 20-year Afghanistan war, but they simply vote to constrain troop withdrawal because they think the Trump administration’s plan is hasty or incomplete. Yet it is nearly impossible to articulate what sort of withdrawal these members would support in the alternative, particularly since so much of the bipartisan consensus that has emerged in opposition to withdrawal rests upon the same premises that keep wars endless.

These include reinforcing the myth of eradicating terror “safe havens” and warning of diminished human rights protections or increased violence upon U.S. withdrawal. Of course, these tropes ignore the harm that’s been done through decades of U.S. military presence thus far, and fail to articulate a positive, alternative vision of what a successful end to this war should actually look like with these concerns in mind.

And that’s the heart of the problem. Donald Trump knows how to work a crowd and has discovered that campaigning on “ending endless wars” and “bringing the troops home” gets a reliable standing ovation. He’s right: polling consistently demonstrates that these are indeed popular ideas among American voters. However, he hasn’t actually done anything to draw our wars to a close. So it’s a real missed opportunity for Congress to rush to bipartisan condemnation of even the hint of troop withdrawal anywhere in the world. They (and the American people) would be better served by calling Trump’s bluff and advancing real, concrete proposals that engage with the nuance and messiness of ending wars and present a positive vision of what it should actually look like.

It’s heartening in the fleeting moments when this happens, like when Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) teamed up to champion an end to U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or when Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) partnered in an effort to prevent a war with Iran. But they are working against a bipartisan status quo favoring militarism that has been decades in the making, fueled by powerful moneyed interests, and massively out of step with the desires of the public or the true needs of the nation.

But the tide is turning. Candidates running boldly on disrupting that status quo are winning elections and members daring to champion a change of course are finding deep support among the people. It will take courage, it will take creativity, and it will take time. But at some point, rather than just sloganeering about “ending endless wars,” we’re going to actually have to end them.

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