Is a populist right-progressive left anti-war alliance still possible?
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced Tuesday that the U.S. is pulling 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan and hundreds from Iraq and Somalia — a move that is in line with President Trump’s campaign promise to put “America first” and end “forever wars.” It is also a signal that a left-right alliance backing elements of his agenda is not only still possible, but critical as Joe Biden replaces him in the White House.
Trump has already received pushback from the establishment for this latest attempt to wind down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the exit “premature” and said it “would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm.” The president pushed out his defense secretary, Mark Esper, last week after Esper sent an internal memo warning that the conditions weren’t right for an accelerated withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Biden, who has traditionally been more hawkish on foreign policy — he voted for the Iraq War — seems to agree with McConnell’s perspective, at least in part. He told Stars and Stripes in February, “These forever wars have to end… but here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism,” and suggested he’d maintain a footprint of up to 2,000 troops on the ground, despite a U.S.-Taliban agreement to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 2021.
It’s a good sign for the rise of restraint-minded foreign policy that Biden had to publicly acknowledge that wars in the Middle East have dragged on with no clear goal or end in sight. However, his insistence on leaving a few thousand troops in place, his recruitment of known interventionists to his transition team, and his personal coziness with neoconservatives leaves plenty of cause for concern. In order to hold Biden accountable, it is time for national conservatives and the anti-war left to form at least a temporary coalition to end endless wars and stand against further ill-advised foreign entanglements.
It seems crazy to imagine these two groups standing on the same side of an issue given how divisive our politics has become in recent years. But Sens. Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Reps. Ro Khanna, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Thomas Massie, Matt Gaetz, and outgoing Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have all publicly criticized U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and urged a less reactionary approach to foreign policy. Khanna even co-sponsored legislation with Gaetz that would prevent federal funds from being used to go to war with Iran without congressional approval.
Cross-party coalitions, of course, often sound easier than they are in reality. Both groups have to put aside a lot of baggage to identify areas of commonality. The progressive left has often accused the populist right of rooting its focus on domestic politics in racism and xenophobia and has gone hard after Trump, even as his administration brought a non-interventionist spirit back to the forefront of the foreign policy discussion. These conservatives have been more willing to criticize the failures of capitalism and corporatism than their conventional Republican counterparts but are farther to the right on cultural and social issues. Where both groups agree, and where their shared focus should be during a Biden administration, is in their skepticism of the military industrial complex, their aversion to nation-building, and their awareness of the effects of endless wars on the working class.
As Sen. Hawley wrote Tuesday in a letter to acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, supporting Trump’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, “sons and daughters are now patrolling their parents’ old routes, and many of the U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan were not even born when the 9/11 attacks occurred… [the American people] deserve to know their sons and daughters will not be put in harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Indeed, the well-paid and college-educated lobbyists, military generals, defense contractors, and career politicians dream up conflicts and it is the working class who often join the military to fight in them. The anti-elite strains of the left and the right agree that the era of sacrificing less than one-half of one percent of Americans to perpetuate failed and costly missions abroad is over.
Biden taking office — and being briefed on national security issues by people like former Amb. Samantha Power and retired Adm. Bill McRaven — won’t be the only challenge for this coalition. The populist wing will separately have to contend with their own party’s potential backslide into neoconservatism. While the neocons were pretty much kicked to the curb after 2016, they will view Trump’s loss as an opportunity to regain control of a fractured party. This would be a huge mistake, as Trumpism pulled in a record number of voters and helped the GOP keep hold of the Senate and make gains in the House.
In addition, nearly three quarters of Americans support bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The young blood in the GOP will have to work hard to keep the old guard from controlling the party once more, or risk devastating long-term electoral failure.