Does the left-right foreign policy alliance survive Trump?
President Trump was able to leave office before Senate Democrats got a chance to throw him out, but he nevertheless departs under the cloud of the shocking attack by his hardcore supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump is also leaving the Republican Party in a precarious position, much better than after the conclusion of George W. Bush’s second term, but weaker than he found it, with Democrats narrowly controlling both houses of Congress as well as the White House. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Trump bears substantial responsibility for the loss of both critical Georgia Senate seats, and thus the majority, mere hours before the Jan. 6 Capitol siege.
All this is likely to have long-term implications for the whole project of “Trumpism” in ways both beneficial and detrimental to Left-Right cooperation on ending the forever wars in which the United States remains enmeshed for soon-to-be the fourth straight administration.
The most obvious benefit is that the absence of Trump removes a large obstacle to such collaboration. However flawed Trump’s foreign policy was in practice, he was unquestionably an asset to conservatives and Republicans who wanted to make antiwar or realist arguments. A single White House statement, made by the president in lieu of Twitter, illustrates the dilemma well.
“United States military troops in Afghanistan are at a 19-year low. Likewise, Iraq and Syria are also at the lowest point in many years,” Trump boasted. “I will always be committed to stopping the endless wars. It has been a great honor to rebuild our military and support our brave men and women in uniform. $2.5 trillion invested, including in beautiful new equipment — all made in the U.S.A.”
Trump made some modest progress on these fronts, to be balanced against other policies even in these areas that progressives would find undesirable. But he made significant inroads in how partisan Republicans talked about these wars and military interventions abroad more generally. To hear Kayleigh McEnany calling John Bolton a warmonger on Fox News is a small but striking example of a political sea change from the Bush years.
Yet Trump was so toxic to liberals and centrists that he made Left-Right cooperation on foreign policy nearly impossible. And on some real-world examples of such transpartisan work during his administration — such as the efforts to stop the war in Yemen that paired principled progressives like Ro Khanna with Trump allies Jim Jordan and (eventual White House chief of staff) Mark Meadows — the president was on the other side.
It is also undeniable that every positive thing Trump said or did on Iraq and Afghanistan has to be weighed against unrelenting hawkishness on Iran. Disaster in the form of a new Middle East preventive war was averted. But it was not for lack of trying, at least on the part of some key Trump subordinates.
The emergence of Liz Cheney as a heroine of the impeachment fight in the wake of the Capitol breach should make clear that the results of Trump’s exit will not all be positive on the foreign policy front. The discrediting of Trumpism will potentially marginalize populist politicians who have had the most success communicating anti-interventionist arguments to the Republican base while rehabilitating and re-empowering Bush 43 retreads, in much the same way as has been done for the former president himself.
Some new libertarian-leaning Republicans have become Trump critics. This includes Nancy Mace, a freshman congresswoman representing the South Carolina district once held by Mark Sanford (himself quietly skeptical of interventionism), and who previously tried to primary Sen. Lindsey Graham. Peter Meijer, the newly elected congressman who succeeded Justin Amash and appears to be following in his predecessor’s footsteps on foreign policy, voted for impeachment. This is welcome, but with the arguable exception of Sen. Rand Paul, libertarian-inflected Republicans have not had the same impact with the base as populists in the mold of Trump, Pat Buchanan, or Tucker Carlson.
The place of prominent neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, who supported Joe Biden for president, in the post-Trump Republican firmament is not clear. But some similarly inclined Republicans navigated the Trump years skillfully. Nikki Haley, for example, is well positioned for a presidential run. Mike Pompeo lacks her star power, but Trump has now given him a resume that would make a White House bid credible. He has gone from being a Kansas congressman to CIA director and secretary of state.
Yes, the passing of a divisive president from the political scene has the potential to make many things better. Sadly, it is not impossible for some things to get worse.