Three weeks after President Kais Saied used Article 80 of the constitution to impose what can be called a ‘state of exceptionalism,’ Tunisians are waiting for a map that will chart an exit ramp off a road fraught with economic, political, social, and health crises. Their expectations are shared by the Biden Administration, which dispatched a high-level delegation to politely implore the president to appoint a prime minister and reinstate the parliament. In the meeting on August 14, Saied said that what he did was consistent with the Tunisian constitution and responds to the popular will to address ongoing crises and deal with corruption and bribery. He added that “[T]here is no cause for concern about the values of freedom, justice and democracy that Tunisia shares with American society.”
In the short run, a measure of tension-filled ambiguity underscores Saied’s role as the ultimate decision maker, notwithstanding his rhetoric that he reflects the desires of the Tunisian people. But much sooner than later, he will have to confront a basic task that all populists face: how to move from disdaining to embracing politics. The gathering judicial campaign to pursue charges of corruption directed at politicians and the business class—much of which could unfold through special military courts—suggests that Saied wants to be a leader who telegraphs contempt for politics and a politician who also practices the mundane art of power.
Still, much remains to be done. To complete this metamorphosis, he must go beyond forging domestic alliances through some kind of viable, institutional arena he is yet to identify. Saied must also advance a regional diplomacy that will enhance his authority on the home front. Because Tunisia’s internal politics have become intertwined with its regional relations (and its interactions with the Gulf Arab countries in particular), the Tunisian president will probably look to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for support, and other Arab states such as Egypt, even as he defends the principle of Tunisian national sovereignty. While this regional policy is still being charted, its broad outlines are slowly emerging in ways that point to both risks and opportunities for the president—not to mention for the various outside players seeking to shape the course of events in Tunisia.
Tunis’s entwining domestic and regional relations
The linking of Tunisia’s domestic and foreign relations goes back at least to the hot summer of August 2013. In the wake of the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt and rising concerns about a similar coup in Tunisia, the United States and France, with Algeria’s backing, pressured Rachid Ghannouchi, president of the Islamist Ennahda Party, and Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the secularly oriented Nidaa Tounes Party (and, later, Tunisian president), to reconcile. Their efforts then set the stage for a “National Dialogue” without which Tunisia’s transition would have probably collapsed. Their meeting, and the subsequent writing of a new constitution that provided the outlines of a power-sharing system channeled through a division of power between president and parliament, had the international community’s blessing. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the leaders of the National Dialogue in 2015 provided an additional impetus for Tunisia’s leaders to sustain the kind of political accommodation that had eluded the wider Arab world. The 2016 Carthage Agreement, which spelled out terms of the consensus-based system between President Essebsi and Ennahda, suggested that Tunisia was emerging—if fitfully—as an island of democracy in a sea of autocracies.
The 2016 Carthage Agreement, which spelled out terms of the consensus-based system between President Essebsi and Ennahda, suggested that Tunisia was emerging—if fitfully—as an island of democracy in a sea of autocracies.
Indeed, Tunisia became host to a wide range of official and nongovernmental democracy assistance organizations hailing from western democracies. The basing of US Agency for International Development’s North Africa Bureau in Tunis, as well as the regional hub of the semi-official United States Institute of Peace, highlighted a partnership between Tunisia and the United States that sharply contrasted with Washington’s wider ties to Arab autocracies. The leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt began to view Tunisia as a threat not only because it was a democracy but principally because its governing coalition included Ennahda. From the vantage point of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo, the Ennahda Party was little more than an outpost of the Muslim Brotherhood and, worse, an ally of radical jihadist forces throughout the Maghreb. They thus saw Tunisia’s experiment in power sharing as a Trojan horse of Islamist expansionism that had to be corralled or perhaps stopped dead in its tracks.
The fact that Essebsi presided over this power-sharing arrangement shocked many Gulf leaders. Following the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections, they had expected Essebsi to spurn Ennahda. Some reports even suggested that UAE leaders encouraged Essebsi to pursue an “Egyptian model” coup in 2015, and once again in June 2018. Whether they in fact pushed for such drastic moves remains unclear. But it certainly has been the case over the last three years that the UAE tried to influence events in Tunisia by signaling its support for Ennahda’s chief rivals, such as Abir Moussi and her Free Destourian Party, and (along with Saudi Arabia) by using state linked media outlets to vilify Ghannouchi, thus fanning the flames of internal conflict over the very place of the movement in Tunisia’s divided political landscape.
This campaign heated up in tandem with the escalating civil war in Libya. The UAE’s support for the assault by the forces of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar on Libya’s government, which Emirati leaders viewed as merely an outpost of a wider Islamist project supported by Qatar and Turkey, became increasingly entangled in Tunisia’s politics in 2020. Ghannouchi contributed to this development by taking several steps that badly misfired. These included calling the head of Libya’s government following its successful bid—backed by Turkish drones—to halt Haftar’s campaign. But it was Ghannouchi’s January 2020 visit to Ankara, where he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that boomeranged with dramatic effect. The visit intensified the efforts of Ghannouchi’s rivals to pass a no-confidence vote and thus force him to resign from his position as parliament speaker. Moreover, it provoked Kais Saied, who sharply assailed Ghannouchi for interfering in security matters that the president claimed were the prerogative of the executive.
Ghannouchi’s January 2020 visit to Turkey provoked Kais Saied, who sharply assailed the parliament speaker for interfering in security matters that the president claimed were the prerogative of the executive.
The Saied-Ghannouchi relationship deteriorated in early 2021 when then Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, backed by Ennahda, nominated 11 new ministers, a move that the president blocked by refusing to swear in the nominees. This executive-parliamentary standoff came to a head on July 25, when Saied dismissed the government. By that day, the president and former speaker of parliament were barely on speaking terms.
What role for outside forces?
Ghannouchi did not help matters when he accused the UAE of orchestrating Saied’s power grab. Still, the precise role of outside forces remains unclear. Did they play a part in a coup de president? What role will the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey play in shaping whatever plan Saied envisions for restructuring the political system, or for addressing Tunisia’s dire economic crisis?
Regarding the coup, one report from Middle East Eye suggests that the UAE and Egypt helped to carry out Saied’s move to shutter the parliament and force Mechichi to resign. The article even reports that Mechichi was beaten up by Egyptian security forces, a claim that he has denied. Given their shared antipathy toward Mechichi’s government and Ennahda (and its longtime leader), it is very likely that Saied informed the leaders of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia of his impending move.
The role of Egypt is of particular interest: Saied paid an official visit to Cairo in April 2021, during which he and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi emphasized their common strategic view on Libya and Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia over its dam on the Nile. Their cordial talks generated much controversy in Tunisia and also sparked concerns in Ennahda about possible cooperation between the Egyptian and Tunisian security forces. Moreover, in the days leading up to the July 25 coup, social media platforms in the Gulf were full of chatter about Tunis—thus, at the very least, signaling that the UAE and Saudi Arabia had Saied’s back. Indeed, following the coup, the leaders of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia affirmed support for Saied, while Gulf media outlets celebrated his move as a defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saied himself has openly praised the support he has received from “brotherly and friendly” countries. His remarks suggest that he intends to solidify and even extend partnerships with Arab strongmen who are at the forefront of opposing democracy in the region—not to mention any notion of them sharing power with Islamist parties.
Opportunities and risks
For Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Tunis, these partnerships could make political and strategic sense. They could enhance the regional clout of the leaders of all four countries in ways that could strengthen their hold on power at home. For Saied in particular, these relationships could compensate for his lack of any clear institutional allies, save perhaps the military and internal security forces. But Saied cannot ultimately rely on institutions that have very little experience in the political arena and whose loyalty will probably be conditioned on his ability to forge a viable political strategy that skirts the slippery slope of state repression and autocracy. Indeed, as one analyst has noted, the longer it takes for Saied to define an effective political and economic roadmap, the greater the chance he will lose political capital and popular support.
The possibility that his followers will lose patience must also concern Saied’s regional autocratic friends. If he stumbles and/or faces mounting protests that provoke a bloody crackdown, Saied will not look like a competent democrat or autocrat, but rather like a political novice who lacks the means or vision to move from populist hero to an effective leader. Such a scenario might rebound to the favor of Turkey and Qatar, that are not only regional rivals of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia but also supporters of the very power-sharing system that Saied has assaulted. Ankara has already assailed Saied’s actions, while Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani issued a statement calling for an inclusive national dialogue. That Qatar has done so at the very moment that it is trying to set the stage for its first municipal elections offers an additional impetus for its leaders to encourage Saied to step away from the brink of either autocracy and/or escalating internal conflict.
But thus far, the signals from Saied and his most ardent supporters are not encouraging. Insisting that there is “no turning back,” he has defiantly rejected any national dialogue with what he calls “cancer cells,” which is shorthand for the political class he blames for the scourge of corruption he has promised to root out (i.e., Ennahda and other Islamist parties). Not a few secularly oriented leaders have signaled their support for banishing Ennahda from the political arena. Such sentiments have a wider echo in the realm of social media, which includes a semi-official Kais Saied web page that includes demonizing caricatures of Ghannouchi that would be familiar to any student of anti-Semitism. Calls for “cleansing” the system of Islamists have in fact generated warnings from liberal politicians and opinion makers that the widening net of repression, and in particular the call for revenge1 against Islamists, could ultimately undermine any effort by Saied to push for a workable reform of the constitution and electoral system that would maintain some semblance of democracy and inclusion. These admonitions underscore the very real possibility that Saied’s efforts could provoke internal strife, the likes of which would hardly emphasize Tunisia’s role as a reliable regional player.
Tunisia’s economic situation provides a further challenge for which Saied seems unprepared. Indeed, he is squeezed between the populist promises he has made to fight corruption and defend Tunisia’s struggling citizens and the pressure from the International Monetary Fund to make good on Tunis’s previous commitment to undertake market reforms in return for billions of dollars in loans. Without them, Tunisia cannot raise the foreign currency to finance its budget deficit, make payments on its $40 billion external debt, or pay its huge public sector bill—a frightful prospect given the ongoing struggle to revive the public health sector. It is noteworthy that with the military’s support, this sector succeeded in administering 500,000 COVID-19 vaccinations in one day; nevertheless, this victory, which was made possible in part by donations from Gulf states, could be short-lived if Saied and his advisors avoid making difficult economic choices.
Saied is squeezed between the populist promises he has made to fight corruption and defend Tunisia’s struggling citizens and the pressure from the International Monetary Fund to make good on Tunis’s previous commitments.
There is some murmuring in Tunis about the possibility of defaulting on its foreign loans. The seismic economic shocks such a drastic move would generate might be cushioned by a massive inflow of Gulf loans or donations to Tunis, a prospect that could be on the horizon but is far from guaranteed. Yet by itself, such support would not amount to a viable economic policy. Instead, it could signal that Saied, a leader who has promised to restore the people’s dignity and defend national sovereignty, is turning Tunisia into little more than a vassal state of Arab oil autocracies. As Hamma Hammami, leader of the Tunisian Workers’ Party put it, “[M]edia in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are speaking about Tunisia as if it’s their own.”
A precarious moment
Given his previous and surely dangerous pledge to repudiate the political system he inherited when he became president in 2019, Saied has few if any good options. He has already rejected the Biden Administration’s efforts to nudge him toward announcing a political roadmap. Moreover, given the White House’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan, he has good reason to conclude that he can ignore Washington. He could throw in his hat with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, but that scenario carries risks for him and his Gulf partners. To complicate matters, Saied must still contend with the very wobbly effort in Libya to install a new interim government. The UAE, among other Gulf states including Qatar, is backing the Libyan effort. But Tunisia, which proudly hosted some of the talks that set the stage for Libya’s government, is now engulfed in a domestic struggle which will limit its ability to shape events next door. If this is a precarious moment for all the key parties, Saied must bear at least some of the responsibility for assuming the mantle of a hero, one whose charismatic populism provides a useful tool for rallying discontent but which offers little guidance for how to create a sustainable vision that will move his country forward.
This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Tunisian president Kais Saied at a press conference with new Libyan Presidential Council head Mohamed Menfi. Tripoli, Libya, 17 March 2021. (Hussein Eddeb / Shutterstock.com).
Somali National Army soldiers march during the 57th Anniversary of the Somali National Army held at the Ministry of defence in Mogadishu on April 12, 2017. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed. Original public domain image from Flickr
On February 15, the U.S. government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Somalia to construct up to five military bases for the Somali National Army in the name of bolstering the army’s capabilities in the ongoing fight against the militant group al-Shabaab.
This is a troubling development that not only risks further militarizing Somalia and perpetuating endless war, but comes with the potential of exacerbating geopolitical rivalries at the expense of the needs and interests of ordinary Somalis.
According to statements by U.S. officials, the bases are intended for the Danab (“Lightning”) Brigade, a U.S.-sponsored Special Ops Force that was established in 2014. Funding for Danab initially came from the U.S. State Department, which contracted the private security firm Bancroft Global to train and advise the unit. More recently, Danab has received funding, equipment, and training from the Department of Defense.
U.S. support is made possible by the 127e program, a U.S. budgetary authority that allows the Pentagon to bypass congressional oversight by allowing U.S. special operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. The Intercept has documented similar 127e operations in multiple African countries, primarily in locations that the U.S. government does not recognize as combat zones, but in which AFRICOM troops are present on the ground.
But this MoU is about much more than the U.S. government’s proclaimed commitment to help Somalia defeat al-Shabaab. It is a clear indication of the growing geopolitical significance of the Horn of Africa, and comes at a time of mounting concerns (mostly attempts by Yemen’s Houthis to disrupt global shipping in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza) about securing the flow of international commerce via the Red Sea. It also coincides with a growing awareness that rising tensions in the Middle East could force the U.S. out of Iraq.
The U.S. government’s plan to train Somali security forces at newly-established military bases in five different parts of the country (Baidoa, Dhusamareb, Jowhar, Kismayo, and Mogadishu) is a back-door strategy not only to expand the U.S. military’s presence in Somalia, but to position itself more assertively vis-à-vis other powers in the region. Indeed, the 127e program is not the only policy that allows for the training and equipping of foreign forces as proxies: section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act further expands the ability of the U.S. to wage war via surrogate forces in places where it has not formally declared war, with the broader objective of countering the influence of adversaries like China and Russia.
While much ink has been spilled attempting to analyze great power competition on the continent, we have yet to adequately scrutinize the growing influence of middle powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar who are each attempting to negotiate their own sphere of influence, and whose involvement in the Horn points to uncertain, if not waning, U.S. power.
Turkey maintains its largest foreign military presence in Mogadishu, has trained Somali security forces, and more recently has worked closely with the Somali government in conducting drone strikes against Al-Shabaab. Further underlining deepening Turkish engagement in the country, Somalia and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements earlier this month. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have trained, and continue to train, local security forces as part of a broader strategy to secure access to regional markets and to assert their control over vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
With the drawdown of the African Union sponsored “peacekeeping” mission — previously known as AMISOM but renamed ATMIS in 2022 — analysts have expressed apprehension about the expansive nature of foreign actor involvement in Somalia and the risk of Cold War-style competition fueling instability. Indeed, the foreign-sponsored training of multiple “elite” contingents of the Somali National Army (Danab, Waran, Gashaan) has prompted internal divisions within the security establishment in Somalia as it raises chain of command issues and questions about the loyalty of these units.
As Colin D. Robinson and Jahara Matisek, both regional and military experts, have said, “The only thing worse is that various Somali units become more loyal and dependent on their foreign patron, short-circuiting the political logic of having security forces that look more like hired proxies than locally organized for self-defense. This may contribute to the growing perception of Somalia becoming a hyper-competitive arena; a republic of militias if you will.”
Equally significant is the recently announced Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, a separatist region in northwestern Somalia. According to the terms of this yet-to-be signed agreement, in exchange for Somaliland granting 20km of much coveted sea access for the Ethiopian Navy for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia would formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland as an independent nation. The MoU has elicited a wave of anger among Somalis who view Ethiopia as meddling in their internal affairs — and it is precisely this history of meddling that has in the past contributed to al-Shabaab’s support base as it positions itself as the defender of Somali nationalism and autonomy.
While the U.S. State Department called for respect for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and urged dialogue in response to the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU in the name of de-escalating tensions in the region, the February 15 announcement that the U.S. intends to ramp up its involvement in Somalia is hardly an indication of a neutral stance. Rather, it is an indication of U.S. positioning in an increasingly militarized jockeying by foreign powers in this strategic but troubled country and region.
In Mogadishu, many Somalis are welcoming the U.S. announcement, perhaps in some cases hoping for job opportunities, and in others viewing the U.S. military support and presence as a potential buffer against Ethiopia. But if the past several decades of U.S. mis-adventures in Somalia are any indication, expanding U.S. involvement risks perpetuating rather than minimizing further conflict.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 9, 2021) The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation on scheduled deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)
The U.S. will have almost half of its aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific in the coming weeks.
The South China Morning Post reported on February 14 that five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers would all likely soon be deployed there at the same time. Two of the carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt have been participating in a military exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea, the USS Ronald Reagan is in port at Yokosuka, the USS Abraham Lincoln departed San Diego earlier this month, and the USS George Washington is expected to relieve the Reagan in a few weeks.
This is an unusual concentration of America’s naval power in one region at once, and it is being widely interpreted as a show of force meant for China and North Korea.
The Biden administration has made a point of making more shows of force in East Asia over the last year to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. has not forgotten about them. That isn’t surprising given the importance that the administration attaches to the “Indo-Pacific” and an active U.S. role in it, but in doing this it may also be contributing to increasing tensions with both Beijing and Pyongyang. We have already seen some of this in the back-and-forth between the U.S. and North Korea since last summer as North Korea has answered U.S. naval deployments to South Korea with additional missile tests and more bellicose rhetoric.
While these carrier deployments are presumably intended to signal American resolve and commitment to its regional allies, they could easily encourage China and North Korea to engage in their own reciprocal demonstrations of strength. They are also a reminder that the U.S. approach to East Asia is still very much a “military-first” approach that gives short shrift and devotes relatively few resources to economic statecraft and diplomacy. International relations scholar Van Jackson warned about the dangers of this approach more than two years ago, and since then the U.S. has only ramped up its military spending and deployments.
Because Washington’s attention has been focused so intently for the last four months on the war in Gaza and the other conflicts in the Middle East connected to it, it seems that the administration wants to show that it isn’t neglecting East Asia. The carrier deployments in the Pacific appear to be an attempt to “make up” for the continued massive over-investment of energy and resources in the Middle East.
The show of force may satisfy some allied governments, but it could also confirm the impression in both friendly and hostile capitals that the U.S. is overstretched and trying to take on too many tasks at the same time. The habit of reassuring allies so frequently has its own costs, including encouraging greater allied dependence, and when it is done too often it can have destabilizing effects on the wider region.
One of the principle weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is an overreliance on military deterrence. This tends to ratchet up tensions more than necessary and undermines credible assurances to adversaries. The U.S. excels at reassuring allies with its displays of military power, but because it often fails to strike a balance by giving adversaries assurances about its intentions, our government can feed the fears of Chinese and North Korean leaders and encourage them to assume the worst about what the U.S. is doing.
The carrier deployments suggest that the administration doesn’t understand the need for balancing deterrence and assurance. Failing to balance the two risks making conflict based on a miscalculation more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine recently wrote about U.S. deterrence and Taiwan, “This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.”
By relying so much on shows of force designed to intimidate China, the Biden administration increases the risk of a crisis.
The potential danger with North Korea is arguably even greater, since the North Korean government has a long history of responding to U.S. and allied pressure with its own provocations and threats. To the extent that Pyongyang perceives the deployment of so many carriers to the Pacific as directed even partly at North Korea, Kim Jong-un may conclude that he needs to show off his country’s own capabilities with additional missile tests and possibly even a new nuclear test.
Last year, North Korea reacted very angrily to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, so it seems reasonable to expect an even harsher response if there are multiple carriers in the vicinity. Given the increasingly hostile rhetoric already coming from Pyongyang in the last few months, it would not take much for a new standoff between the U.S. and North Korea to begin.
The U.S. can ill afford a new crisis in East Asia on top of the other conflicts that it is involved in, but its overly militarized approach to the region is not the way to avoid it. If Washington wants to make conflicts in East Asia less likely, it will need to do a much better job of understanding its adversaries’ thinking and of offering them assurances that they can believe. Right now, the U.S. is doing far too little of both, and that is making the U.S. and its allies less secure than they could be.
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Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”