In the short weeks since he took office, Donald Trump has managed a remarkable feat: His hazardous pronouncements and haphazard decision-making have prompted broad, vocal, and—most notable of all—bipartisan discomfort. The chorus of Democratic and Republican voices denouncing his executive order on immigration, incendiary rhetoric on Islam, dubious dealings with Russia and basic disregard for the liberal international order suggests widespread accord on some core American beliefs. What this seeming anti-Trump consensus lacks is any clear sense of what an alternative to Trumpism should be. What it masks are profound disagreements about, to mention a few, the primary threats to U.S. security, the wisdom of military involvement or the benefits of engaging adversaries. And what it means is that, to those hungry for a progressive rejoinder to Trump’s foreign policy, now is the time to clarify what that rejoinder is, lest they enable a more traditional, hawkish outlook to define its terms.
For progressives, there was, from the outset, both logic and peril lurking behind the goal of generating as widespread a consensus as possible in opposing Trump’s most head-scratching opening foreign policy moves. It was sensible for them to make common cause with more establishment figures—individuals who for better and for worse shaped and defined the U.S. role in the world since the Cold War—both to highlight and halt those decisions. But there’s a hidden cost: To keep the bulk of the establishment on side also means acquiescing to other aspects of its worldview, and it means setting a remarkably low bar for the administration's foreign policy to be deemed a success. The collective and understandable sigh of relief that accompanied Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s appointment as national security adviser is one early indication. What McMaster almost certainly will bring is more wisdom, more prudence, and more process—for which we should be grateful. What he is unlikely to bring—and nor should he be expected to—is the kind of foreign policy that progressives ought to champion.
During an otherwise depressing primary season, it was intriguing to note how both Trump and Bernie Sanders—their deep differences aside—raised provocative questions about U.S. foreign policy. Both objected to the Iraq War (in the former’s case, less contemporaneously than in hindsight), rejected foreign entanglements and condemned nation-building. Both, at times at least, and in their own peculiar ways of course, uttered heretical views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They tapped a nerve.
Fast forward to today: Whatever breath of fresh air some might have sensed at Trump’s heterodoxy (even then, mightily polluted by his xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric) has evaporated. The discontent he has generated is roomy enough to accommodate all manner of ideological worldviews: people who backed the Iraq War and those who opposed it; those who championed and contested direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war; those who believe the U.S. should prevent the emergence of any rival power and those who support tactical cooperation with Russia and China; those who applaud the Iran nuclear deal while advocating engagement and those who fiercely denounce it while pushing for harsher sanctions. Neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, isolationists and everything in between.
Amid the administration’s chaotic first month, it has been easy to stand unified in opposition to its worst ideas: the Muslim ban, support for torture, shady contacts with Russia and indulgence toward Moscow’s electoral meddling. But to some progressives, backing the war in Iraq yesterday or tacitly pushing for one with Iran today is just as costly in its human consequences and as incompatible with their beliefs. In other words, the form that resistance to the administration’s foreign policy takes matters.
For those in search of a progressive alternative, the risk is that opposition to Trump's unconventionality will morph into embrace of what President Obama referred to as the “Washington playbook” and Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, called the “Blob”—shorthand for the foreign policy elite that for decades, so the argument goes, generated and jealously guarded ruling dogmas regarding when to use force, where to project power and how to spread influence, be it under the guise of liberal interventionism or neoconservatism. It is one thing, for example, to object to Trump’s dalliance with Vladimir Putin or his insensitivity to Syria’s carnage. It is something else entirely to reject out of hand any cooperation with Moscow to solve the Syrian crisis or to advocate direct U.S. military involvement in that civil war.
It’s telling that the one area where many Trump critics, Democrats and Republicans alike, have welcomed his early moves is Iran, and noteworthy that Iran is one area where Trump is donning a traditional, bellicose hat. Politically, it may pay to clamor that we need to be tougher, push back against Iran’s influence in the Middle East and exact a price for its destabilizing activities. It’s also dangerous. Push back is what the Obama administration did, but it also struck a fine balance, resorting to multilateral diplomacy to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, avert a war and build exit ramps when escalation loomed. That’s not a bad balance sheet, and it must be the standard against which any alternative is measured. Collective chest thumping about sanctions, isolation and driving Tehran out of Yemen, Iraq and Syria is one way to get us back to yet another unnecessary war.
So what might a progressive alternative look like? For starters: a refusal to measure U.S. power by the frequency of its military actions or engage in open-ended military adventures for the sake of chimerical “credibility”—the feared loss of which has justified countless past injurious armed interventions; belief in U.S. leadership and unapologetic support for human rights and political freedoms abroad, tempered by humility about America’s ability to shape others’ politics; embrace of multilateralism and of the need to work with partners, joined by a recognition that backing an ally ought not mean granting it a blank check, and certainly not a green light to embroil us in their wars; the honesty to put terrorism in perspective, a threat but not an existential one, and one that ought not be used as reason for throwing all else (civil rights at home or diplomacy abroad) overboard; and an uncompromising line against anything that could undo the Iran nuclear deal or, worse, plunge the U.S. into a confrontation with Tehran.
President Obama partly built his foreign policy around the lessons of the Iraq War. Where much of the establishment primarily saw a failure in execution, Obama identified deeper pathologies in forcing regime change and prolonged military occupation. His reluctance to get ensnared in Syria’s civil war was no coincidence, nor was his desire to right-size America’s role in the Middle East, his adherence to a small foot-print approach to the fight against the Islamic State, or his willingness to engage with historic foes like Cuba and Iran. The outcome did not always match expectations and the break from the past was not always clear-cut. A final verdict awaits. But the result unmistakably was a gauntlet thrown at what long stood as unassailable truths of U.S. national security.
Building a big tent in opposition to Trump? Why not. But not at any cost, and not by smoothing over fundamental divides. A stance largely defined by knee-jerk hawkishness on Russia and Iran can momentarily unify ranks, but also deprive progressives of their identity. There is no reason to add to the considerable damage of a Trump presidency the self-inflicted wound of having his dangerous brand of unorthodoxy push his opponents to return to the false comfort of a failed orthodoxy.