Does the American political system work?
It is designed to be responsive to the public and its concerns, theoretically providing a way for a variety of opinions to be heard through the people’s elected representatives. This description is aspirational, but there is also something substantive to it. Public pressure is the reason George W. Bush’s amnesty plans were foiled, and it is the reason parents have put school boards on their heels after pushing an increasingly “woke” curriculum.
While you can’t count on politicians for much, you can be assured that they all want to get reelected and therefore must at least try to be cognizant of public sentiment.
When it comes to foreign policy, however, the system breaks down. This is particularly apparent when a Democrat is president. The failure of the system to permit real politics—that is, a means to identify and resolve disagreement—comes from two distinct sources: congressional Republicans’ bad instincts on policy and the permanent bureaucracy’s near-religious commitment to foreign policy adventurism.
A Congress of Consistent (Republican) Hawks
and Raging (Democrat) Partisans
As the old saw goes, “Politics ends at the water’s edge.” While it sounds pleasant and unifying, this sentiment is not entirely healthy, and contradicts the system outlined by the Constitution. Although the president may have near-monarchical control over peacetime foreign policy, declarations of war still have to come from the Congress, Congress retains the “power of the purse,” and treaties must be approved by the Senate. In other words, the wants of the American public are supposed to have a voice, chiefly in Congress.
Exemplifying a healthier respect for public opinion, there were heated debates ahead of America’s entry into World War I and World War II, with public opposition to the latter only broken by the Pearl Harbor attacks. Vietnam famously fractured the nation, and the Democrats reeled from widespread opposition to the draft and the war.
After Vietnam, the parties became more divided by foreign policy, with Republicans being the hawks and Democrats the doves. Consequently, almost all opposition to military action arose from Democrats against Republican presidents, such as the sustained opposition to Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy or, later, George W. Bush’s pursuit of the Iraq War. In retrospect, at least some of the Democrats’ criticism was warranted, even if it was levied for rank partisan reasons.
Parties being what they are, and in spite of their highfalutin pacifist rhetoric, Democrats almost all support military invtervention when one of their own holds the presidency. For example, partisans who spent the entire George W. Bush presidency complaining about the Iraq War eagerly supported U.S. intervention in Syria and Libya under President Obama.
By contrast, most congressional Republicans have mechanically embraced their hawk persona even when a Democrat is president. Bill Clinton received significant Republican support for the Kosovo War in 1999, including favorable votes from Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). When Republicans do offer something like “opposition,” it may be a misnomer to call it that. Republican criticism typically focuses on Democratic pusillanimity, such as the repeated criticism of Obama and the Iran nuclear deal.
Republicans supported Obama’s military operations in Libya and Syria. But in an example of what is typical of Republican opposition to Democrat foreign policy, Senator John McCain said, “Now we need to increase our support so that the Libyan people can achieve the only satisfactory outcome to this mass protest for universal rights—the end of Gadhafi’s rule and the beginning of a peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy that will benefit all Libyans.”
Republicans knee-jerk hawkishness is again on full display with respect to Ukraine. Congress has voted to provide $13.6 billion in lethal arms to Ukraine. Congressional Republicans, including Senators Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Marco Rubio (F-Fla.), and permahawk Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have criticized this as not enough. Weapons giveaways have become so extensive that weapons stockpiles necessary for our own national defense are being rapidly depleted.
Whether and how to get involved in Ukraine should be a topic of great public debate. There are real questions about our preexisting support for the Ukrainian regime, its own actions against its people in the Donbas, and whether prolonging the war would benefit either Ukraine or the United States. More important, any prudent American leader must ask whether taking Ukraine’s side may be too risky considering Russia’s large nuclear arsenal and sense of existential dread in the face of NATO expansion.
But none of this is debated. As in the past, Democrats and Republicans are nearly lockstep on the question of foreign military intervention during Democratic presidencies, including our current extensive assistance to Ukraine.
For many Republicans, it is as if the Trump presidency never happened. They are reverting to their deeper tendencies as hawks, an identity formed in the unique circumstances following the Vietnam War, and these tendencies are amplified by the grand moral rhetoric of the neoconservatives.
The Deep State Distorts the Political Process
From Addressing Foreign Policy
The Bush years were a massive bait and switch. After the 9/11 attacks, the national unity and anger of the American people were not put to work fortifying our country or stopping immigration from hostile peoples. Instead, we went about building more layers of national security bureaucracy and chased the the quixotic goal of turning the Middle East into a democracy. Instead of doing what was cheap and effective, we pursued the expensive and the overly ambitious.
Most Americans were willing to give the experts’ strategy a chance to succeed but, as in Vietnam, the gap between promises and results became too great to bear. While the political system had its flaws, the voters’ 2008 rejection of Republican nominee John McCain was a forceful rebuke of an overly activist foreign policy.
Obama, like Trump and George W. Bush for that matter, did not enter office seeking to be a foreign policy president. He was a minimalist, not least because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. But he, too, got the nation involved in foreign wars, including new ones.
The decisions of Obama, and later, Trump to pursue military actions they had no apparent desire to pursue as candidates exemplifies the other problem with American foreign policy: it is loosened from political control through the excessive power of the experts, the so-called foreign policy “blob.”
Obama eventually would be worn down by their pressures, reentering the Middle East to capitalize on the Arab Spring. In Syria, America funded an unsuccessful war against the Assad regime, while simultaneously fighting the regime’s mortal enemy, ISIS. In Libya, we decapitated the Qaddafi regime and replaced it with anarchy.
Trump, while America First, did not run or govern as an isolationist. He correctly saw how our economic relationships with China and Europe were making the United States weaker. While he reorganized the contradictory fight against ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria by prioritizing ISIS, he was periodically persuaded to launch bombing raids against the government there in response to perfectly timed reports of chemical weapons.
His presence and his success muted some of the neoconservative instincts of the Republicans. But, unlike the current free rein enjoyed by Biden, he faced consistent pushback for following through on his stated foreign policy aims. When he said it was time to leave Syria, his secretary of defense quit, and many in Washington were unanimous in condemning Trump’s irresponsibility. Rather importantly for recent events, the false Russiagate narrative and the Mueller probe steered Trump in a more anti-Russian direction, even though his obvious instinct was to tone down our friction with the world’s largest nuclear power.
At every turn, the deep state resisted, persecuted, or blocked Trump from doing what he explicitly promised the American people; this extended to an impeachment directed by intelligence agency insiders.
The main question, still unanswered from Trump’s presidency, is whether elections matter, or, rather, will they be allowed to matter beyond the boundaries of the foreign policy blob’s consensus.
A Degraded People Produce Degraded Politics
One more vital factor in this broken-down system is the apathy of the American people. Most people do not have the intellectual curiosity to think about other countries and our relation to them. They would rather outsource this to the experts, only weighing in during cases of manifest failure like Vietnam and Iraq. This is also rational, considering America’s relative safety from global conflicts arising from its geography and large nuclear arsenal.
Knowing little about the world, and feted with tales of America’s greatest hour during World War II, they are easily manipulated into seeing one side as “the next Hitler” and the other as the comic book “good guys.” They just as easily lose interest, particularly when the cost is too high.
While I sometimes give in to modern usage and describe our country as a democracy, it was originally supposed to be a republic. This distinction is relevant to the problems with the political process. In a world of public apathy and limited time, elected representatives are supposed to understand and represent the people’s true interests, while refining and even educating their opinions.
This is why thoughtless Republican approval for Joe Biden’s and other Democratic presidents’ adventurism is so toxic. The pressure to engage in such actions is already present from the permanent bureaucracy and the Democrats’ own partisan support of their president. Moreover, the media rather irresponsibly fans the flames of war because it drives up ratings and their own sense of self-importance.
Without some counterweight in the form of a functioning political class and a more sensible Republican Party, interventionism will win every time, even when the benefits are minimal and the risks are enormous.