Donald Trump’s air strike against the Assad regime didn’t do much to resolve the conflict in Syria — but it did do a great deal to expose the conflict over foreign policy within the Democratic Party.
Hours after the attack, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate applauded the president’s decision to answer Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the language of force. By the end of the ensuing week, only five Democratic senators had voiced opposition to a unilateral military intervention — ordered without congressional approval — by a man their party had just recently deemed a mentally unsound puppet of Vladimir Putin who could never be trusted with the nuclear codes.
Which is to say: Eight years after Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination on the strength of his caution about knee-jerk-liberal interventionism, most elected Democrats remained credulous toward that creed.
Their voters felt differently. A Gallup poll taken in the strike’s immediate aftermath found that 61 percent of Democrats opposed Trump’s decision. But if the progressive base is against the reflexive use of American missiles, it’s not entirely clear what the movement is for on matters of foreign affairs.
The policy debates that animated Democrats in the 2016 primary were almost exclusively domestic ones. On the home front, progressives fought over how to advance a set of shared, affirmative goals — among them the establishment of universal health care, paid family leave, financial reform, and affordable higher education. But on foreign affairs, the party’s left flank offered little beyond condemnation of Hillary Clinton’s hawkish history.
Chris Murphy is one of the few elected Democrats who both prioritizes issues of foreign policy and calls for the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of military force. The Connecticut senator espouses a kind of progressive realism. He believes that Washington’s foreign-policy establishment routinely deludes itself about the limits of American military power. But he also insists that our nation’s supreme wealth and might can — and should — be used to proactively advance human welfare and national security. Last month, Murphy released a report titled “Rethinking the Battlefield,” which calls for doubling America’s budget on diplomacy and foreign aid, so as to provide policy makers with viable, nonmilitary means of addressing threats to human rights and global stability. We spoke last week with Murphy about his vision for the future of American foreign policy.
Let’s start with an easy one: What would a properly progressive response to the Syrian civil war have looked like?
There was never going to be a U.S.-led military solution in Syria and we should have understood that from the start. What we did in Syria was to give just enough support to the Syrian rebels so that they could keep the fight up but never enough for the rebels to actually prevail over the Assad regime. In Syria, a progressive foreign policy would have shown military restraint, while pumping up our ability to gain political leverage over Syria’s benefactors, and providing humanitarian funding to make sure that anybody that wanted to leave Syria could.
I think the way in which we fund foreign policy didn’t allow us to meet those two alternative avenues. One, we simply don’t have a lot of levers in a relationship with Russia because we have no effective means to counteract the work they do to try to use energy to bully their neighbors or spread their message or propaganda. And we continually underfund humanitarian accounts such that we effectively trap people inside Syria because they couldn’t support the refugee flows coming out of that country.
You think that with a greater investment of smart power, we would have had enough leverage over Russia to get them to withdraw their support for the Assad regime?
Probably not. But I think we would have been in a better position if we had other means of leverage over Russia. If we, for instance, had an account that funded energy independence in and around Russia, one that put money behind creating gas and oil interconnections, so that countries didn’t have to rely on Russia, that would give us additional leverage over Russia in conversations about Syria.
I think most of the Washington foreign policy establishment exists in a fantasy world when it comes to Syria. They fundamentally don’t understand that Russia and Iran, from the beginning, had much more at stake in Syria than the United States did. Russia and Iran were going to do everything possible in order to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. U.S. military support to the rebels has had the effect of simply prolonging the war that ultimately Assad will likely win. That’s abhorrent to me. I lose sleep over the fact that Bashar al-Assad may eventually control the majority of the territory in Syria. But that has likely been the inevitability from the beginning.
About that foreign-policy establishment: The Obama administration famously developed an antipathy for Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elites. Some members of the administration reportedly took to referring to that establishment as “the blob” — and to many foreign-policy thank tanks as “Arab-occupied territory,” in light of how much Gulf-state money is invested in those institutions. Do you sympathize with those sentiments? Specifically, do you think there is a structural bias towards both intervention in the Middle East and unconditional support for Saudi Arabia, which is due, in some part, to how foreign-policy think tanks are funded?
I think when you have so many people working for American-based think tanks, and American-based defense companies, there is always going to be a bent towards proposing American-led solutions for foreign problems. People get paid big money in Washington to come up with ways that America can fix problems overseas, and they are not always right. There is not an American-led solution to what is happening today in Syria. Ultimately, stability in Syria will come from decisions made on the ground by the Syrian people and by their immediate neighbors. Now, the United States can assist in that effort. We can help convene those conversations. But it’s not going to be U.S. military support for the rebels that is going to ultimately be dispositive in a political solution like Syria.
I can’t represent whether that’s accurate about the Obama administration or not. Others have written that. But I have tended to be countercultural in some of my foreign-policy views because I think that the foreign-policy establishment here sometimes continues the trend of American hubris, the belief that America alone can come up with a plan to cure the ills of foreign lands.
What about the specific role that the Saudis play in our politics? You’re one of the few members of Congress who has expressed concern about American support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Why do you think the Assad regime’s horrific gassing of 80 Syrians causes so much more moral concern in Washington than the Saudis inducing famine conditions in Yemen, a human-rights violation that threatens the lives of millions?
I continue to be perplexed at this town’s unabashed and largely unconditional support for the Saudis. The Saudis are doing horrible things inside Yemen. Thousands of civilians have been killed, many of them targeted intentionally by Saudi bombs. The Saudis are directly funding a version of Islam that is used as the building blocks for the very extremist groups that we are fighting. Whether the Saudis like it or not that’s the truth.
I don’t know why the Saudis have so much influence in this town given the fact that their human-rights record is amongst the worst in the world, and their support for a very intolerant version of Islam is one of the reasons why we have such a big extremist problem on our hands.
Would you support suspending arms sales to the Saudis? Or, how would you go about dealing with Riyadh, if you had more of the “smart power” resources that you believe we should fund?
The only tools that we have to win friends today are, largely, military tools. We build an alliance with Saudi Arabia through massive military sales because we don’t have other real tools to deploy. If we had real economic-assistance dollars that could help the Saudis convert their economy, or help partner with them to build up stability inside Yemen, we might be able to avoid some of the traps that occur when all we can do is transfer military equipment.
I am a proponent of suspending the U.S.-Saudi military relationship as it relates to Yemen. I think the United States should stop funding the civil war inside Yemen.
Let’s turn to the big picture: What are the key tenets of your vision for a progressive, 21st-century foreign policy — and what distinguishes that vision from the policy America pursued under our last Democratic president?
To me, a progressive foreign policy is internationalist. It recognizes that America can play a role for good in the world and understands that America has to be deployed outside of our borders in order to protect ourselves from attack.
A progressive foreign policy also understands that there are limits to the blunt force of military power. So long as the president has almost no substantial nonmilitary tools to confront the new threats presented to this country, then whether he or she be Republican or Democrat, the president is always doomed to fail overseas. I unveiled a very detailed plan two weeks ago to pump up the nonmilitary tool kit that’s available to every president in order to protect ourselves abroad. I don’t think a progressive foreign policy is about stealing money from the military in order to fund nonmilitary power. I just think that we have badly underresourced the ways in which America projects its power through non-kinetic means.
Now progressive foreign policy also has other components to it. You shouldn’t be engaging in military force without the support of the American public and the authorization of Congress. Progressive foreign policy also believes in international institutions and the value of doing things in a multilateral fashion.
The Obama doctrine is, to the extent it existed, at its roots based in progressive foreign policy — the idea that American military power can’t solve complicated political problems overseas. Admittedly restraint was often, but not always, practiced by the Obama administration. They got into some messy entanglements in places like Syria and Yemen that just showed the limits of American military power and the harm that can be caused if you exercise it in the wrong way.
You said that you didn’t want to “steal money from the military.” But one of the left’s priorities on foreign policy, in past eras, was to radically reduce America’s defense budget. The U.S. already spends an enormous amount on its military, more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, India, and Germany — combined. By contrast, we spend relatively little on feeding our poor, educating our children, and caring for our sick. Every time Trump orders an air strike these days, liberals on Twitter lament that our government could have ended the Flint water crisis for less money than it cost to build the expended bombs.
As a supporter of a larger defense budget, how you would respond to two progressive criticisms of that proposal: First, that our government shouldn’t spend more on its military until it can afford to provide basic social services to its citizens. And second, that spending such outsize sums on the military perpetuates an institutional bias towards intervention that leads to bad outcomes. (If you build it, the war will come, in other words.)
Our national security policy should never be dictated by the amount of jobs created in the United States, right? I mean I’m very supportive of the defense jobs that exist in Connecticut, but not for the sake of those jobs in and of themselves. I believe that the capabilities created by submarines and jet engines and helicopters ultimately help protect America. I argue that a modern progressive foreign policy celebrates the strength of the U.S. military.
We have burdens that no other country has. We have treaty obligations that keep vast lots of the globe safe. We have the burden of protecting the free navigation of the seas. The United States, whether we like it or not, has security burdens all over the world that necessitate a pretty large expenditure of our funds on defense.
I think, broadly, the American public supports a very strong military, so I think Democrats would be swimming pretty hard upstream if we were arguing for massive transfers of funding from the Department of Defense to other accounts.
I think you can have it all. I think you can have a strong military and you can build up these nonmilitary tools that will make it less likely that you are going to have to use that military power overseas. Listen, maybe down the line, if you had real anti-propaganda resources and real energy independence resources, and real economic empowerment resources, you might not need the military at the size that it is today. But that’s not today.
In a column you wrote with senators Brian Schatz and Martin Heinrich for Foreign Affairs, you argued that “military interventions should focus on creating space for local political solutions to the underlying problems for unrest. And if there is no achievable political solution on the ground, it should cause Congress to question the wisdom of the proposed military action.”
It seems to me, in debates over intervention, very few people argue for military action, even though they, themselves, admit there is no achievable political solution to the conflict. So the question is: How do we know that there will or will not be a political solution in advance of intervention? How do you think Congress should go about discerning the feasibility of a political solution? And what conclusion would your method have reached about our intervention in Libya?
Understanding whether there is an achievable political solution on the ground in a war zone is not a science. It’s an inexact art, so there’s no formula to determine that. My argument is that that discussion is not happening in a realistic fashion. People are too often ignoring the complicated political realities and fashioning fantasy constructs of how various sects and factions are going to come together and live in harmony. I think there are a number of different questions that you look to, including whether there’s a recent history of effective central governance. You look at how many different factions and sects exist within a space. Is there a history of those factions working together or living inside a government together? You have to ask all of those questions.
I think Libya was a very hard case because in a fairly closed state, it was hard to know what would happen after Gaddafi fell. But we clearly didn’t ask those questions. We didn’t have that conversation. We made a decision to use military force in order to protect civilians. That’s a laudable goal, but because we didn’t have the conversation about the political after-effects, we ended up creating chaos on the ground that has arguably killed more civilians than were at risk when we launched the bombing campaign. In Libya, in retrospect, it doesn’t appear that we have either saved lives or added to political stability by making the decision to militarily intervene.
Another foreign-policy issue that, in the past, has been a focus for progressives is nuclear de-proliferation. Do you think President Obama’s decision to spend a trillion dollars on modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal was a wise one?
Like I said, we have burdens that no other country has. And part of the way that we enforce our treaty obligations is by having a fairly massive nuclear deterrent, to dissuade countries that might think about invading mainland Europe or Japan or Korea. I think there’s always a discussion as to how much money you put into nuclear modernization. I have a lot of questions about some of these smaller-scale nuclear weapon delivery systems. I really worry about a trend towards smaller nuclear warheads that can be deployed tactically. But, in general, I think you’ve got to maintain a robust nuclear deterrent.
On those burdens: What do you say to those on the left who thought Donald Trump actually had a point about NATO or about our East Asian allies — that it would be fair to expect them to contribute a larger share into the cost of their defense, and to make themselves less reliant on our military for their security?
I think it’s a fair criticism of NATO that those countries have not been spending as much on defense as promised in the underlying agreement. But let’s remember that the mutual defense provision in the NATO treaty has only been exercised once — and it was by the United States asking European nations to come to our defense. I agree that some of our friends should have more capacity to defend themselves. But I also think we should recognize what the real story of NATO is.
In the Middle East, a lot of people said, “Instead of defending our friends in the region, we should just sell arms to them and let them defend themselves.” Well, look what’s happening in Yemen today. We decided to sell a lot of arms to the Saudis and asked them to defend themselves. They took those arms and have ended up killing thousands of civilians inside Yemen and freeing up territory for ISIS and Al Qaeda to grow, threatening the United States. Sometimes when we decide to hand weapons over to our allies so that they can defend themselves, it comes back to bite us in the ass.
The Trump administration’s affinity for foreign tyrants has drawn attention to a perennial dilemma in American foreign policy: When our narrowly defined national interests conflict with our our broader goals of promoting democracy and human rights, how should we balance these imperatives? To take one example, do you think the American government should cut off funding to Sisi’s Egypt to punish its human rights abuses, or subordinate our humanitarian concerns to support a (supposed) ally in the fight against ISIS?
I don’t think you can avoid situations where there are conflicts between immediate security interests and long-term human-rights concerns. But they don’t exist in as many places as we think. The fact of the matter is, in Egypt, the Sisi government is likely creating more radicals than they are eliminating, and Trump’s idea to continue to provide funding to Sisi with no strings attached is going to end in the massive radicalization of jailed Egyptians. And that ultimately presents a threat to the U.S. homeland. In most cases, our investments in authoritarian regimes with bad human-rights records end up hurting our core national security concerns.
Do you believe that the drone strike program has been similarly self-defeating? Have our drone strikes made the world safer? Or has their toll in civilian casualties been unacceptable ethically, and counterproductive strategically?
I support a drone program that specifically targets very bad guys that present an immediate threat to the United States. The drone program we have today, by some reports, kills the right person only 5 percent or 10 percent of the time. That’s not acceptable. We have become complacent about the civilian casualties and the accompanying effects on U.S. national security. When these civilian populations are targeted by drones — and they see good guys being killed 90 percent of the time and the bad guys being killed 10 percent of the time — that feeds right into the terrorists’ recruitment material. I’m not somebody that says we should get rid of the drone program, I just think we have to have some better oversight of it, to make sure that the intelligence is pretty rock solid before we start firing.
Independent from the executive?
You could have it in the Executive branch. You could have a quasi-judicial oversight of that program. I don’t think it makes sense to have congressional oversight. But I think whatever we’ve been doing thus far has clearly not exercised the right amount of caution.
One foreign policy issue that Democratic voters have strong — and often, diametrically opposed — views on is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Polls show that younger progressives are much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than their elders. And many such voters, along with pro-Israel, anti-occupation groups like J Street, believe that the United States should do more to discourage Israeli settlement expansion, and bring an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Do you agree?
I think that conflict is very hard to resolve given the existing leadership on both sides of the divide. The United States has always had a tricky position. We have to stand by Israel as a sacred friend in that region, but we also know historically that no deals get done unless the United States isn’t willing to tell some hard truths to Tel Aviv. The settlement construction under Netanyahu did make peace less likely because it ultimately carved out sections of a future Palestinian state in a way that wasn’t constructive. I think, I’m a believer in supporting Israel, but also in not being afraid to call them out, when they’re doing something that isn’t ultimately good for peace.
I think you can walk that line. I don’t support those that the only way you are a friend to Israel is to support whatever the existing government asks you to support.
Why do you think there isn’t a mobilized constituency for the foreign policy you describe, and do you have any ideas for how to change that fact?
I think the relative dormancy in the Democratic Party on foreign relations is a natural extension of having a president be in power that the grassroots largely believed in, when it came to foreign affairs. There are points where I departed from Obama’s foreign policy. But by and large, the base was supportive of a president who was pulling us out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was talking about the value of American ideals, not just American intervention, abroad. I think it’s natural for a party who has a president in the White House to take the foot off the gas when it comes to building a grassroots constituency around foreign affairs.
It’s somewhat ironic given that some of the most active organizing groups in the Democratic constituency flow out of foreign affairs. Many of the groups like MoveOn, that are still at the center of the progressive establishment, built up their credibility in opposition to the Iraq War. I hope it doesn’t take another war for the Democratic Party to build up a capacity on foreign policy but I understand why this wasn’t a centerpiece. We also had a massive recession and 10 percent unemployment. For a good part of the last decade there was a reason why the Democratic Party was focused on domestic politics: We had a whole lot of people out of work.