foreign interests

Here’s How Trump’s Iran Policy Looks From Inside the Senate

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. Congress has never declared war on Iran. And yet, earlier this month, the U.S. government ordered the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian military official.

President Trump’s strike against Qasem Soleimani produced no small amount of collateral damage. The missiles that killed the Iranian commander also wiped out the Iraqi parliament’s hospitality, the Iranian government’s will to comply with all terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement, and the last vestiges of Congress’s putative authority over matters of war and peace. They also came quite close to igniting yet another major military conflict in the Middle East. Happily, Iran opted for merely symbolic vengeance; its fireworks display left American troops in Iraq unharmed. And now the entire episode has been buried beneath five or six successive news cycles.

But the consequences of our commander-in-chief’s audacious actions don’t disappear when we avert our eyes. From Capitol Hill to the Persian Gulf, the repercussions of the Soleimani strike are still taking shape. In Congress, a couple Senate Republicans have joined with their Democratic colleagues in a push to reassert their branch’s sovereignty over war making. In Iraq, efforts to expel American troops are still ongoing.

To get some perspective on the fallout from Trump’s act of war, Intelligencer spoke with Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, one of the Democratic Party’s leading voices on foreign affairs. Our conversation began with Trump’s Iran policy, but also touched on his vision for a 21st century progressive internationalism, the 2020 Democratic campaign, and the liberal approach to countering China, among other things.

What do you see as the principal consequences of Donald Trump’s targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani? 
What may worry me most is the damage that the president has done to his own credibility as commander-in-chief. None of Trump’s lying is forgivable. But it’s most unforgivable when he makes things up or fudges the truth on matters that put our soldiers in harm’s way. It’s increasingly clear that there was no imminent threat to the United States that was preempted by Soleimani’s death. Over the weekend, the administration actually seemed to be interested in concocting threats, virtually out of thin air. I worry that not everyone will write this off as Trump being Trump. It’s going to be hard for folks to believe this administration, when they actually have real intelligence that deserves to be acted upon in the future. The second thing I worry about is the future of our disposition of forces in Iraq. ISIS is a greater threat to the United States than Iran is, and they are on the hook in Syria and Iraq. If we get our troops kicked out of Iraq because of the Soleimani strike, that does more harm to our national security interests than the eradication of Soleimani does good.

A couple of Republican senators have expressed dismay with the White House’s handling of the assassination. Utah Senator Mike Lee described the administration’s briefing on the supposed “imminent attack” as the worst he’d ever heard, and its decision to act without congressional input as an “insult” to the Constitution. But few other Republicans have publicly registered such complaints. Are Lee’s sentiments more common among your GOP colleagues in private?
My sense is that the lion’s share of Republican senators wanted Soleimani dead regardless of whether there was an imminent attack. So, I don’t think that very many Republicans are wringing their hands over whether there was actually an imminent threat because they were going to cheer Soleimani’s death no matter what. And look — I’m glad he’s dead too. But I also see the grave long-term damage done to the United States when Congress doesn’t even have to be consulted before the president launches a major, world-changing military strike. I don’t see how any Republican could have been happy about the briefing we got, given that it was totally devoid of actual information and intelligence. But I don’t think very many Republicans needed hard intel. They were going to cheer the president’s actions no matter what.

With regard to America’s broader conflict with Tehran: The Trump administration’s principal rationale for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear agreement was that it had failed to deter Iran’s myriad efforts to increase its regional influence by projecting power beyond its borders. But it’s not always clear why, precisely, the United States should see minimizing Iranian influence as one of its vital national security interests. Does America have any real stake in whether Saudi Arabia or Iran exerts more power in the Middle East?
I think we have minimal interest in whether Iran or Saudi Arabia ultimately has more influence in the Asian countries in that region. For far too long, we have viewed the Middle East with a black-and-white lens: Iranians are the bad guys, and the Saudis are the good guys. It’s not that simple. The Saudis have been working against our national security interests in a variety of ways for decades now. And because we were so dependent on their oil for so long, Washington somehow became blind to it. We do have interests in the Middle East. The oil produced there still matters. Without us, there’s no way that Israel can protect itself. And in the context of a major regional conflict, the United States might need to step in to defend international norms. So we had an interest there. But the details of the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not one of them.

You’ve called for a progressive foreign policy that ends America’s trigger-happy approach to military intervention (as applied not only in Iraq, but also, in Syria and Libya) while nevertheless expanding our nation’s role in managing global affairs. How do you aim to bolster U.S. global leadership without repeating the mistakes that have defined that leadership over the past two decades?
My belief is that a progressive foreign policy is about learning from the military mistakes of the last two decades, while still being confident that American power, smartly deployed, can be a force for good in the world and advance our economic and security interests. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the only way to really project American strength around the world is through military might. And advocating for advancing and improving our non-military tools has been viewed as weak. That’s why we call one kind of projection of power “hard power” and the other “soft power.” But the fact is, there are very few places are better off now than they were two decades ago, thanks to application of U.S. military force. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of non-military threats that the United States faces today, and has absolutely no ability to meet.

We’ve got oil-rich petro-dictators. We have pandemic disease. We have online terrorist recruiters. We have information-age propagandists. America doesn’t have the ability to confront any of those adversaries or any of those capabilities today. And yet, we’re spending 20 times as much money on defense and intelligence as we are on democracy, human rights promotion and information warfare. So I think we have to understand what history is telling us. There’s a limit to the security that can be achieved through military strength alone.

Is there anything in particular that you’re hoping to hear from your party’s presidential candidates on foreign policy at tonight’s debate in Des Moines?
I’d like our party to make the connection between our domestic and foreign policy goals more directly. There is almost no progressive domestic priority that doesn’t have a foreign policy component. Care about protecting democracy here at home? Then you have to recognize that countries like China are developing the dictatorial tools that could eventually fall into the wrong hands here in the United States. If you care about climate change, of course you have to be arguing for an active U.S. role internationally. If you care about raising the average worker’s wages, then you have to recognize the economy is global. And if you don’t start signing smart trade deals that protect our interests and expand our, our access to new markets, then wages will remain flat. So, there’s no choice to be made between focusing on domestic progressive priorities, or arguing for America’s active role in the world. I don’t think you can be a progressive Democrat on domestic issues if you aren’t arguing for the United States to play a smarter and more active role on the world stage.

Speaking of tools that could fall into the wrong hands: You’ve written that America’s multi-trillion investment in military operations since 2001 has left us with a “world that is more dangerous, full of greater threats, than ever before in our lifetime.” And yet, your vision for a progressive foreign policy does not involve paring back America’s efforts to project its power overseas, in light of the War on Terror’s unintended consequences. To the contrary, your aim is to provide the U.S. government with a wider range of tools for projecting its power abroad. In a context where one of America’s major political parties rejects some of progressive premises informing your vision for U.S. global leadership, is there a risk that the new tools and capacities your agenda creates will ultimately be directed towards regressive and counterproductive ends, just as our military capacities have been since 2002? For example, you call for increasing America’s capacity to combat disinformation (a.k.a. “fake news”) overseas, which seems like a power that few progressives would trust this president to use responsibly.
 I think there’s always risk when the United States asserts itself and its interests and values abroad. In many ways, the democracy and human rights tools that I’m proposing might actually be more menacing to a country like China than aircraft carriers and bombers. So, you can certainly risk getting into a mess with smart power tools as much as you can with hard power tools. But as we’ve seen in a place like Afghanistan, once you make a mistake with military tools, it’s hard to unwind. It’s very difficult to throttle back an occupation, as evidenced by the fact that we are still in Iraq 16 years later, and Afghanistan 18 years later. My sense is that if we were to build up our capacity to help countries rid themselves of Russian oil and fight back against Chinese cyber attacks, it might put Russia and China’s backs up against the wall. But it would also be much easier to press the brake when your projecting force with those kinds of soft power tools than when you’re doing so with military ones.

You’ve written a lot about where the U.S. is underinvesting in its national security. Given the exceptional scale of U.S. military spending, are there places where you feel that we are overinvesting?
Part of the reason why I’m so scared about this administration’s walk back on nuclear diplomacy is that we’ve got a giant bill coming up to modernize our nuclear weapons program. And without a deal with Russia, that bill gets bigger and bigger. And so, I’m a big believer in signing agreements that allow us to dramatically downsize our spending commitment on nuclear capabilities. But this president seems to be giving away that opportunity. So, there are areas where we can save money through smart diplomacy. But I have not advocated for a simple shift of resources from Defense to State and USAID. We do have some really important bills coming up with the department of Defense. We’ve got some long overdue shipbuilding investments that everyone agrees we have to make. What I don’t want to do is to keep spending emergency money for conflicts of choice — as we have over the last 20 years. I’d rather be smartly building up a U.S. military that’s ready for a real conflict, rather than the conflicts we create and enter into a by choice.

In a recent editorial for the Atantic, you wrote, “Progressives understand that the U.S. military plays a crucial role in defense of our interests. Few progressives opposed, for instance, the decision to take military action in Afghanistan in 2001. To sit idly by after being attacked by a group supported by the Afghan government would have sent a signal of disastrous weakness.”

In hindsight, do you think that sending such a “signal of weakness” would have been more disastrous than the 18-year, $1-trillion war that that congressional vote ultimately birthed? I ask because it seems to me that there are many instances in which the impulse to project strength in the face of an attack conflicts with the dictates of progressive realism. For example, on the night of Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on Iraq, your colleague Jack Reed told CNN that if U.S. soldiers were killed in the attack, then it would be “very difficult to just simply say, let’s stop.” And yet, if there had been an American casualty that night, would the strategic argument for de-escalation have been any weaker?
I have long argued that restraint is indeed a policy. I wrote a piece a year or so ago for the New York Times, arguing that the United States should have made a much smaller commitment to Syria, out of recognition that what we were doing there was simply making the situation on the ground worse, not better, given our willingness to hand the rebels just enough support to keep them going, but not enough to actually to defeat Bashar al-Assad. So, I’ve been very consistent on the need to apply the Hippocratic oath to foreign policy — first, you need to prove that whatever you’re going to do isn’t going to make things worse rather than better. That being said, I think the attacks on September 11 are a moment when the harm to the United States was so serious, so grave, and so real that if we had stood down and done nothing, it would have gotten us hit harder in the future. There are occasionally these exceptional moments — and the September 11 attacks were clearly an exceptional moment, with thousands of Americans being killed — in which you have to reestablish the moral order by defending yourself and using the military to do so.

What would a progressive approach to the U.S.–China relationship look like, and what most distinguishes it from the course that Trump has taken?
My general critique of the president’s approach to China is that it’s myopic. He has tunnel vision with China and seems incapable of talking with them about anything except for this nonsensical trade war (which I’m confident is going to end up with an agreement that is very good for China and not so good for the United States).

With China, you have to be able to talk about a bunch of things at the same time. You’ve gotta be able to talk with them about climate, trade, North Korea, human rights and democracy. And whether China is willing to make concessions on those issues depends on whether we have the tools to threaten their interests. At present, we don’t have the ability to scare China into sitting down and talking to us about more than one thing at a time. Part of the reason you press China internationally on the issues of democracy and human rights is that that then becomes a pressure point that can ultimately score victories — not only for the Uighurs and others who have been beaten down by this regime — but on other American priorities as well.

One reason I want to supersize the U.S. economic development program is because if China really thinks we’re competing with them in places like Africa, then they’re going to be more interested in talking to us. If we develop the ability to partner with industry so that we don’t get caught with our pants down again on a new technology rollout like 5G, the Chinese will sit up straight and pay attention to us. With China, you need to bring them to the table — or to four different tables. But our own decisions will determine what kinds of hands we have to play when sitting at those tables. It’s not all just luck of the draw.

The gap between your desired foreign policy, and the one Trump is conducting, is vast and growing larger by the day. What are the first things the next Democratic administration will need to do in order to execute the transition from a Trumpist foreign policy to a progressive one?
Well, the first challenge for a Democratic administration is repopulating the national security state with smart, experienced people. The first thing a Democratic president and Democratic Secretary of State will need to do is convince all the mid-level diplomats who fled under Trump to come back. We just don’t have the personnel to carry out our mission abroad right now. So that will be a job No. 1. Job No. 2 — separate and aside from whatever conflicts may be burning up the moment — is to signal a willingness to shift our resource allocation. And to come up with a real four-year budget that’s actually going to allow us to meet these new challenges. Let’s just take one set of choices in the Middle East as an example. We have now put 15,000 new troops in the Middle East. It hasn’t appeared to make the state of play any safer or any more stable. And yet, we’ve got Lebanon — a critical ally of the United States, and a linchpin of security in the region — hanging by a thread. A smart U.S. security policy would not be throwing 15,000 troops into the Middle East right now. It would be putting serious economic and security assistance into Lebanon and doing our best to stabilize the political situation there. So there are some pretty easy choices to be made, in terms of shifting resources away from non-strategic military investments over to smarter, non-military tools that can get you a higher return on investment.

Here’s How Trump’s Iran Policy Looks From Inside the Senate