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Two Years of Trump: Views From the Democratic Sideline
Resolutions for the Democratic Party in 2019.
Sunday marks the second anniversary of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration—the halfway point of his first term. With the Democrats back in control of the House of Representatives and the 2020 presidential race already underway, Foreign Policy asked its Shadow Government contributors, foreign-policy hands who served under former President Barack Obama, for a set of resolutions for the Democratic Party in 2019.
In 2019, Democrats on Capitol Hill should:
Hold hearings that compel the executive branch agencies engaged in foreign policy to explain and defend their actions. Democrats should use the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold the administration accountable and compel testimony from the executive branch. (Sen. Ed Royce, the former chairman, was certainly not the worst House Republican, but he did a feeble job of holding the administration accountable.)
Lay out—again and again—the ways in which a progressive foreign policy can deliver for working people across the country. The vision for a values-based, pragmatic foreign policy that reinforces U.S. global leadership and is responsive to the interests and concerns of the middle class has to be front and center as they confront Trump’s haphazard, corrupt, defeatist approach.
Take action in the legislature to support career diplomatic and development professionals, those working in U.S. intelligence agencies, military personnel, and the families of all these public servants. Trump has damaged what the United States stands for in the world. He also has failed to stand up for those who stand up for all of us.
As Democrats try to figure out how to handle the next two years, my advice is pretty simple: Study carefully the behavior of the House Republicans over the past decade and do the opposite.
That means approaching oversight and investigations with a healthy dose of sobriety and restraint. Don’t reprise anything like the cynical, phony outrage of the Benghazi investigation, which, let’s never forget, catapulted the career of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It also means that Democrats, while crafting policies and conducting legitimate oversight of the Trump administration, should remain mindful about setting precedents that may come back to haunt them. For example, I’ve written before for Shadow Government on my concerns about former Secretary of State James Mattis’s impact on civil-military decision-making in the service of thwarting Trump (which the new House Armed Services Committee should look into), and Democrats should be careful with ideas like subpoenaing State Department interpreters. Democrats must also always put their best foot forward and show their unique seriousness and expertise on foreign-policy issues, especially from the rising generation of political leaders. Yet here there are worrying signs: The House leadership apparently blocked all of the newcomers to the House of Representatives with significant intelligence experience from positions on the House Intelligence Committee, mainly because they voted against Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker. At a moment when the United States needs to have vigorous intelligence oversight, it is hard to explain how that serves the national interest.
Finally, as several other Shadow Government contributors have also urged, Democrats must be more than a check against Trump, as essential as that will be. Consider the House Republicans: When Obama was president, nearly their entire agenda was about blocking and undermining him and, since 2016, rolling back everything he did. Outrage and hysterics will generate attention and maybe even get you elected—but that’s no way to govern. Democrats must always offer a positive vision for the future—showing how, after Trump, they intend to undo the damage and rebuild.
In 2019, Democrats should resolve to craft a smart, strong policy approach to China that protects U.S. national security interests and business competitiveness. Democrats should develop and articulate a strategy to prevent China from gaining advantage in all military and industrial domains—land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace—and in the political, informational, and diplomatic arenas.
This new policy approach should block Chinese actors from stealing U.S. defense and intellectual property and deter the Chinese government from cyberoperations against private and public targets. U.S. policy should establish firm lines regarding disputed territories and waters, defending freedom of navigation. At the same time, Democrats should propose new diplomatic and legal initiatives to resolve issues of sovereign ownership or control without use of military assets. Understanding that U.S. commercial businesses rely on China for supplies and markets, Democrats should work to help businesses establish decision-making and practices that factor in national security imperatives.
Develop a sensible approach toward Israel that works for the broad majority of the Democratic Party.
One of the potentially most sensitive foreign-policy issues heading into the Democratic primaries in 2019 is the party’s approach to Israel. The two loudest voices are on opposite extremes. On one side is a constituency that argues for unconditional support. On the other is a progressive base that wants to take a much more critical approach. In the quiet middle is the broad majority of Democrats who are increasingly uncomfortable with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cozy relationship with Trump and Israeli settlement activity. But they still recognize that the United States shares progressive values with Israel and that there are meaningful security benefits to the relationship. Democrats should resolve to not let the voices on the extreme control this debate but instead forge a consensus message that emphasizes that Israel is a close and important friend of the United States and there are real benefits to the relationship. But when you see your friend doing things that you disagree with and are damaging both to their interests and to yours, it is okay to criticize their behavior and encourage them to change.
Now that the Democrats have won a majority in the House, they should focus on three priority tasks.
First, Democrats need to broaden the party’s appeal among working people by pursuing ambitious legislation to raise living standards and promote economic opportunity. Improving the accessibility and affordability of higher education and job retraining, expanding health care coverage and managing its costs, addressing inequality through tax policy, curbing the role of money and special interests in politics—these are the kinds of policies that Democrats need to pursue if they are to address the anger and discontent fueling the country’s political dysfunction. Even if the Republican-controlled Senate balks, Democrats need to demonstrate their commitment on these fronts. Winning back the confidence of more working Americans is key to setting the stage for a Democratic victory in 2020 and ensuring that Trump is a one-term president.
Second, Democrats should seek to restore truth and decency to public debate. Deliberative democracy depends on civil, informed, and fact-based discussion to function. The Trump administration has denigrated the country’s politics and debased public discourse by misleading the electorate. Democrats should call out each and every fabrication and distortion and seek to move the country toward a fact-based policy debate. Democrats should press their Republican colleagues in Congress to join them in this exercise, putting them on the spot and challenging them to stand up to falsehoods.
Third, even though the executive branch wields considerable control over foreign policy, the Democrats should be prepared to limit the damage that the Trump administration is inflicting on U.S. statecraft and U.S. interests. Congress’s demonstrated readiness to stand up to Trump on Russia sanctions provides a good example. Should Trump try to do damage to or withdraw from NATO, Congress should do what it can to block him. When Trump insults allies, Democrats should counter forcefully and make clear that much of the country still cherishes like-minded partners around the world. When Trump tells Americans that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the United States, Democrats should promptly correct the record. Given that Trump’s own foreign-policy advisors are regularly at odds with him over foreign policy, Democrats can help make clear that Trump speaks for no one but himself.
My New Year’s resolution for the Democratic opposition to Trump is that we should not be afraid to defend our values, make affirmative arguments, and think big on foreign policy. We need to generate a new and compelling story about the U.S. role in the world that people can understand and get behind. And while the United States is indeed facing unprecedented challenges, we should seek to dwell in the land of hope and not fear. The new House of Representatives also has the chance to start putting in place the building blocks of what Democrats in 2020 should stand for—defense of democracy at home and abroad, rule of law, restraint on use of force, better balance between defense and diplomacy resourcing, and making the right investments at home that will make the country more competitive.
This year, Democrats should ground their opposition to Trump in what the party stands for, not just what it stands against. Democrats have rightly focused attention on Trump’s damage to U.S. security and standing, including his embrace of autocrats and eschewing of allies, throwing migrant children in cages, and withdrawing from the Paris and Iran agreements. But we must also articulate a foreign policy that is grounded in our values, restores U.S. leadership in the world, and takes on the biggest challenges the United States faces, from climate change to China and Russia. Democrats must use their new House majority to serve as a check but must also point the way forward. A new House resolution that addresses foreign dark money flows is a good start. And it is past time to chart a new course on Yemen. More broadly, Democrats should try to restore respect for allies, promote U.S. values, and limit Trump’s long-term cost to the country’s credibility and influence. By pursing a bold affirmative agenda this year, they can show the American people what is truly at stake in 2020.
Congressional Democrats are preparing to make Russia policy a battlefield for opposition to Trump. With extraordinary oversight abilities to block the president from relieving pressure on Moscow, which he has signaled interest in doing, Democrats have powerful levers they should use to instead compel a grave, sustained focus on Russia’s threats to U.S. sovereignty, interference in democratic processes, chemical attacks, and human rights violations. Democrats should also draw attention to the president’s alarmingly friendly overtures to Moscow. But they must avoid letting politics distract from the greater task of leading the United States toward a sound, aggressive response to Russia. Through oversight, appropriations, and new Russia legislation, including sanctions, congressional Democrats, along with key Republicans, should focus on the insidious and evolving threats Russia poses.
My wish for 2019 is that Democrats maintain unity of purpose amid their newly empowered role in the legislature, and in the next presidential primary. The 2018 elections brought new faces and diverse perspectives to Congress, including more women, minorities, and national security experts. These members are rightly eager to hold the Trump administration accountable and to advocate for alternative policies. Similarly, the primary campaign will showcase a range of voices in the battle to determine who is best placed to defeat Trump. The main fissure in the Democratic Party, between those seeking a centrist approach and those doubling down on progressive objectives, is already clear. Amid this contest of ideas, I hope the party remains focused on the larger shared aims of defending the country’s political institutions, healing the country’s divisions, and reassuring international allies.
Americans on both sides of the aisle are increasingly questioning the value of U.S. engagement in the world. Democrats would therefore be wise to seek opportunities to make the case for some of the pillars of what was once the bipartisan foundation of U.S. foreign policy. Through hearings, trips abroad, and public speeches both in Washington and their districts, Democrats need to make the case for alliances, democracy promotion, and human rights. Americans need to see and hear concrete examples of how support for those three pillars make the country safer and serve U.S. interests and values. Furthermore, Democrats need to argue that only by strengthening all elements of U.S. power—including diplomatic, economic, and military—can U.S. leadership be restored.
The Democrats should waste no time in using the diverse and fresh faces of the new House of Representatives to show U.S. allies that change is coming. With the departure of Mattis and a small band of Atlanticists, there are not many in the Trump administration left who see allies as anything more than competitors. Democrats should send a planeload of new House members to attend the Munich Security Conference in February, not only to present a Democratic vision for a new deal with Europe but also to show in person that a young and energetic political force is gathering speed that will restore U.S. leadership in the trans-Atlantic community. With the new House of Representatives, we can begin to recapture the high ground: a U.S. foreign policy that reflects the best the country has to offer and restores a version of U.S. leadership to be proud of.
Democratic Rep. Adam Smith is the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and is uniquely placed to reimpose nuclear and budgetary sanity on the Trump administration. The growing recognition within the Democratic caucus that Trump is running headlong into a costly, dangerous, and unnecessary nuclear arms race with Russia should lead to a congressional rejection of new nuclear weapons, including Trump’s request for more usable low-yield weapons for U.S. submarines. At the same time, Democrats need to put pressure on Trump to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which is clearly in National Security Advisor John Bolton’s sights, but do so without accepting a trade that requires the support all of Trump’s misguided and risky nuclear spending.
Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013.
Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He is currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
Evelyn N. Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015.
Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.
Kelly Magsamen served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2017.
Jeffrey Prescott served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf states on the National Security Council. He joined the Barack Obama administration in 2010 as a White House fellow and was Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor.
Elizabeth Rosenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2013, she served as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She served in the Obama administration as the deputy assistant secretary of state for southern Europe and eastern Mediterranean affairs, as well as senior advisor to the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf region.
Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin. She served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. She is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO.
Jon Wolfsthal is director of the Nuclear Crisis Group. He was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation.