Partisan foreign policy extremists are draining respect for US leadership
Storm clouds are gathering around the world. In Europe, Asia and the Middle East, tyrants and terrorists are on the march, while the country most able to stand up to them — the United States — is rancorously disunited.
Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre of 1,200 Israelis was a harrowing display of barbarism cracking through civilization’s fragile veneer. In Europe, Russian “dictator” Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his criminal war to compel Ukraine’s subservience to Moscow.
China under Xi Jinping has traded its reassuring “peaceful rise” mantra for a new posture of despotic jingoism. He’s quashing internal dissent, “re-educating” Uyghurs in concentration camps, bullying China’s neighbors in the South China Sea and rattling missiles at Taiwan and the United States.
Most ominously, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea seem to be forming a new pact of totalitarian states dedicated to making the world safe for dictators. What unites them is mutual hostility to a liberal international order that rejects their demands for a free hand in so-called spheres of influence and takes them to task for appalling human rights abuses.
In the early days of the Cold War, arguably the last time the United States faced external threats of similar magnitude, many embraced the patriotic maxim that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” That didn’t always hold true, but both parties helped to forge a broad public consensus behind deterring Soviet aggression and containing communism.
It’s hard to imagine such internal cohesion today. Not only are Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads but both are torn internally by pernicious ideas imported from the ideological fringes. Our major parties can’t unify themselves, much less rally the country to confront new dangers.
Donald Trump has fractured Republicans by reviving the “America First” doctrine espoused by isolationists and German sympathizers in the 1930s. On the other side are Reagan Republicans who still believe U.S. international leadership is integral to safeguarding our security and values.
What Trump and his followers mean by America First is an amoral and selfish diplomacy that rejects collective security, global trade rules and other allegedly “globalist” commitments that supposedly subordinate the U.S. to foreign interests.
The concept of enlightened self-interest that has underpinned U.S. global leadership for seven decades means nothing to Trump. He sees everything — business, politics, national interest — through a zero-sum lens. But in today’s interconnected and multipolar world, a go-it-alone national strategy is even less plausible than it was nearly a century ago.
Ukraine is the flashpoint of GOP disunity. Trump’s Freedom Caucus acolytes don’t care what happens there and want to divert Ukraine aid to the southern border. Other “firsters” argue that Washington should switch focus from a declining Russia to a rising China.
Strategically speaking, that’s a false choice. It’s also sweet music to Putin’s ears. About the only thing that could extricate him from his Ukraine quagmire is Trump’s return to the White House.
Throwing millions of Ukrainians, 43 million in 2021, to Moscow’s wolves would be a rank betrayal that also damages vital U.S. interests. Besides feeding Putin’s neo-imperial appetites, it would demoralize and possibly splinter our European allies and consign NATO back to irrelevance.
On the other hand, thwarting Russian aggression in Ukraine would make Beijing think again about the value of its “no limits” partnership with Putin and its ability to score an easy knock-out in Taiwan.
If Trump-supporting Republicans are becoming apologists for Putin, Democrats are finding apologists for Palestinian terrorism on their left flank.
After Hamas’s sadistic rampage, most Democrats, including President Biden, sided instinctively with our traumatized ally. On college campuses, however, morally muddled young protestors have called the genocidal assault a legitimate response to Israeli “occupation.”
In fact, Team Biden has worked assiduously to minimize civilian casualties, but that is easier said than done in densely populated Gaza, where Hamas cynically uses civilians as human shields.
Americans should insist that Israel act within a just war framework that rules out indiscriminate use of force. But it’s not our place to demand a ceasefire that leaves Hamas free to keep murdering Israeli civilians.
Young activists agitating for “justice for Palestinians” lose all credibility by glossing over an incontrovertible fact: For Hamas, “justice” means Israel’s extinction.
Most Americans get this. In a poll taken after the Oct. 7 attacks, voters sided overwhelmingly (84-16) with Israel over Hamas. Among voters aged 18-25, however, that margin shrank dramatically to 52-48.
This rift poses a political dilemma for Democrats. Young activists who despise Israel threaten to sit out next year’s election. But it’s better for Democrats to lose them than to lose the country by abandoning America’s historical commitment to Israel to appease terrorists.
For decades, U.S. liberals and college leaders have failed to confront a virulent antisemitism incubating on U.S. campuses. It’s past time for them to emphatically repudiate the juvenile mishmash of bad history and intersectional cliches that brands Israelis as a “settler colonial project” subjecting saintly Palestinian victims to a racist system of “apartheid.”
Heading into a crucial national election, Democrats must take an unequivocal stand against Hamas and the use of terrorism to advance political goals. If Trump loses next year, Republicans should seize the opportunity to toss America First back into the dustbin of historically discredited ideas.
After all, America First failed our country catastrophically in the run-up to World War II. It makes no more sense today to isolate ourselves from our democratic friends and allies today.
A world stalked by terrorists and bellicose autocrats needs strong U.S. leadership more than ever. Before they can supply it, our major parties must break with apologists for both evils within their ranks.
Will Marshall is the founder and president of the Progressive Policy Institute.