North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks with U.S. President Donald Trump during a break in their historic summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
This month, the president of the United States will meet for a second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Either the path toward peace for 75 million Koreans will advance, or it will reverse into recriminations and nuclear threats. In the coming months, too, the president may act on his desire to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from ill-conceived, open-ended missions in Syria and Afghanistan—or he will continue to keep them in harm’s way, with no strategy for victory in sight.
If the president taking these actions were not Trump, many of his domestic detractors would likely welcome progress toward diplomacy and peace. Yet over the past six months, politicians and experts have repeatedly done the opposite: They have urged this most impulsive and unprincipled of presidents to undertake more international conflict, not less. In the few instances in which Trump has sought to de-escalate violence, he has drawn howls from the national security establishment, including Democratic Party leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, dubbed the Syria pullout a “Christmas present to Vladimir Putin.” Now a majority of Senate Democrats have voted to oppose a “precipitous withdrawal” from Syria and Afghanistan.
The gambit to out-hawk Trump is a dangerous one. It may have already influenced the administration to slow its departure from Syria and withhold peace-building measures from North Korea. And it threatens to turn the Democratic Party into a party of war. As progressives seek to develop a new foreign policy, they should reject the party’s drift toward belligerence and rescue diplomacy from Trump and the Democratic establishment alike.
Beginning with the initial Singapore summit with North Korea in June 2018, and continuing after Trump declared in December that he would pull 2,000 U.S. ground troops out of Syria, Trump’s critics have converged around one line of attack: that the president formulated and executed his decisions through a flawed policy process. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer scorned the Singapore summit as “little more than a handshake and a photo-op.”
“There is no process, and no progress,” as Van Jackson, a former Defense Department official under President Barack Obama, summed up, in arguing that the next summit with Kim may make things worse. Likewise, after Trump’s Syria announcement, an analyst with the liberal Center for American Progress blasted the decision as a “huge mistake.” Trump, he wrote, “has thrown off the experts, and hundreds or thousands of people will die because of his pique & ill-discipline.”
Such criticisms have merit, of course. Sound process makes for sound policy, and chaos is Trump’s hallmark. But to the extent Trump is an impulsive, unprincipled president, shouldn’t we prefer him to make peace rather than war? If there are risks in Trump withdrawing troops hastily, are the risks not greater if Trump commands troops in battle indefinitely?
Trump cannot be trusted to devise an effective, limited military strategy in Syria or most anyplace else. Nor can his administration, now dominated by neoconservative-leaning National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. By opposing Trump’s withdrawals on procedural grounds, members of the so-called resistance are in effect demanding that this inept commander in chief send and keep troops almost anywhere in the world to fight, die, and kill. Such a position is anti-Trump only in the most superficial sense of opposing Trump’s latest preference.
If the administration deserves denunciation—and it does—then responsibility rests first and foremost with Bolton, whose job it is to run the policy process. Bolton has consistently attempted to stymie Trump’s diplomatic overtures. First, he made incendiary comments toward North Korea that nearly scuttled the Singapore summit, forcing Trump to marginalize him. Then he appears to have neglected to develop plans to withdraw ground troops from Syria, even after the president publicly repeated, for months, his wish to pull out. Process mavens should demand that Bolton be held accountable. Yet only a few anti-war voices have done so. To the contrary, in recent weeks, Bolton has emerged as the savior of the national security establishment, honoring its demand to slow the Syria withdrawal and perhaps reverse it altogether.
As far as process is concerned, the most serious response to Trump’s failings should be clear: urge Congress to reclaim its authority to make and oversee foreign policy. Fortunately, Congress is beginning to stir thanks to a handful of vocal progressives, such as Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy in the Senate and Ro Khanna in the House, among others, who have spearheaded a resolution to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The measure passed the Senate in December over the objection of the Trump administration. Once it passes the House, it will mark the first time Congress has invoked the 1973 War Powers Act in order to remove U.S. forces from hostilities abroad. Measures such as this offer a real alternative to Trump’s recklessness. They also lay the groundwork for restraining the imperial presidency in the future—which is exactly why the establishment prefers empty shrieks to meaningful action.
Indeed, behind the shallow procedural concerns expressed by leading Democrats are substantive positions at odds with the objective of peace and the methods of diplomacy. Both before and after the Singapore summit, Schumer led Senate Democrats in insisting that the United States demand the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. “Nothing less,” Schumer declared, was necessary in order for diplomacy to be a success, even as he welcomed the turn from threats to negotiations. Schumer’s position ironically echoed the Trump administration’s main line prior to the summit.
But Trump was wrong then, and Schumer is wrong now. Experts nearly all agree that North Korea will not, for the foreseeable future, relinquish its entire nuclear weapons capability, which provides the regime with its surest guarantee of survival against forces that have recently threatened it with “fire and fury.” Insisting on total denuclearization would doom diplomacy, plunging the parties back to a nuclear standoff.
As John Carl Baker of Ploughshares Fund has written, the way forward is to offer gradual sanctions relief in return for nuclear freezes and arms reductions by North Korea, accompanied by negotiations to declare an end to the Korean War and normalize relations. But one has to wonder whether Democratic leaders even wish to establish lasting peace and normal diplomacy in Korea. After the Singapore summit, they not only demanded one-sided disarmament but also lambasted Trump’s decision to halt joint military exercises with South Korea and the mere suggestion that U.S. troops might one day leave the peninsula. Whether in effect or in intent, these positions serve to perpetuate a divided, hostile Korea over the cause of peace for 75 million Koreans, not to mention thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed there.
In December, Democrats performed similarly after Trump declared his intention to withdraw all U.S. ground forces from Syria and some from Afghanistan. To their credit, several progressives in Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, expressed support for the objective of withdrawal, and some former Obama officials argued that ending endless wars should be the paramount consideration. Again, however, party leaders often impugned the very goal of exiting Syria or Afghanistan anytime soon. Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, cast Trump’s decision as a threat to U.S. national security. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, dismissed the withdrawal plan as “impulsive, irresponsible, and dangerous” for ceding ground to Iran, Syria, Russia, and the Islamic State.
If the U.S. military cannot leave a war without guaranteeing that unfriendly actors will have no influence thereafter, the United States will never leave a war (at least not unless it has brutally decimated all opposition). Democrats’ reactions exposed their strategic witlessness in addition to their hawkishness. Now that it controls two-thirds of the country, the Syrian government is not going anywhere, and a few thousand U.S. troops have hardly sufficed to deter Iran or Russia. By the logic of leading Democrats, the United States (led by Trump) must either embark on a dramatic military escalation in Syria or else pursue a feckless policy of tasking a small number of troops with absurdly ambitious goals.
These episodes reveal how deeply some Democrats have imbibed the militarism that has produced decades of forever-and-everywhere war. Not only do many Democrats favor continued war and hostility to no end, but they fetishize military force as the true measure of U.S. engagement in the world.
Only the announced pullout of 2,000 ground troops caused torrents of outrage that America was “abandoning Syria” and prompted Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign. By contrast, when the Trump administration exited multilateral peace negotiations in early 2017 aimed at reaching a settlement in the Syrian civil war, no one resigned. Nobody threw a fit on TV. In fact, politicians and commentators took little notice of Washington’s abandonment of diplomacy, even though this was the move that arguably diminished U.S. influence the most, allowing U.N.-backed talks in Geneva to morph into the Astana process driven by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
According to the militarized mentality that prevails in Washington, however, armed force is the test of diplomatic seriousness—whereas actual diplomacy counts scarcely at all. What, then, explains the alarm about Trump’s intention to withdraw some troops from the Middle East and pursue cooperation, so far, with North Korea? It is not that these measures threaten U.S. security. Rather, they threaten to demonstrate that security can be advanced, and conflicts resolved, without the United States and its military standing at the center of everything.
In Syria, Kurdish fighters, whom U.S. ground troops are protecting, are now exploring an arrangement with the Syrian government to defend them against Turkey. In Afghanistan, negotiations have produced a tentative agreement by which the Taliban would deny safe haven to terrorists and U.S. troops would leave. And in North Korea, Americans’ fixation on Trump has obscured the fact that all along South Korea, under President Moon Jae-in, has been the primary agent in pursuing reconciliation with the North. Millions of Koreans are ecstatic, but unless the United States begins to ease sanctions in return for arms control measures, it may obstruct further progress.
When others take the initiative to reduce conflict and fulfill U.S. objectives, Democrats should welcome them. That Democrats have done the opposite suggests that more than reflexive anti-Trump partisanship is at work. Much like Trump, mainstream Democrats fear a world in which the United States does not act as the supreme, domineering power.
Democratic hawkishness has consequences. By accusing Trump of caving to North Korea merely for meeting with its leader, Democratic leaders have made it more difficult for the administration to take diplomatic steps such as signing a peace treaty. After the furor over the Syria withdrawal, Bolton has regained control over the policy, leaving a withdrawal in some jeopardy. Equally ominous, Democratic voters are responding to the cues of their party leaders. Most now oppose a withdrawal from Syria, after favoring it before Trump’s decision. And they are almost evenly divided on drawing down troops in Afghanistan, after strongly supporting a full withdrawal under Obama.
All is not lost. Democratic voters are simply taking the position they associate with opposing Trump. The problem is that party leaders and intellectuals are opposing Trump in the wrong way. Mistaking him for an across-the-board noninterventionist, they should condemn his militarism instead—his gratuitous military budget increases, his violent escalations in the Middle East and Africa, his pointless arms race with Russia, and his draconian sanctions on Iran and North Korea. On foreign policy, the best way to oppose Trump is to oppose war. And it is the only way to build a better foreign policy after Trump.
Analysis from Foreign Policy