Trump’s foreign policy has taken a turn, and the GOP doesn’t have a good answer
For the second time in one month, President Trump has made a foreign policy move that much of his party regards as unthinkable. And for the second time in one month, it’s not clear Republicans know what to do about it.
After scheduling and then canceling negotiations with the Taliban at Camp David — just shy of the 9/11 anniversary, no less — the White House announced Sunday night that the United States will leave northern Syria and apparently allow Turkey to invade.
Opponents of the move, which are legion, regard it as an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies, with whom the United States fought in northern Syria against the Islamic State for years. Turkey regards the Kurds as terrorists and is thought to have as much or more interest in targeting them as it does in continuing the fight against the Islamic State.
Many high-profile Republicans spoke out Monday, and while some didn’t mention Trump directly, many rebuked him in no uncertain terms.
Regular Trump critic Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called it “a betrayal” of the Kurds.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said the decision would probably lead to a “slaughter.”
“If the President sticks with this retreat, he needs to know that this bad decision will likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children,” Sasse said.
But while Romney, Sasse and others have criticized Trump on many occasions, some top allies spoke out, too.
Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, called it a “catastrophic mistake that puts our gains against ISIS at risk and threatens America’s national security.” Cheney referred to the Islamic State by its familiar abbreviation.
“Terrorists thousands of miles away can and will launch attacks against America, as the United States learned on September 11, 2001,” Cheney said. “Pulling out of northern Syria ignores that painful lesson, represents an abandonment of our Kurdish allies despite their vital contributions to the fight against ISIS, emboldens Iran, and serves as an undeserved gift to the [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] regime, which has only continued its steady march toward Moscow.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said it would “be DISGRACEFUL if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do.”
Even former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who picks her spots carefully when criticizing Trump, said the decision was tantamount to “leaving [the Kurds] to die.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”
Trump’s most striking critic, though, was one of his most loyal allies. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) unleashed an extensive tweetstorm featuring dire predictions, including the revitalization of the Islamic State. He called the whole thing “a disaster in the making.”
The situation recalls what happened a month ago, when Trump tweeted out of the blue that he had canceled a previously unknown summit with the Taliban at Camp David. While Republicans praised him for canceling it, they didn’t seem to know what to do with the fact that he had scheduled it in the first place — given the almost unthinkable optics of it all.
Tensions soon boiled to the surface, with some of Trump’s more hawkish GOP supporters apparently worried that he was headed toward a policy of appeasement and non-interventionism. Graham began directly criticizing Trump for emboldening Iran with his nonresponse to a U.S. drone being shot down there. Cheney then found herself feuding with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over whose noninterventionist foreign policy vision was more akin to Trump’s — a remarkable metaphor for the GOP’s foreign policy crossroads, with a Cheney scion arguing with a Paul scion.
And if Sunday’s developments were any indication, the Paul wing of the party appears to be gaining the upper hand. In some ways, we’re now having the debate we could have had over the new year, when top Trump administration officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned over Trump’s announced complete withdrawal from Syria. Trump eventually decided to keep some forces in the country, forestalling what we’re seeing today.
But now, that trajectory appears to have taken hold. The question from there is what the other side of the party — which accounts for the vast majority of top GOP policymakers and is united in many ways with congressional Democrats — is going to do about it.
To this point, they have passed resolutions of disapproval, such as when Trump declined to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the death of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But those resolutions weren’t binding. They have also voted to end U.S. involvement in the Saudis’ proxy war in Yemen, but there were limited GOP defections on that one, and Trump was able to veto it.
Graham has floated legislation including a resolution opposing the Syria decision, and he said he’s in talks with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) about bipartisan legislation to punish Turkey if it overreaches.
“We will introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if they invade Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces who assisted the U.S. in the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate,” Graham said.
Romney issued a joint statement with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), with whom he leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s counterterrorism subcommittee, saying administration officials must come to Capitol Hill and explain themselves.
For now, they seem to be hoping for a quick reversal; McConnell said in his statement, “I urge the President to exercise American leadership.” Short of that, though, Trump’s Senate critics on this have the option to show some of their own leadership, if they are willing to do so. One way to halt such an allegedly disastrous decision would be for Republicans to reclaim some of the powers they have handed to the presidency when it comes to the war on terrorism. Congress could mandate that the administration take steps to protect the Kurds, for instance, or it could pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) laying out exactly what decisions are the commander in chief’s to make in Syria.
That would be a stunning step, but these Republicans are talking in no uncertain terms about this leading to a “slaughter” of U.S. allies and rekindling the most serious foreign terrorist threat the United States faces. If those are the stakes, how could you not go that far because of uneasy domestic intraparty politics? Negotiating with the Taliban or taking too soft of an approach to Iran is one thing; saying something endangers the U.S. homeland and then not really doing anything about it would be a remarkable capitulation.
They also have to worry about the direction in which all of these data points are increasingly pointing. Republicans have treated Trump with kid gloves on these issues, and he seems only to have been emboldened to go in the opposite direction. What happens next is an important moment in the evolution of American foreign policy. Thus far, Republicans clearly haven’t made much impact through tough words and nonbinding resolutions.