Will Democrats Go Full Hawk?
“It is right to get our troops out of Syria,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told Rachel Maddow in early January. That a progressive Democrat would say this to a liberal television host shouldn’t be remarkable.
In 2019, it is.
When President Donald Trump announced in December that he wanted an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, there was more silence and opposition from the Left than approval. The 2016 election’s highest-profile progressive, Senator Bernie Sanders, said virtually nothing at the time. The 2018 midterm election’s Left celeb, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, kept mum too. The 2004 liberal hero, Howard Dean, came out against troop withdrawals, saying they would damage women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The liberal news outlet on which Warren made her statement, MSNBC, which had already been sounding more like Fox News circa 2003, warned that withdrawal from Syria could hurt national security. The left-leaning news channel has even made common cause with Bill Kristol and other neoconservatives in its shared opposition to all things Trump.
Maddow herself has not only vocally opposed the president’s decision, but has become arguably more popular than ever with liberal viewers by peddling wild-eyed anti-Trump conspiracy theories worthy of Alex Jones. Reacting to one of her cockamamie theories, progressive journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted, “She is Glenn Beck standing at the chalkboard. Liberals celebrate her (relatively) high ratings as proof that she’s right, but Beck himself proved that nothing produces higher cable ratings than feeding deranged partisans unhinged conspiracy theories that flatter their beliefs.”
The Trump derangement that has so enveloped the Left on everything, including foreign policy, is precisely what makes Democratic presidential candidate Warren’s Syria withdrawal position so noteworthy. One can safely assume that Sanders, O’Rourke, Dean, MSNBC, Maddow, and many of their fellow progressive travelers’ silence on or resistance to troop withdrawal is simply them gauging what their liberal audiences currently want or will accept. Warren could have easily gone either way, succumbing to the emotive demands of the Never Trump mob. She instead opted to stick to the traditional progressive position on undeclared war, even if it meant siding with the president.
Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. A number of liberal Democrats backed Trump’s decision, some almost immediately. Consistent antiwar Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California tweeted, “I am glad Donald Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria. Congress never authorized the intervention.” Khanna took flack from Howard Dean for siding with the president.
Congressman and Air Force veteran Ted Lieu of Hawaii said Trump’s decision was “absolutely right” and that he was “pleased that this unauthorized and failed executive branch war in Syria will finally come to an end. Congress never authorized the U.S. to go to war there.” Lieu added, “It was wrong when the Obama Administration took part in unauthorized war actions in Syria without a strategy. It was wrong for the Trump Administration to continue it.” Apparently annoyed with progressives who opposed withdrawal, Lieu even tweeted (emphasis his), “Note to liberals who now support military force in Syria because of the Kurds or Russia or Iran or Turkey or humanitarian reasons: NONE OF THOSE WAR ACTIONS WERE AUTHORIZED BY CONGRESS.”
Among 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, both potential and announced, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York arguably gave Trump’s Syria decision the most robust endorsement, even saying he should go further. “I think we should be drawing down our troops, not only in Afghanistan but the remainder in Iraq and in Syria,” Gillibrand said on MSNBC. “Then give Congress the opportunity that if they believe we should be in combat missions in any of these countries that we actually file a new authorization for the military use of force.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii initially gave hesitant praise, but then followed with a more full-throated endorsement of Trump’s withdrawal decision. “The hysterical reaction to the decision to withdraw troops from Syria is astonishing & shows just how attached to war some are,” Gabbard tweeted. “Lindsey Graham & others want us to continue our regime change war in Syria and to go to war with Iran. That’s why they’re so upset.”
But there were just as many Democratic presidential contenders who went to bat for forever war. Senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris have all basically said Trump is reckless in hastily withdrawing from Syria and even Afghanistan, and were relatively quiet when the president made his original announcement in December. In February, as the 2020 primaries began to take shape, Booker and Harris voted against a Senate bill rebuking Trump’s withdrawal plans, while Klobuchar still voted against the president.
This was less of an open question for Democrats under President Barack Obama. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans (56 percent) and an even larger majority of Democrats (67 percent) believed it was time to bring home U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Former vice president Joe Biden, also a potential 2020 candidate, has said nothing about Trump’s withdrawal decision, but he is known for having even more hawkish impulses than his former boss regarding Syria. Biden’s foreign policy instincts are likely closer to fellow centrist and 2016 neocon favorite Hillary Clinton, who unsurprisingly denounced Trump’s decision as “putting our national security at grave risk.”
This progressive-centrist split on foreign policy is not unlike the gap seen among Republicans. Just as more conservative and libertarian elements with the Republican Party regularly stake out more antiwar positions than the enduringly hawkish establishment center, it is stauncher progressives like Warren and Gabbard who take traditional left-wing foreign policy stances while the mainstream Democratic establishment grows more hawkish under Trump.
This divide is easy to see in left-wing media.
Unlike MSNBC and Maddow, there were liberal journalists who supported the U.S. leaving Syria. “For Once, Trump isn’t Wrong,” declared The Nation’s James Carden. “In the end, the years-long US intervention in Syria was illegal under international law, unconstitutional, counterproductive, expensive, and damaging to US national-security interests in the region,” Carden wrote. “On this, Trump is right. His critics are wrong.”
“Withdrawing Troops from Syria is the Right Thing to Do—Even if Trump Does It,” insisted The Nation’s John Nichols. Targeting hawks of all stripes and particularly Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Nichols opined, “These guys want congressional oversight for the decision to withdraw troops from a conflict to which those troops were dispatched without the formal congressional authorization that is required by the Constitution?”
Progressive online outlet The Young Turks (TYT) took no prisoners in supporting Trump’s decision. “This is one of the rare situations where I agree with Donald Trump,” TYT host Ana Kasparian said, blasting CNN’s pro-war coverage of the president’s withdrawal decision as more opinion than hard news. TYT’s Cenk Uygur pondered what nefarious reasons might have motivated Trump to withdraw troops, but still concluded, “Having said that, I’m thrilled with the decision. So I don’t care if you call it a ‘loss’ or ‘win’ for Trump…I think we should withdraw from Syria…bottom line on the policy—fantastic, let’s get the hell out of there.”
TYT also took direct aim at MSNBC with a video titled “Trump’s Syria Move EXPOSES Media’s Pro-War Bias.” “In 99 out of 100 cases, I vehemently disagree with and despise the actions of President Trump, but this week he actually did a good thing,” said TYT’s Emma Vigeland in the clip, which showed former Republican strategist and current MSNBC host Nicole Wallace framing Trump’s decision as a boost to ISIS and Russia. That was “from MSNBC,” Vigeland mocked, “not a paragraph from Ann Coulter’s book, because hey—MSNBC viewers watch their programs to get vitriolic, substanceless, hysterical criticisms of Donald Trump, and by God, they’re gonna get it!”
A few veterans of the Bush-era antiwar movement Left also chimed in. Peace activist group Code Pink reacted to Trump’s decision with, “Interesting how liberals and folks on right gang up on Trump for doing something smart: pulling US troops out of Syria. While pundits don’t like it, polls show most Americans oppose US involvement in Middle East wars.” Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin tweeted, “MSNBC and CNN sound like Republican hawks under Obama. ‘How irresponsible to propose something other than endless war!’ they cry.” Progressive group Peace Action’s Paul Martin said, “The US should not have been in Syria without constitutional authorization by Congress.”
How this intra-party debate plays out in the Democratic primary and perhaps even the general election will be an important gauge of where the party stands on foreign policy. A Morning Consult/Politico poll from January showed that while a plurality of Americans supported the decision to withdraw from Syria, 59 percent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 opposed it, with 26 percent supporting. Compare this to a whopping 76 percent of Trump voters who support withdrawal. Only 14 percent oppose.
This is an astounding role reversal regarding the stance of both major parties on war and peace.
This is why prominent Democratic presidential contenders who are antiwar could be crucial in determining the direction of the party. It wouldn’t have been surprising if Elizabeth Warren had showed up on MSNBC to strike a hawkish tone to distinguish herself from Trump. According to more than one poll, the Democratic base is more in line right now with MSNBC and Maddow than old time antiwar progressives.
“Progressives should vigorously oppose efforts by discredited elites to resuscitate their reputations by savaging Trump when he scorns conventional wisdom,” warns Robert L. Borosage in The Nation, targeting MSNBC for trying to resuscitate Bush-era hawks. But will the Left vigorously oppose? MSNBC and Maddow are apparently too Trump deranged to see their own hypocrisy under this president. How many of today’s liberals, particularly the majority of Clinton voters who oppose Trump’s withdrawal, have their idea of what a good Democrat should believe formed by outlets like MSNBC?
Glenn Greenwald sees the same danger. “All of this has resulted in a new generation of Democrats, politically engaged for the first time as a result of fears over Trump, being inculcated with values of militarism and imperialism, trained to view once-discredited, war-loving neocons such as Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and David Frum, and former CIA and FBI leaders as noble experts and trusted voices of conscience,” Greenwald writes, citing recent polling data on Republicans’ and Democrats’ antiwar flip-flop. “It’s inevitable that all of these trends would produce a party that is increasingly pro-war and militaristic, and polling data now leaves little doubt that this transformation—which will endure long after Trump is gone—is well under way.”
Will this endure? A 2020 victory by a Democratic president who runs against Trump’s troop withdrawals could possibly lead to an even more hawkish party. If Trump is re-elected, a demoralized and increasingly pro-war MSNBC could go nuclear. Then again, a more progressive Democratic nominee could feasibly lead the party in a more antiwar direction, closer to what energized liberals a decade ago during Barack Obama’s ascent. A second-term President Trump could start listening to advisers John Bolton and Mike Pompeo more than Rand Paul, become even more hawkish, and drive the Left to become more dovish in pure partisan reaction.
There is one thing we can count on: the Left’s blind rage toward Trump isn’t going anywhere. That abiding hatred will continue to play an outsized and often illogical role in determining what most Democrats believe about foreign policy.