Still Waiting: 2020 Fever and the Quest for a Progressive Foreign Policy

The 2020 election will not turn on global issues – and more’s the pity. After all, thanks to decades upon decades of accumulating executive power in an increasingly imperial presidency, it is in foreign affairs that the commander-in-chief possesses near dictatorial power. Conversely, in domestic policy, a hostile Congress can – just ask Barry Obama – effectively block most of a president’s agenda.

Still, the vast majority of Americans don’t give a hoot about issues of war, peace, and international diplomacy. Why should they care? It’s not as though anything is asked of them as citizens. By cynically ditching the draft, Tricky Dick Nixon took the wind out of the sails of current and future antiwar movements, and permanently cleaved a gap between the U.S. people and their military. Mothers no longer lose sleep over their teenage sons serving their country and they – along with the rest of the family – quit caring about foreign policy. Such it is, and so it will be, that the 2020 presidential election is likely to be decided by "kitchen-table" affairs like healthcare, immigration, race, and taxes.

Be that as it may, serious observers should pay plenty of attention to international strategy. First, because the occupant of the Oval Office makes policy almost unilaterally – including the decision of whether or not to end the human race with America’s suicidal nuclear button. Second, because 2020 is likely to be another close contest, turning on the votes of a few hundred thousand swing state voters. As such, Trump’s opponent will need to win every vote on every issue – including foreign affairs. What’s more, there are still some folks who genuinely care about a potential commander-in-chief’s international bonafides. So, while Dems can’t win the White House with foreign policy alone, they can lose it by ignoring these issues or – oh so typically – presenting a muddled overseas strategy.

This is serious. Just in case there are any out there still underestimating Trump – I, for one, predict he’ll win in 2020 – make no mistake, he’s no pushover on foreign policy. Sure he doesn’t know much – but neither does the average voter. Nonetheless, Trump is no dope. He’s got the pulse of (white) voters across this country and senses that the populace is tired of spending blood and cash (but mostly its cash) on Mideast forever wars. In 2016, he (correctly) made Hillary"regime change" Clinton out to be the true hawk in the race. Trump, on the other hand, combined tough guy bravado (he’d “bomb the shit” out of ISIS) with earthy good sense (there’d be no more “stupid” Iraq invasions. And it worked.

So, with 2020 in mind, whether you’re a progressive, a libertarian, or just a Trump-hater, its vital that the opposition (most likely the Dems) nominate a candidate who can hang with Trump in foreign affairs. Mark my words: if the DNC – which apparently picks the party’s candidates – backs a conventional neoliberal foreign policy nominee, Trump will wipe the floor with him or her. And, if the Dems national security platform reads like a jumbled, jargon-filled sheet full of boring (like it usually does) than Joe the proverbial plumber is going to back The Donald.

That’s what has me worried. As one candidate after another enters an already crowded field, this author is left wondering whether any of them are commander-in-chief material. So far I see a huge crew (Liz, Kirsten, Kamala, Beto) that live and die by domestic policy; two potentially conventional foreign policy guys (Biden and Booker); and two other wildcards (Bernie and Tulsi). That’s not a comprehensive list, but you get the point. If they want to stand a chance in 2020, the Dems had better back a nominee with a clear, alternative progressive foreign policy or get one the domestic-focused candidates up to speed…and fast.

So here’s how my mental math works: a progressive candidate needs to win over libertarian-minded Republicans and Independents (think Rand Paul-types) by force of their commonsense alternative to Trump’s foreign policy. That means getting the troops out of the Mideast, pulling the plug from other mindless interventions and cutting runaway defense spending. Then, and only then, can the two sides begin arguing about what to do with the resultant cash surplus. That’s an argument for another day, sure, but here and now our imaginary Democratic (or Third Party?) nominee needs to end the wars and curtail the excesses of empire. I know many libertarians – some still nominally Republican – who could get behind that agenda pretty quickly!

Still, there’s more than a little reason for concern. Look at how "Nasty" Nancy Pelosi and the establishment Dems came down on Ilhan Omar for that representative’s essentially accurate tweets criticizing the Israel Lobby. Then there’s Joe Biden. Look, he’s definitely running. He’s also definitely been wrong time and again on foreign policy – like how he was for the Iraq War before he was against it (how’d that turn out for John Kerry in 2004?). And, for all the talk of a progressive "blue wave" in the party ranks, Biden still polls as the top choice for Democratic primary voters. Yikes.

Behind him, thankfully, is old Bernie – who sometimes shows potential in foreign affairs – the only candidate who has both backed Omar and been consistent in a career of generally antiwar votes. Still, Bernie won his household name with domestic policy one-liners – trashing Wall Street and pushing populist economic tropes. Whether he can transform into a more balanced candidate, one that can confidently compose and deliver a strong alternative foreign policy remains to be seen. Tulsi Gabbard, though she still looks the long shot, remains intriguing given here genuine antiwar (and combat veteran) credentials. Still, she’ll have her hands full overcoming problematic skeletons in her own closet: ties to Indian Hindu nationalists, opposition to the Iran deal, and sometime backing of authoritarians and Islamophobes. Then again, even Bernie has his foreign affairs flaws – such as reflexively denouncing the BDS movement and occasionally calling for regime change in Syria. Nevertheless, both Bernie and Tulsi demonstrate that there’s some promise for fresh opposition foreign policy.

Here’s (some) of what that would look like: speedily withdraw all U.S. troops from the (at least) seven shooting wars in the Greater Middle East; choke off excessive arms deals and expensive military handouts to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other frenemies; quit bombing or enabling the bombing of impoverished civilians in places like Yemen and Gaza; begin dismantling America’s “empire of bases” overseas; seek firm détente rather than conflict with Russia and China; and cut defense and war-related spending down to size. Our imaginary candidate would need to convey this commonsense course to a war-weary American people as plainly and coherently as Trump can. No jargon, no Clintonian wonky crap – simple and to the point. Imagine it: a commonsense course for a clear-eyed country!

Less war and more investment at home. Less war and more middle-class tax cuts. Whatever. That fight will come and the progressives and independents/libertarians will fight it out. For now, though, what’s essential is checking the war machine and military-industrial behemoth before its too late (it may be already!).

None of this will be easy or likely, of course. But count on this much: the establishment Democrats, media-mogul "left," and centrist DC think tanks won’t save us from the imperial monster or deliver a Trump-defeating strategy in foreign affairs. The Mueller-will-save-us, Mattis-was-a-hero, reflexively anti-Trump, born-again hawks like Rachel Maddow and the other disappointing chumps at MSNBC or CNN aren’t on our side. Worse yet, they’re born losers when it comes to delivering elections.

All of this may be far-fetched, but is not impossible. Neither libertarians nor progressives can countenance Trump. Nor should they. One of their only true hopes for compromise rest on foreign policy and a genuine antiwar message. It can be done.

Look, on a personal note, even America’s beloved and over-adulated soldiers are reachable on this issue – that’s how you know the foreign policy alliance has potential! For every rah-rah war-fever cheerleader in uniform, there’s an exhausted foot soldier on his Nth tour in the Mideast. There’s also a huge chunk (40%!) who are racial minorities – usually a reliably anti-Trump demographic. Finally, among the white men and women in uniform I’ve personally met a solid core of libertarians. And the data backs up my anecdotal observation – Ron Paul was highly popular among active-duty military members and their families. A progressive foreign policy alliance with the libertarian wing of Republicans and Independents would sell better with these such voters both in and out of uniform. You know the type: sick of war but just as sick of stereotypical liberal snowflakes.

So here’s a plea to the "opposition" such at it is: avoid the usual mistakes – don’t cede foreign affairs to the Trump and the Republicans; don’t nominate anyone remotely resembling Joe Biden; don’t alienate libertarians and independents with wonky or muddled international policy.

Try something new. Like winning…

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen