The 2016 presidential election has been a dispiriting one for Americans interested in a having a more restrained and responsible foreign policy. The Republican field was overflowing with hawkish candidates, and Hillary Clinton arguably has the most aggressive foreign policy of any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, offers the public a jumbled, incoherent mix of nationalist bluster, support for torture, yet an apparent wariness of new wars, combined with a shaky grasp of international affairs. A Clinton win will ensure at least another four years of the failed conventional Washington consensus, and no one really knows what a Trump administration would do overseas. That’s the bad news.
The good news this year is that the election may bring a few important changes to the make-up of the Senate that could have a salutary effect on the quality and direction of our foreign-policy debates. Several high-profile hawkish members of the Senate face difficult re-election fights this fall or are not seeking re-election. Their possible replacements promise to be a significant improvement, at least when it comes to opposing new wars and supporting diplomatic engagement with rivals and troublesome states.
In Illinois and Wisconsin, incumbents Mark Kirk and Ron Johnson are generally considered the two most vulnerable senators running for re-election this year. Both are first-term senators elected in the Republican wave six years ago, and both have been consistently trailing behind their respective challengers, Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former Sen. Russ Feingold. Kirk and Johnson have been struggling with abysmal approval ratings below 40 percent, and they look likely to be defeated in November. The outcomes of these two elections could represent the biggest shift on foreign policy that we see this year, and in each case it would mean replacing aggressive hard-liners with committed critics of the Iraq War and the foreign policy it represents.
Kirk has been a vocal Iran hawk, and over the last few years he repeatedly compared the negotiations over the nuclear deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich conference. Once the deal was done, he denounced it as being even worse than Munich, going so far as to say that “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman got out of Iran.” Kirk’s hawkishness hasn’t been limited to Iran, however. As a member of the House, he voted for the 2002 Iraq War authorization and backed the war to the hilt in all later votes. In 2013, he supported attacking Syria, and he backed the intervention in Libya in 2011.
The contrast with his opponent could hardly be greater. Tammy Duckworth is a veteran of the war Kirk voted to authorize. She was a helicopter pilot who lost both her legs after being shot down in Iraq. After she returned home, she became a vocal opponent of the war, and she came close to winning her first House race in 2006 by running on a primarily antiwar platform. Elected to her current House seat in 2012, she has since backed the nuclear deal with Iran, voted against arming Syrian rebels, and opposed the Obama administration’s proposed bombing of Syria in 2013.
Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson has also been a reliably hawkish member of the Senate for the last six years. Even though he had not yet taken his seat in late 2010, he joined other newly elected senators to mount a protest to delay—and effectively prevent—ratification of the new arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Like Kirk, he has been a vehement critic of the nuclear deal with Tehran, wrongly saying in a 2015 NPR interview that “we basically capitulated and gave Iran everything they wanted.” On Syria, Johnson voted in committee against authorizing intervention in 2013 but said that he did so because the vote was being “rushed.” He also said that he believed that the president had the authority to attack Syria without additional congressional authorization. Johnson has also voiced support for a ground invasion against ISIS and sponsored a resolution calling for sending weapons to Ukraine.
His opponent, Russ Feingold, was one of the more consistent Senate critics of U.S. foreign-policy adventurism and the overreaching security state before Johnson defeated him in 2010. Feingold was an opponent of the Iraq War from the start, pushed for withdrawal early on, and opposed the 2007 “surge.” He also sharply criticized the Bush administration over warrantless wiretapping, and he was the lone senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act in 2001. Today Feingold supports the nuclear deal with Iran and opposes Johnson’s idea of an American-led ground war against ISIS. During his last tenure in the Senate, Feingold established himself as one of the leading Democratic critics of Bush-era foreign policy, and if elected he seems very likely to be an outspoken voice in future foreign-policy debates.
The New Hampshire Senate race might also see the defeat of one of the chamber’s more hawkish members. Sen. Kelly Ayotte has become a reliable ally of John McCain and Lindsey Graham since her election in 2010. Like other members of her party in the Senate, Ayotte is a firm opponent of the nuclear deal, and like McCain and Graham she backed the Libyan war, supported arming Syrian rebels, and chastised Obama for not doing even more in Syria. On practically every issue, Ayotte has aligned herself with the most aggressive members of the Senate, and that doesn’t seem to have helped her at home. As of early June, she was tied in the polls with Gov. Maggie Hassan, and her approval rating in early 2016 was an underwhelming 42 percent. The New Hampshire race is considered a toss-up, but in a presidential year Ayotte will have a hard time winning in a purple state.
Marco Rubio’s decision not to seek re-election in Florida means that one of the most active and aggressive hawks now in the Senate won’t be there in the future. No matter who replaces him, Florida will be represented by a less ideological and confrontational senator on these issues. There have been some attempts by high-ranking Republicans, and even by Donald Trump, to encourage Rubio to change his mind about the Senate race after he suspended his presidential campaign, but he has insisted that he isn’t going to jump into the race now that his friend Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is running. Assuming that Rubio follows through on that, he will be out of the Senate come January.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, faces a difficult race for re-election and may not even be able to secure re-nomination. He faces a fairly strong primary challenge from former state senator Kelli Ward, who has criticized McCain for his reflexive interventionism, among other things. McCain has been leading his Democratic opponent, Ann Kirkpatrick, by just a couple of points in several polls, and he has been consistently receiving less than 50 percent support in every poll so far. McCain has withstood primary challenges before, but his support among Republicans has rarely been weaker than it is this year. Arizona is usually a safe Republican seat, but McCain may have finally worn out his welcome now that he is running for his sixth term in office. There is a small but real possibility that the loudest and most consistently wrong hawkish senator of all might be out of office in 2017, and it seems fair to assume that almost any replacement would be an improvement over McCain in matters of war and peace.
These Senate hawks may not be at risk of losing solely or even primarily because of their foreign-policy views, but those views are indeed a liability that the party still has yet to recognize. This reflects the extent to which the Republican Party elite remains out of touch with what most Americans—including many Republicans—want from their government. A May 2016 Pew survey found that a 44 percent plurality of Republicans thinks the U.S. does too much overseas, and Trump and Cruz supporters were even more likely to hold that view. Large numbers of Republican primary voters have been open to moving away from bankrupt Bush-era foreign policy, but they are in great need of better candidates. Despite the apparent preference of a large bloc of Republican voters for a less activist and meddlesome foreign policy, the party continues to recruit and promote candidates who want just the opposite.
The GOP’s foreign-policy agenda hasn’t been popular with most Americans outside the party for years, and it is no longer appealing to roughly half of Republicans nationally. At some point, the party will have to abandon the ruinous approach to world affairs that has cost the country so much over the last decade because most of its own voters will grow tired of it. Until then, hawkish foreign policy will continue to be an anchor dragging down Republican candidates across the country.
If these incumbent senators lose all or most of their races, advocates for more aggressive U.S. policies will lose several of their most reliable allies in Congress, and supporters of a more restrained foreign policy may gain at least a couple friends of their own. If all of them lose, it is likely that Republicans will forfeit control of the Senate. That will be another significant political defeat for aggressive, confrontational foreign policy in a national election. Unfortunately, like other repudiations in 2006 and 2008, the GOP may be determined not to learn anything from it.
The election of a few much less hawkish senators won’t produce dramatic or immediate changes in our foreign policy, where presidential power remains largely unchecked, but it will add numbers to the small but growing group of critics of aggressive and reckless interventionism. That group already includes senators such as Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have been working together this year to try to impose tougher conditions on the provision of weapons to Saudi Arabia, in response to the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Meanwhile, the departure of such vocal hawks as Kirk and Rubio (and possibly McCain) will mean that there are fewer members constantly agitating for joining new conflicts and against fresh diplomatic initiatives. As some of these hawks have shown over the years, a few senators committed to driving our foreign-policy debates in a certain direction can have an outsized effect on how these issues are perceived.
The 2016 election isn’t likely to give us a more restrained and responsible president, but it does promise to leave us with a Senate that is somewhat less receptive to hawkish arguments than the current one. That may not be enough to halt the next unnecessary war, but it should make it more difficult for the next president to start one. The U.S. is still a long way from having the restrained foreign policy that it should have, but if these hawkish senators go down in the fall, the country will be that much closer to having it.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor for The American Conservative.