Before the tragic events in Charlottesville on August 12th, President Donald Trump had received a deserved amount of scrutiny for his heated rhetoric pertaining to the North Korean nuclear issue. This recent swing in media coverage is regrettable, given that Trump’s foreign policy statements and actions matter more, or should matter more, to Americans.
More Americans (not to mention foreign civilians) have been killed or wounded by American foreign policy interventionism since September 11, 2001, than by foreign-born terrorists, white nationalists, and hate crimes combined. Sadly, underplaying the consequences of war overseas may be a good thing these days, since over-exposure has often yielded perverse incentives for interventionism, to which Trump has shown himself quite susceptible.
The need for new political incentives that reinforce President Trump’s “America First” instincts has not been lost on his non-interventionist supporters. In an article for The American Conservative on June 26th, William Lind called for the creation of an “America First Caucus” to serve as a non-interventionist beachhead on Capitol Hill similar to how the “Military Reform Caucus” of the 1980s served as a congressional pressure point for effectiveness and efficiency in the defense budget. According to Lind, this caucus would provide support for the President when he took a non-interventionist course and criticize the President when he erred on the side of intervention. By adopting “America First” in its name, the caucus would insulate itself from neoconservative charges of being “weak” while simultaneously shielding itself (in theory at least) from criticism by the President.
So what would an America First Caucus on Capitol Hill look like? Unlike the “Military Reform Caucus” of the 1980s, which boasted a bipartisan membership of more than 130 at its height, Lind argues that an America First Caucus would need to be explicitly partisan (a “Republican anti-intervention caucus”) and confined to non-interventionist conservatives on the grounds that a bipartisan caucus would be impractical in the current political climate. Although he did not identify specific congressmen, Lind presumably had Senator Rand Paul and Representatives Thomas Massie, Justin Amash, Walter Jones, and John “Jimmy” Duncan in mind as prime candidates for this caucus.
Which America First?
One immediate problem that the new America First Caucus would face would be how to define which brand of ‘America First’ anti-interventionism they would want to espouse. Would it mirror the philosophy of the namesake of the America First Committee (AFC) of 1940-1941? Or would it use the updated version used by the Trump Administration? Given that the current administration has adopted policies, and is considering additional policies that conflict with its own definition of ‘America First,’ it might be wiser for the new caucus to look to the original AFC for inspiration.
Founded on September 4,1940, the AFC was a bipartisan anti-interventionist movement opposed to American involvement in Europe during World War II which they saw as a continuation of the mindless bloodletting of World War I. In America First: The Battle Against Intervention 1940-1941 (1953), Wayne Cole identified four founding principles and four objectives of the AFC (listed below).
- The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
- No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
- American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
- “Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
- To bring together all Americans, regardless of possible differences on other matters, who see eye-to-eye on these principles. (This does not include Nazists, Fascists, Communists, or members of other groups that place the interest of any other nation above those of our own country.)
- To urge Americans to keep their heads amid rising hysteria in times of crisis.
- To provide sane national leadership for the majority of the American people who want to keep out of the European war.
- To register this opinion with the President and with the Congress.
What is perhaps most striking about the principles and objectives of the AFC is the extent to which it, with a minimal amount of updating, can be borrowed by non-interventionists today. Below is a modified list of these principles and objectives that an America First Caucus could use as a guiding charter.
- The United States must maintain an impregnable defense for America.
- No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America without incurring an unacceptably high cost for such an attack on itself.
- American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the next undeclared war of choice.
- “Meddling short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.”
- The only way to neutralize the threat Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIL) pose to the United States is through smart and effective diplomacy. This diplomacy must contain the following features: A withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Islamic countries over the next three years, prioritizing cooperation with all foreign governments in lawfully undermining these organizations, and aggressively promoting nuclear non-proliferation in accordance to international law (i.e. without resorting to the use of military force or implying the use of military force).
- To bring together all Americans, regardless of possible differences on other matters, who see eye-to-eye on these principles.
- To urge Americans to keep their heads amid rising hysteria in times of crisis.
- To provide sane national leadership for the majority of the American people who want to keep out of the next undeclared war of choice.
- To register this opinion with the President and with the rest of our colleagues in Congress.
What can realistically be accomplished?
What could an America First Caucus realistically accomplish? At first glance, not much. Its small size (initially no more than five or so members expected), partisan make up (all Republicans), and declining membership (Rep. Jimmy Duncan will not seek re-election in 2018) would make it difficult for its voice to be heard amid the cacophony of voices on Capitol Hill.
That said there are reasons to be optimistic. It would contain a former presidential candidate and prominent conservative U.S. Senator who occupies a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Sen. Rand Paul), two House members on the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security (Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. Jimmy Duncan), two House members with military service (Rep. Walter Jones and Rep. Jimmy Duncan), one House member on the Committee on Armed Services (Rep. Walter Jones), one House member that is not up for re-election and thus has nothing to lose (Rep. Jimmy Duncan), and one House member who is an all-around non-interventionist anchor (Rep. Thomas Massie).
Another reason for optimism is that it would be the only caucus of its kind on the Hill pushing this message. That message, that the lives of American service members are not cheap and that America should practice nation-building at home instead of intervening abroad, is popular. The voters who bore the human cost of American interventionism put Trump in the White House.
There are several courses of action the caucus could take that would stand a reasonable chance of succeeding. These actions could also create new political incentives in Washington that discourage interventionism.
The first would be to introduce or support existing legislation that would repeal both the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq (AUMFs). Support for repealing the 2001 AUMF is growing within the 115th Congress and the 2002 AUMF has its share of bipartisan critics. Yet these congressional misgivings have not translated into an organized opposition. An America First Caucus would provide this while also lending a distinctly non-interventionist voice to those who simply wish to replace these AUMFs with new ones that are not necessary to protect the country (i.e. let Syria, Iran, Russia, and Turkey fight ISIL in Syria and let Iraq and Iran fight ISIL in Iraq).
The second would be to introduce a resolution in the House re-establishing the tradition of reading George Washington’s Farewell Address in the House at the beginning of every new session of Congress. Unlike the Senate, which currently holds to this tradition, the House discarded this tradition in 1979. Although a symbolic move, it would nevertheless bring attention to the broader non-interventionist message by making the America First Caucus the public voice responsible for bringing back this otherwise uncontroversial and bipartisan tradition.
A third course of action would be to introduce legislation amending the National Security Act of 1947 and renaming the Department of Defense as the Department of War. In his inaugural address Trump noted that the U.S. “defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own.” By pushing for this name change, the America First Caucus would force a public conversation regarding whether our foreign and defense policy is really “defensive” in nature.
Lastly, the America First Caucus would provide a congressional forum where deviant foreign policy views such as non-interventionism and intelligent diplomacy can be heard, expressed, and debated. This would include providing a congressional audience to like-minded advocates, policy practitioners, and scholars.
Carrying the non-interventionist banner and keeping Trump accountable would not be easy. Republicans railed against the Obama Administration’s foreign policy for eight years on the grounds that it was not sufficiently belligerent in rhetoric or in action. Trump shares this sentiment and seems intent on conducting his foreign policy in a way that highlights the contrast in bellicosity between himself and Obama. Although this bellicosity has been largely confined to the diplomatic sphere, the president’s announcement last week regarding Afghanistan, along with his ordered attacks on the Syrian government back in April, shows that he is willing to convert these sentiments into action.
Where this bellicosity could turn into a real shooting war would be with Iran. Trump seems intent on undermining the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama Administration. His hostility to the agreement, and to Iran in general, is shared by both parties, particularly his “never Trump” Republican detractors. Terminating the Iran deal would accomplish three things. First, it would immediately unite an otherwise fractured GOP in Congress behind the president. Second, it would immediately isolate the U.S. from the rest of the international community and expose American non-proliferation efforts as having been conducted in bad faith. Lastly, it would pave the way for a shooting war with Iran which a GOP-controlled Congress would support.
Compounding this problem further is that none of the individual members of an America First Caucus supported the Iran nuclear deal (albeit for different and less belligerent reasons). An America First Caucus might not be able to alter the political incentives for Trump regarding the Iran nuclear deal. Then again, it might not have to. If the caucus can highlight an issue where Trump can both secure a political “win” and pivot back to his domestic agenda—such as withdrawing U.S. military personnel from most of its overseas bases and using the savings to pass a Trump-endorsed transportation bill—it might be sufficient to redirect the president’s attention away from Iran. This would give those who are more favorably disposed to the Iran nuclear deal in the administration, Capitol Hill, and the Beltway time to convince the president that undoing the deal is more work than it is worth.
Given the lack of major legislative accomplishments, and the likelihood that tax and immigration reform proposals would meet the same fate as the recent healthcare bill, Trump is more likely to secure a political “win” in the realm that past presidents have retreated to when their domestic agendas are stymied by Congress: foreign policy. These perverse political incentives towards interventionism, particularly as they pertain to Iran, will be the most difficult challenge facing an America First Caucus.
With the departure of Steve Bannon from the White House and the administration opting to deploy more American forces to Afghanistan, the need for a new set of political incentives towards non-interventionism has never been greater. Trump was elected because the American electorate believed he, and not Hillary Clinton, would put the well-being of Americans first. It is time members of Congress stand up and hold him to that promise.
Jonathan Tkachuk is a former congressional staffer for a House Republican. He has a M.A. in Diplomacy (Counter-Terrorism) from Norwich University.