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For Republicans, A Foreign Policy Time for Choosing

A new ambassadorial nomination will reveal the character of a party convulsed by Trump.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 21: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks towards the Senate chamber with aides after the House passed a bill to temporarily fund the government through January 19 and averted a shutdown December 21, 2017 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Mitch McConnell, the powerful Republican kingmaker, will soon consider a major nomination in the United States Senate. 

Amy Coney Barrett, likely America’s next Supreme Court justice, will justifiably hog most of the attention in Congress’ upper chamber next month. But there is another, comparably significant role to fill in our government— at least as measured by the metric of life and death. 

The Senate is poised to consider President Trump’s nomination of William Ruger, an Afghanistan war veteran, to be ambassador to that country. (Full disclosure: Mr. Ruger, a foreign policy expert, is a member of the board of this magazine. We have not communicated on his nomination, nor conferred on this article.)

Mr. Ruger has set himself apart from the esteemed company (Ryan Crocker, Karl Eikenberry and Zalmay Khalilzhad), who have served in this post during America’s longest war. He has explicitly declared that we should leave, pronto. “Put bluntly,” Ruger wrote in The National Interest in May. “We should not get distracted by the ups and downs of the conflict or Afghan politics. Instead, we need to stay focused on what America’s long-run national interests require and define our approach to Afghanistan based on that. And here, President Trump has correctly concluded that a full and speedy withdrawal of our troops is imperative.” 

Ruger got the nod from the White House earlier this month.  

Whatever you make of Donald Trump, it defies credulity to deny that his rhetoric on foreign policy has been central to his political rise. In 2016, America elected the major party candidate less committed to America’s quagmires. Opposite Trump, the Democrats in 2020 nominated the figure from the last administration — Joe Biden — perhaps most skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan. 

Stretching back to Barack Obama, the citizens of the United States — battered by financial crisis, internal fissures and now a pandemic and the hard work of a reckoning on race — have attempted to disclaim the country’s bloated global role. For at least fourteen years, when Democrats first humiliated President George W. Bush by reclaiming Congress, the will of the people has been clear. Depressingly, but tellingly, a decided majority of U.S. veterans of Afghanistan (and Iraq) have concluded those wars, in the final summation, weren’t even worth fighting.   

But the past is the past. 

In Mr. Ruger, President Trump has now nominated a tough-minded, would-be diplomat to help turn rhetoric into a reality. One can otherwise denounce Mr. Trump’s raucous administration. But this is a maneuver that could draw firm, bipartisan support, much like the rescue package this spring, or financing for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Because the national interest is at stake. 

“I would be happy to talk to him, and hear what he has to say,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, told PBS’ Margaret Hoover. “Look… we are now spending 740 billion dollars on the military. That’s more than half of the discretionary budget in this country, at the same time as children are hungry and half a million people are homeless.” 

It is also a put-or-shut-up moment for a coterie of Republicans hoping to someday succeed Trump.

Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, all under fifty, have been central to the so-called “realignment” discussion that has been the talk of Republican Washington in recent years. The discussion is borne part out of the shocking victory of Trump, and part out of the naked reality that things have changed since the 1980’s. 

Rubio has been a loud proponent of “common good” conservatism, rejecting Reaganite dogmatism, and has aligned himself tightly with the Catholic right. Where he has been less vocal is foreign policy. He was the neoconservative eminence grise in the 2016 presidential primaries, winning plaudits from future NeverTrumpers such as Max Boot. But Boot and company have since fiercely denounced the senior senator from Florida. Rubio is a champion of a muscular U.S. role in Latin America, and that is unchanged.

If Trump has a “pointman” in that region, where the president has thrown U.S. heft behind the Venezuelan opposition, endorsed a changing of the guard in Bolivia and pared back Obama’s detente with Cuba, it is Rubio. But those around Rubio talk about a man who has had a genuine change of heart on all manner of issues, to the chagrin of folks like Boot. Rubio’s passion project of Latin America could fit nicely into what former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who the old Rubio sparred with, but eventually voted for) declared as reaffirmation of the two-century Monroe Doctrine. U.S. primacy in Latin America is simply necessary to counteract China and maintain national security. 

But facing facts on China doesn’t preclude cutting ties on a peripheral theater such as Afghanistan. The Communist Party would like nothing more than to see the U.S. spend more time in the graveyard of empires. China’s handmaid, Pakistan, has recently essentially urged a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. It’s rich stuff from a government with heavy ties to the Taliban, if not al-Qaeda, both with American blood on their hands. Sen. Rubio could do worse than take note of what Pakistan wants, and then do the opposite. 

Cotton, for his part, shocked some in his circle with a denunciation of endless wars during his address to the Republican National Convention this summer. Cotton speaks with the acuity of a politician who has never lost a race. “A lot’s changed in four years,” Tom Cotton, like Ruger a veteran, told the convention. “No one who has seen the face of war desires to see it again. … Too many of our fellow Americans are already honored at the hallowed grounds of Arlington.” 

A Senate source says Cotton “knows which way the wind is blowing.” As with Rubio and Boot, Cotton has lost the enthusiasm (though much less loudly) of a member of the old guard in recent years. But with an eye toward 2024, Cotton is working to represent a diverse, rowdy party that has likely left William Kristol — the founder of The Weekly Standard and an inveterate Trump antagonist — behind. 

Cotton is no doubt no acolyte of the foreign policy doctrine of “restraint,” but his rhetoric has trended in recent years more toward pure hawkishness, and away from a neocon fixation on democracy promotion for its own sake— which is the declared mission in Afghanistan. Nevermind, of course, that it’s unclear the government in Kabul has the legitimacy to hold the country absent Washington’s intervention.  

Hawley has been the most vocal of the trio. 

“The greatest threat to our nation’s security in decades rises in the East in the form of a martial, expansionist China,” the nation’s youngest senator told the Center for New American Security last November. “Our present foreign policy consensus, the cast of mind and expectations embraced by both major parties for the last twenty years, is not adequate to our time, and it is not right for our future. … This consensus has distracted us from the dangers at hand. …. It has been rejected by the people of this nation.”

“It’s time for a strategic refocus,” Hawley told The American Conservative for this article. “We have spent too much time on adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere that do not serve our strategic aims and place enormous burdens on the class of working men and women who fight our wars. President Trump has shown time and again that he is committed to refocusing on our core interests – China above all – and I look forward to hearing from his nominees.”

One report, based on conversations with Senate staffers, calls Ruger “not confirmable,” perhaps attempting to meme into a reality the continuation of a broken status quo. It is true, Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch, a respected establishmentarian from Idaho, is not enthralled with the choice. Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted to remove the president from office, could raise hackles.   

But the White House is pushing and Majority Leader McConnell has surprised before. It behooves us to not forget that McConnell once endorsed his fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul, a vocal foreign policy restrainer, for president. 

Ruger has transpartian appeal: Democrats aren’t exactly giddy to officially declare enthusiasm for staying in Afghanistan. Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, has spent the Trump years distinguishing himself on foreign policy. “The war in Afghanistan has gone on for too long,” Murphy said in February. Of course, Ruger in the post does not make leaving the country a fait accompli. But it is perhaps telling that it is the Senate’s youngest members, like Murphy, and Sanders, the darling of America’s youth, that are most open to a change of course. It is, of course, the young that have borne the battle.

Combined with vocal support from the Republicans’ rising stars, Ruger could easily clear the bar for confirmation.

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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