Not all Republicans have given up on the less interventionist foreign policy Donald Trump campaigned on, even amid reports officials are developing plans to send 10,000 additional troops to the Middle East for a looming conflict with Iran.
Nuts to that, says Florida Representative Matt Gaetz. “The examples of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya—just to name a few—teach us that it is an illusion to think that just beyond the life of every dictator lies a peaceful democracy, rather than generations of anarchy, violence, terrorism, and chaos,” the Republican Trump ally declared in what was billed as an “America First” foreign policy speech.
In stark contrast with the radical vision laid out in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, Gaetz outlined a more conservative approach to the “freedom agenda.” “Freedom cannot be America’s gift to the world, purchased with the blood of U.S. servicemembers alone,” Gaetz said.
A tough and moral foreign policy isn’t one of preventive war. “Real morality and real toughness is standing up to the pro-war special interests and globalist power brokers,” he continued. “Real morality is affirming forever that the blood of American troops is not for sale.”
The setting was an event bringing together two veterans groups, one liberal (VoteVets) and the other conservative (Concerned Veterans for America), to challenge a foreign policy consensus that sends too many brave Americans to war with thin justification and often nonexistent congressional approval.
“If we’re going to end these endless wars, it’s going to be through collaborations like yours,” said Senator Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who has collaborated with Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul on stopping a war with Iran as well as declaring victory and coming home from Afghanistan. “A majority of troops and their families have no appetite for forever war.”
A recent poll commissioned by Concerned Veterans for America bears this out: just 6 percent of veterans and 13 percent of military families want the United States to be more engaged militarily around the world. Forty-eight percent of veterans said they wanted to see these military commitments reduced. Sixty percent support Trump on removing troops from Afghanistan.
Speakers didn’t mince words about the potential for the Trump administration to get us into other wars, despite the president’s contradictory statements. “These decisions are Congress’s alone, not the president’s,” Udall said. Gaetz also warned “saber-rattling persists,” listing Venezuela, Iran, and Yemen.
But Gaetz, frequently seen on cable news defending the president, said this activist foreign policy was a departure from Trump’s America First promises. “The Trump doctrine would prioritize securing the U.S. border with Mexico before we send Americans to die on the Saudi border with Yemen,” the congressman maintained. “Stronger borders, energy dominance, and a thriving American economy do more for American security than ill-fated interventionist excursions.”
This isn’t a new position for Gaetz. He voted in favor of the bipartisan antiwar Yemen resolution Trump vetoed. “The president’s a dove. He has dovish tendencies,” Gaetz insisted to VICE News during that debate. “I think that if we get some time with him, we can make our argument about how the war in Yemen runs afoul of the Trump doctrine.” The same is arguably true on Iran.
John Bolton, the president’s national security advisor, has other ideas. But if nothing else, Gaetz’s speech showed that young, ambitious Republicans noticed when Trump went into the military-heavy state of South Carolina, said the right things about foreign policy, took on the likes of Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham, and won, even if the presidential follow-through was lacking.
“In Congress, I represent the highest concentration of active duty military in America,” Gaetz noted. “The Navy’s Blue Angels are my constituents in Pensacola. The fiercest weapons delivered on time and on target by the United States Air Force are developed in my home county.” He noted the impact of war on the fighting men of women, saying, “The fog of war is no fog to me. It’s not hazy.”
For the emerging Left-Right antiwar coalition to succeed, the Right has to do its part. This is true not just for the libertarian-leaning Republican lawmakers like Paul and Justin Amash, but the populist successors of Pat Buchanan who support Trump and his contention that great nations do not fight endless wars—perhaps more than the president supports it himself.
For even if Trump’s dissent is limited to mere rhetoric, it creates political space for other intervention skeptics in the GOP to act.
“There are always places we could invade, people we could rescue, nations we could build. A clear-eyed look at the threats we face, proves that peace through strength also means strength through peace,” Gaetz said. “The Trump doctrine will make the world safer and more stable.”
If not a doctrine of Trump’s, then maybe some of his supporters.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.