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The Democrats Aren’t Ready for Trump’s First War

Progressive activists are preparing for the worst, but the party has been largely silent. Bernie Sanders is hoping to fill that void later this week.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Back in March, roughly two months after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, Ben Wikler began working in earnest to prevent another war. As the Washington director for the progressive group MoveOn—which fought doggedly but unsuccessfully against the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003—Wikler has been meeting regularly with colleagues from CREDO Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, Win Without War, and ReThink Media, gaming out conflict scenarios under Trump. How might the president exploit a national security crisis? Would there be a law-and-order domestic crackdown? What exactly would it take to stop war with North Korea or Iran?

Last week, Wikler told me “the threat of an armed conflict with North Korea is ever-present, and the risk [is] that Trump will steer us toward war with Iran.” Both of those threats are now more acute after Trump’s terrifying speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, in which he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, called its leader Kim Jong-un “rocket man,” and called the Iran nuclear deal “an embarrassment.” In a joint statement, MoveOn, CREDO, and Win Without War said, “We need to stop this slow roll toward a catastrophic war and work towards defusing the North Korean crisis diplomatically. Trump’s U.N. speech represents yet another reckless escalation in the ongoing tit-for-tat between North Korea and the United States that does nothing but edge us closer to nuclear war.” They added, “There is no military solution to this problem.”

Given the constant domestic crisis of the Trump administration—the latest insanity being another last-ditch effort to repeal Obamacare—it’s understandable that the Democrats haven’t focused as much on his foreign policy. Yet Trump’s U.N. speech heightens the need for the opposition to communicate its own international agenda, clearly articulating how Democrats would engage with the world if they retook power. Senator Bernie Sanders plans to outline his vision for a progressive foreign policy in a speech on Thursday to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. But Democrats on Capitol Hill haven’t laid the groundwork. “We don’t have a clear progressive foreign policy,” Representative Ro Khanna of California told me this week. “I’m not confident we have enough mobilization, enough awareness, and enough coherence of perspective to avoid another intervention that gets us entangled abroad.”

Despite Trump’s warmongering, liberals can take comfort from a few realities about today’s political climate. Americans are less eager for military action than they were during George W. Bush’s first term, and less supportive of the president. Gallup polling showed most Americans approved of Bush’s job performance before 9/11, and his popularity skyrocketed to 90 percent after the terrorist attacks. Trump, by contrast, hovers around 40 percent. This isn’t a public predisposed to trust him, particularly with something as serious as a war. He’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt the country gave to George W. Bush,” said Murshed Zaheed, CREDO Action’s political director. Zaheed will never forget “the massive frustration we all felt on the ground when we saw national leaders like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and Tom Daschle fold like cheap cards and acquiesce to Bush,” but he says “the left flank is better situated to put pressure on the Democrats” under Trump—“to act like an opposition party, not a minority party.”

There are also ways the anti-war movement is stronger than it was more than a decade ago. “There wasn’t an infrastructure in the progressive movement as it exists today,” Zaheed said. “You had MoveOn, but they were in their early stages.” Today these activist groups represent millions of Americans, armed with new tools and strategies. Whereas the movement against Iraq was largely dependent on mainstream media, progressives today are using email and social media to mobilize massive demonstrations, including recent actions against health care repeal and Trump’s Muslim ban. “We have seen how the left can respond effectively when it comes to fighting back against Trumpcare,” Zaheed told me. “The fact that we’ve slowed them down this much speaks to the effectiveness of the mobilization of the online communities.” He said their anti-war tactics would be traditional—“I wish I had something really exciting to tell you in terms of a battle plan”—but insisted, “We will make sure the activism machine is just revved up to ensure there’s an active response from the left flank of American politics.”

Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington argues that the left flank is revving up in Congress. In February, she warned her colleagues at a Congressional Progressive Caucus retreat that they needed to prepare for another 9/11 and for Trump’s response. “I just want us to be thinking about that because there are lots of things that are happening right now that you could argue are setting us up for an attack,” she said. “I believe that’s true of the executive orders, and we know what happened after 9/11, and we have to be thinking about what is our jiu-jitsu move to actually prepare the stage so that if something does happen it’s clear who created that and who created the environment for that to happen.” Jayapal urged Democrats to “prepare the stage right now with our message so that the blame goes exactly where the blame should be and we don’t all have to rally around [the president] in patriotism.” This week, she told me there is “groundwork being laid,” as Democrats fight federal cuts to development and diplomacy and argue for Congress to reassert its war-making authority. “I don’t think anybody really has clear answers on how to tackle North Korea,” she acknowledged. “I think it’s a very difficult situation.”

Progressives should worry about how quickly military action could occur under a fickle, erratic president. “With the Iraq War, there was a months-long buildup—cases made to the U.N., State of the Union addresses,” Wikler told me. “Trump could start a war without that kind of lead time.” Zaheed alluded to the generals surrounding the president. “Trump is leading a regime that’s out of control and almost thirsting for war,” he said. “It really behooves the progressive movement to prepare accordingly.” That preparation can’t be simply about opposing Trump’s foreign policy, said Khanna. “In a philosophic framework we have to have a critique of where neoliberal and neoconservative foreign policy has gotten us,” he told me. “I’m not sure we have the consensus in Congress.... If we wait until there’s a crisis without having a coherent philosophical framework then it could look like it’s just partisan attacks.”

Sanders’s speech on Thursday could be the “bold foreign policy proposal or vision” that Khanna is demanding. Spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis told The Columbia Daily Tribune that the senator “will lay out his vision of a progressive American foreign policy, one that defines power and leadership not primarily through the use of force but through the building and mobilization of international consensus, that prioritizes human dignity and well-being against the depredations of unaccountable government and corporate power, and that sees new opportunities for cooperation around shared challenges like climate change, authoritarianism, wealth inequality, and terrorism.” The speech is still being finished, but a Sanders aide told me it will contrast the success of the 2015 Iran deal with the failure of the Iraq war, echoing then–Senator Barack Obama’s call in 2008 “to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” While Sanders will offer “continuity” with Obama, who challenged the foreign policy consensus in Washington, he aims to “kick off a debate on foreign policy he feels really hasn’t been happening on the progressive side and in the Democratic Party.” “We need to start getting together on this,” the aide said. “If you’re not working off a set of shared and identifiable principles—when is force necessary, what other options exist—it’s difficult, obviously, to mount an effective critique [of military action].”

Foreign policy hasn’t always been a focus for Sanders. Win Without War director Stephen Miles notes that he “certainly didn’t talk a lot about this issue on the campaign trail.” But Miles also acknowledged that “the progressive movement in general stopped talking about foreign policy and national security during the Obama administration.” And in last year’s general election, Hillary Clinton cut a more hawkish figure than Trump, which have helped him in an under-appreciated way. “From the beginning of his candidacy through the general election, Donald Trump rhetorically positioned himself as a vehement opponent of endless war, inveighing against both parties when doing so,” The Intercept’s founder Glenn Greenwald argued last week, and that could have been to his benefit electorally. “Clinton continued to defend the virtues of her record of militarism, and even now, those topics are excluded almost completely from discussions of why Clinton lost.” (“I think there’s some truth to it,” Miles said. “I think it was a factor. People had a perception that he was going to turn a page on these wars.... It might be the only area where I wish his policy matched his rhetoric.”)

Foreign policy tends not to be a top priority for voters. It’s a complicated subject. It can feel disconnected from their lives, especially when it’s not connected to an attack on Americans themselves. It’s been hard for Democrats to prioritize it when, as Zaheed put it to me, “fires are burning everywhere.” But the party simply must find more space to talk about foreign policy, and more specifically the looming threat of war. Trump’s foreign policy is clearly an existential threat, but Americans still need to be presented with a alternative—to be convinced that progressives have a wiser, safer plan for America’s relationship with the world. The best way to head off a war is to win the political battle that precedes it.