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The Moral Dilemma of a Left-Right Antiwar Alliance

As Trump’s caprices build broad resistance to military engagement, the pacifist left considers how to ally with its political opponents.

Demonstrators protest the U.S.-led coalition attack in Syria on April 14, 2018, in Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

“Let’s do a little experiment,” the featured speaker told the crowd at the National Press Club in Washington. It was March 2016, the election was still up for grabs, and the audience had assembled for a daylong discussion on “Israel’s Influence” in U.S. politics. “Which candidate said the following?”

He read the candidate’s quote: “As president, there’s nothing that I would rather do than to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors… But it doesn’t help if I start saying, ‘I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.’ But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors… I can’t do that as well as a negotiator—I cannot do that as well if I am taking sides.”

The speaker looked up. “Here is a rare example of a Republican candidate speaking reasonably, rationally, in a statesman-like manner, about one of the most controversial issues in American politics,” he said. “Who would dare to step on the third rail of American politics and defy the Israel lobby?”

The candidate, of course, was Donald Trump. The speaker hailing him was not a far-left or pro-Palestinian activist, but Justin Raimondo, the outspoken pacifist and longtime editorial director of who died in June after battling cancer.

Raimondo described himself as a “conservative-paleo-libertarian”; in 1991, he endorsed the nativist and isolationist Pat Buchanan for president, saying the choice was between “Buchananism or barbarism.” In a eulogy, National Review praised Raimondo—an openly gay man who lived in the Bay Area—for criticizing marriage equality as “the domestication of gay men,” and for his “hatred of war, which grows government, is destructive of our liberties, and tears families apart.” The American Conservative’s editor waxed nostalgic for Raimondo’s lifelong efforts “to restore an older American conservatism that was far more skeptical of war and the use of military power to shape political outcomes than it had become during the Cold War.”

Raimondo did not fit the mainstream image of an antiwar activist. In the first Bush era, antiwar activists were painted as cheese-eating surrender monkeys or left-wing lunatics. But there was indeed an ardent antiwar right that opposed the surveillance state, the U.S.-Israel alliance, and the U.S. military-industrial complex. Once associated with Ron and Rand Paul—to the extent it was discussed at all—the antiwar right is resurgent today, and its most visible new supporters, like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, challenge left-wing pacifists to consider whether it can be useful to the cause of ending foreign misadventures at the same time that it supports Trump’s human-rights abuses at home. How can the antiwar left cooperate with counterparts on the right and break a cycle of endless war without losing its own moral force?

Alliances between right and left war-skeptics gained new currency this summer, just a few months after Raimondo’s passing, with the launch of the Quincy Institute. A nonpartisan think tank founded to promote “diplomatic engagement and military restraint,” Quincy’s major funders include liberal George Soros and conservative tea-party financier Charles Koch. “We think peace should be the norm in the United States’ foreign policy, and war the exception,” Stephen Wertheim, Quincy’s cofounder and research director, wrote in The Washington Post last August. “This principle is anything but radical.”

Trump may not have met Raimondo’s fantastical expectations for impartiality toward Israel and the Palestine, but his presidency has been a boon to the U.S. antiwar movement. According to a study published by Pew this July, 64 percent of veterans and 62 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq was not worth fighting; for the war in Afghanistan, the numbers dropped only slightly, to 58 percent and 59 percent, respectively. In this atmosphere, antiwar politicians are finding each other across some interesting party divides. “I think there has been a fundamental reexamination of the cost of interventions over the past 18-plus years and how that has not advanced American national interests,” said Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California.

Khanna has been one of the loudest and most consistent voices for ending U.S. support of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, working with House Republicans like Matt Gaetz and Thomas Massie, as well as senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul. Last month, Khanna introduced an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act that would bar the U.S. from providing logistical support for the coalition’s airstrikes. Paul, Gaetz, and Lee urged their fellow Republicans to leave the amendment in the bill. Khanna and Gaetz also worked together on a House amendment to the defense budget that would require Trump to get congressional approval before going to war with Iran. (Neither Gaetz nor Paul responded to a request for comment.)

But Khanna has also found himself on the horns of a dilemma when working with war skeptics on the right, where Buchananism and its hypertrophied cousin, Trumpism, still put white male supremacy front and center in their pacifism. A decade ago, The New Republic revealed that Ron Paul’s libertarian antiwar newsletters also contained “decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, jews, and gays”; one of Paul’s ghostwriters, his former congressional chief of staff Lew Rockwell, continues to maintain a popular “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market” site that publishes screeds that declare “black criminals have a free license to do what they want” and “feminism is akin to cancer on the world.”

And then there’s Tucker Carlson. The Fox host regularly criticizes the military-industrial complex—that is, when he’s not defending Trump’s rants about “shithole countries” as “something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with,” or arguing that Representative Ilhan Omar “has undisguised contempt for the United States” and that “maybe that’s our fault for asking too little of our immigrants.” Before Carlson became a white-right icon, his prime-time guest list occasionally included Khanna, who found common cause with the Fox anchor’s isolationist impulses. “⁦@TuckerCarlson⁩ offers a devastating critique interventionism and shows how much of the foreign policy establishment has failed the American people. There is an emerging, left right coalition of common sense for a foreign policy of restraint,” Khanna tweeted back in February.

The Twitter ratio was swift and the condemnation was thorough. “[W]hatever policy goal overlap there is between Carlson’s herrenvolk white nationalism and a left policy of foreign restraint, looking to ally with him is a bad precedent,” Kelsey Atherton, a military-tech reporter, replied.

Khanna no longer goes on Carlson’s program, but other Democrats do—and have received similar opprobrium. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who has positioned herself as the antiwar Democratic presidential candidate despite having visited with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and her ties to Hindu nationalists, went on Carlson’s show to discuss suing Google—an appearance criticized by British political journalist Mehdi Hasan, among others. “How can a Democratic member of Congress appear on Tucker Carlson’s show, only days after he’s been inciting hate against two of her black House colleagues (Omar and Cummings), to talk about something *else*, rather than to slam him for being a bigot live on air?” he tweeted.

“I think that the consensus of the left-right skepticism on military interventionism has common ground based on what’s in America’s interest in a very narrow sense,” Khanna told me. But he is antiwar because he supports human rights and diplomatic engagement. “I think it’s important to understand the difference [in] the moral force that animates both sides,” he said.

The Quincy Institute is also seeking common ground by staffing up with war skeptics across the political spectrum. “We’re not monolithic,” Wertheim, the cofounder, told me. “We take very seriously the trans-partisan nature of the institute.” Quincy came about in part, Wertheim said, because he wanted to take on the military industrial complex and concluded that working with people of different political beliefs was the best way to do that.

But there are different political beliefs, and then there is the absurd assertion by some conservatives like Raimondo and Carlson that Trump himself is antiwar. His unilateral decision to allow Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies in Syria is not getting plaudits from serious war skeptics. “Trump is not ending any endless wars but simply ordering U.S. military personnel to move out of the way for Turkish forces to enter,” Wertheim said. “Trump, in some ways, takes to logical or illogical conclusions the pathologies we’ve been seeing for a long time.” (Some—but not all—staunch supporters of Gabbard, as well as Green Party supporters and diehard Trumpists, hailed the perplexing move as a victory for peace.)

All of which is to say that while pacifism is having a moment, it’s a moment so fraught that its emerging leaders and institutions have yet to locate the bright line between helpful partners and bad-faith whitewashers—much less incorporate it into a coherent progressive foreign policy. Khanna might have some ideas on that, but it’s hard to plan that far ahead when the world is on fire–when it matters less who is in the bucket-brigade than how much water they can carry. “There are people who I disagree with so strongly on many issues,” Khanna said. “But,” he added, referencing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, “if they are willing to prevent a famine of 14 million, I will work with them.”