In This Episode
How can Democrats avoid conventional thinking on foreign policy? A discussion about what a new era of American leadership might look like. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
The Wilderness with Jon Favreau is presented by Honey. Join for free at www.joinhoney.com/wilderness.
[voice clip] I shall use no rabble-rousing platitudes to introduce him, and let me simply say with affection, great admiration, and the utmost pride, entering even now from the centerfield bleachers: Eugene McCarthy.
[clip of Sen. Eugene McCarthy] Involvement in Vietnam was no accident. It did not happen overnight. We did not wake up one morning and find ourselves with half a million men in that part of the world, just by chance. Not a landing in the dark—not exactly. It was no departure, really, from the kind of diplomacy which we had been following up to that time. It came out of the consensus that the policies which had long been the principal guidelines for American conduct in this world, the idea that somehow we had a great moral mission to control the entire world and to pass moral judgments upon all peoples in all places, of all cultures. And then we began to build this conception into the institutions of this country.
Jon Favreau: In November of 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota declared his candidacy for President of the United States. It was a pretty ballsy move. McCarthy was a Democrat who decided to challenge Lyndon Johnson, an incumbent president, from his own party. McCarthy’s platform is simple: end the Vietnam War. It was a message that inspired thousands of young volunteers to go door-to-door for him in the New Hampshire primary, where McCarthy shocked the world by winning 20 of the state’s 24 delegates.
[voice clip] Think he can go all the way?
[voice clip] I think the can, I really do. Part of the thing was a turn for the worse in the war, in the Tet invasion. But I think the most important thing was the student participation.
Jon Favreau: Four days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race as another anti-war candidate. And two weeks later, in a televised speech to the nation, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection.
[clip of President Lyndon Johnson] I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
Jon Favreau: McCarthy eventually flamed out, Kennedy was assassinated, and the nomination went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to lose to Richard Nixon. But the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party had forced a sitting president out of the race. It was the first time that dovish Democrats had directly challenged the hawkish foreign policy views of the party establishment in an election. And it wouldn’t be the last. Fifty years later, Democratic candidates still struggle to articulate a coherent foreign policy, and that’s because there are still big disagreements within the party. There are Democrats who sound more like Gene McCarthy, and there are Democrats who sound more like the Cold War hawks of the 1950s. But one thing’s for sure, no matter what Democrats believe about foreign policy, Republicans will always accuse us of being weak on defense, soft on terrorism, and unwilling to do what’s necessary to protect America. It comes up in every single campaign and it’s like a third of the content on Fox News. Unfortunately, it also works. Polls today show that voters generally trust Democrats over Republicans on just about every single issue except for national security. So what do we do about it? How do these debates and divides come about? And how do Democrats convince people that we can keep the country safe without getting us into more wars? I’m Jon Favreau, and we’ll answer these questions and more, on this week’s episode of The Wilderness.
Jon Favreau: Here are some hard-earned wisdom that comes from years of working on campaigns and digging through polls: it’s really tough to get Americans to care about things that happen outside of America. I know that may sound depressing. And no, I’m not talking about you, I know you’re a huge fan of Pod Save the World. I’m talking about most voters. When you ask voters what issues they care about most, foreign policy often ends up at the bottom of the list. There are, however, a few very big exceptions.
Ben Rhodes: Those issues that get at the security of people: am I going to be less safe, or is somebody in my community going to be sent to a war? Those are the issues that tend to hit home the most.
Jon Favreau: This is Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for President Obama and my speech writing partner-in-crime from the earliest days of the 2008 campaign until I left the White House in 2013.
Ben Rhodes: Republicans are often good at scaring voters and mobilizing voters based on fear. They have generally been good at conflating a whole bunch of issues that basically tie in to the ‘other’—people who are not like us are coming to do us harm—and using that against Democrats. Republicans made a multi-decade investment in national security as one of their core planks, and Democrats didn’t. What they did, is essentially if a Democrat occupied the White House, that became the Democratic Party foreign policy. But whatever Democrats were in opposition, they didn’t really develop a clear alternative that voters understood. Instead of being confident and strong and saying: we will be safer, more respected around the world if we lead with our values, if we pursue diplomacy, if we’re for strong alliances—a lot of Democrats feel like they need to just sound tough. And tough is a version of what the Republican message is with some of the rougher edges sanded down.
Jon Favreau: So we talked about this a bit in the first episode, the Republican message on national security is: we’re stronger and tougher and better than Democrats at keeping you safe. And more often than not, the Democratic message has been: no, we’re just as tough as they are. To figure out how and why this started, we won’t go too far back in this episode. Pretty much everything you need to know begins on the day then none of us can forget.
[voice clip] I saw people jumping out of, off the building. People started screaming that there was another plane coming. I didn’t see the plane, but I turned around and it just, the second building just exploded.
Ben Rhodes: The world changed on 9/11 and the Republicans, because they were in power, really got to define both the policy and political response to 9/11 in a way that put Democrats on the defensive, both in terms of their policy alternatives and in politics.
Jon Favreau: It’s hard to remember what the political environment felt like in the months after 9/11. We were shaken. We were angry. People were scared there’d be more attacks. And they wanted the government to do whatever it had to do to stop those attacks.
[voice clip] Seeing those planes go through those towers, I realized being an American doesn’t mean you’re safe.
[voice clip] We just don’t trust nobody anymore and that’s terrible. You know? I feel bad about that, but what can we do?
[voice clip] Every time I go on an airplane, I feel like it’s going to happen again so I pray to God that it’s not going to happen.
Jon Favreau: By the end of September, George Bush’s approval rating hit 90%, the highest in the history of Gallup polling. He has the political space to do pretty much whatever he wanted, and he ran with it.
[clip of President George W. Bush] The danger to our country is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi regime is building the facilities necessary to make more biological and chemical weapons.
[clip of Sec. of State Colin Powel] Saddam Hussein has not verifiably accounted for even one teaspoonful of this deadly material.
[clip of Def. Sec Donald Rumsfeld] Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
[overlapping voices] Weapons of mass destruction . . . weapons of mass destruction . . .
[clip of President George W. Bush] Weapons of mass death . . . can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.
Jon Favreau: So all of this is how 18 months after September 11th, and 17 months after we launched the war in Afghanistan, Congress gave Bush authorization to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq.
[clip of President George W. Bush] My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.
[news clip] The attack came in waves: cruise missiles followed by the F-117 stealth bombers with so-called bunker-busting bombs. [noises of war]
Jake Sullivan: So I think two things happen with the vote for the Iraq war—
Jon Favreau: Jake Sullivan, senior policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Jake Sullivan: I think Democrats legitimately got swept up in it the same way The New York Times did, and a lot of other outlets who didn’t have the same political calculus. And then the second is Democrats had a bias towards voting yes rather than no, so as not to be seen as weak on national security. And the consequences of that reverberated.
Jon Favreau: 81 Democrats in the House and 29 Democrats in the Senate voted for the war in Iraq, including John Kerry, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Jake Sullivan: In the 2000s of course, the core issue was: are those wimpy Democrats going to keep us safe from terrorists, or are they going to just give everyone lawyers?
[voice clip] No idea why the liberals continue to live in this dreamland after 911. Their own fellow citizens went up in smoke, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. Must we let the man rearm to the point where he finally does attack America overtly and militantly, for the liberals to finally say: now I understand why we—
[political ad] Kerry said defeating terrorism was really more about law enforcement and intelligence, than a strong military operation. How can Kerry protect us when he doesn’t understand the threat?
Jake Sullivan: It was a very traditional divide going back decades, since basically the Vietnam War, between the hard-nosed, strength-loving Republicans, and the weak-kneed, peace-loving Democrats.
Jon Favreau: It wasn’t just Democratic politicians either. When the war began in March of 2003, nearly 72% of Americans supported the decision to use military force. That support didn’t last. Not long after the invasion began, Bush’s case for war started falling apart. From WMDs:
[voice clip] It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.
[voice clip] You said you knew where they were?
Jon Favreau: To Saddam Hussein’s support of al-Qaida:
[clip of President George W. Bush] I don’t think we ever said, at least I know I didn’t say, that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein.
Jon Favreau: By the 2006 midterms, support for the war had dropped to nearly 40%. Even Republicans began to distance themselves from the war.
[voice clip] We have got a very dangerous situation in Iraq, in the Middle East. I think the Middle East is more unstable today than it was three years ago.
Jon Favreau: By the 2008 election, more than 4,000 American soldiers had died in Iraq. Nearly 850 billion tax dollars had been spent on the war, and more than half the country believed it was a mistake to invade in the first place. Including one candidate for president who had been against the war from the beginning, and ran against the Washington mentality that led to the war.
[clip of Barack Obama] America, it is time to start bringing our troops home.
Ben Rhodes: Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected president without his opposition to the Iraq war. He thought it was, as he said in 2002 “a dumb war.” A war that had enormous consequences, that will end up costing us trillions of dollars, cost us thousands of lives, basically open up a Pandora’s box in the Middle East. Barack Obama was willing to call those things out in a way that, frankly, other Democrats couldn’t because they voted for the war, including Hillary Clinton. And so he had more free reign.
[clip of Barack Obama] I am running for president because I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans.
Ben Rhodes: In terms of what he stood for, I think he was able to separate out terrorism and say: I’m going to be very tough on terrorism, I’m actually gonna go after the terrorists. You know, the Iraq war took our eye off of al Qaeda. He said: I’ll go into Pakistan to get bin Laden on the campaign. And he did. He was willing to challenge the kind of post-9/11 reflexive movement towards military force, without sacrificing the notion that he’s going to be tough on terrorist organizations. Obama did something very controversial for an American president, which is he tried to acknowledge publicly the limits of what we can achieve in the world, which is not politically necessarily the most winning message. But it’s a reality message.
Jon Favreau: Obama made it pretty clear that he was willing to go after terrorists, but he also wanted to make clear that American foreign policy and national security has to be about more than fighting terrorism. And that Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to say that, just because Republicans will call us weak. And there was still something politically popular about Obama’s message on foreign policy. I started by saying that it’s hard to get Americans to care about foreign policy, with a few exceptions. One is when people’s safety and security feels threatened. Well, another is when American soldiers are coming home in flag-draped coffins, when American tax dollars are being spent on endless wars, and when America’s reputation in the world has gone to shit. Obama believed that a certain kind of Washington thinking had gotten us into Iraq. Not just from Republicans, but from Democrats who thought they had to be as hawkish as Republicans. He thought the entire Washington foreign policy establishment—from the Pentagon, to the think tanks, to the media, to the Congress—were all biased towards a belief that way too many problems in the world could be solved through American power and the American military. This establishment mindset became known by some of us Obama people as “the blob.” And I recently called Ben for a quick explanation of how that came to be.
Ben Rhodes: The blob is a phrase I coined, perhaps unintentionally, but basically I was making a point that there is a group-think that has developed in the American foreign policy national security-making community that seems to inexorably lead us to favor military intervention and military options, particularly in the Middle East. And that spanned the ideological spectrum in a serious way.
Jon Favreau: Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, is also quite familiar with the blob.
Matt Duss: The blob is just, I mean, in any kind of policy area, you have certain ideas have certain habits and have a certain conventional wisdom that kind of overstay their welcome. You’ve got these think tanks and these fellows who have been hanging around possibly longer than they should have, who are writing the same sorts of things that they wrote for a long time that are probably no longer as valid as they once were, if they ever were. I mean, the amount of resources that are just plowed into these hawkish think tanks offering these ideas about uses of military force and regime change, and, you know, some of these things are ideologically-driven by people who believe that that’s America’s role, is to be this kind of aggressive, global, hegemon. It’s called conventional wisdom for a reason, right? Challenging it and changing it is very difficult. It’s deeply, deeply institutionalized and ingrained in the kind of policymaking discourse in Washington.
Jon Favreau: This kind of thinking kept us mired in the Middle East, and it meant that we didn’t have the resources to focus on all the other issues that affected America’s security: from climate change, to trade, to global pandemics like Ebola. And those are the issues that Obama wanted to focus on. He had a pretty good idea about what he wanted to change about American foreign policy, and he accomplished quite a bit of that. He brought home 90% of the 180,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He negotiated a deal to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, negotiated a global climate deal, negotiated a global trade deal with Asian countries, negotiated a diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, banned the use of torture. But there were plenty of things he didn’t get done. And for eight years, his foreign policy was criticized relentlessly, by the left and the right. On the left, some Democrats and activists were upset that Obama didn’t break from enough of Bush’s policies.
Marcy Wheeler: There are the policies that Bush rolled out, that Obama didn’t rein-in successfully, and in the case of drones, expanded.
Jon Favreau: This is Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties.
Marcy Wheeler: I think Obama had good intentions on a number of these issues, but he did not succeed in reversing some of the things that Bush put into place.
[voice clip] We noticed Barack Obama that you were very good at killing people, having offed thousands with drone strikes.
[clip of John Oliver] During the Obama administration, we’ve launched eight times the number of drone strikes than we did under his predecessor.
Marcy Wheeler: On top of the fact that drones were not effective, the drones seemed to create more terrorists than they killed. I think they also did real damage to the stabilities of the countries that we needed to be stable. Pakistan first and foremost.
[clip of Rachel Maddow] A secret war that’s being fought in Pakistan. It’s now reportedly being fought by the CIA and parts of the US military, and by for-profit contractors like Blackwater.
Jake Sullivan: There will always be a group of people who say “no, never” to any drone strikes and “no, never” to any surveillance.
Jon Favreau: Jake Sullivan.
Jake Sullivan: If you’ve had to think about defending the United States, is very difficult to take that absolutist position. I was always comfortable defending drone strikes because frankly, the alternative to drone strikes in many cases would be much larger wars, or much larger-scale bombings. And we have to show that there’s something in between like, an Iraq war, and doing nothing.
Matt Duss: Much of what Americans opposed about the Iraq War and post-9/11 policies that we had sent troops to lots of places. We had lots of troops on the ground. We had troops were being killed and injured. So we need a lighter footprint. And that meant using flying robots to kill terrorists and people we suspected as terrorists. That makes a certain political sense, right? Because it’s not in people’s faces. They’re not, don’t have to look at the actual consequences of American foreign policy in a way that they did when there were tens of thousands of young American men and women occupying Iraq. But at the same time, it is kind of a cop-out. Because those costs are being borne by people abroad where these drone strikes really ticked up, and you saw an increase in civilian casualties. So I think America really hasn’t yet come to terms with the extent to which we sort of exported our own insecurity as a way of diminishing the political costs. I feel like we haven’t quite understood what the long term impact of these policies has been yet.
Jon Favreau: Another big disappointment on the left and among civil liberties advocates, were the revelations about government surveillance programs.
[news clip] His name is Edward Snowden. He’s an American former CIA employee and computer technician. Today, he came out as the leaker of classified NSA documents that spell out a secret surveillance program.
[news clip] Guardian newspaper in the U.K. story says: a top secret court order is forcing Verizon to turn over all phone records for calls made in the U.S. to the National Security Agency. And not just calls made to overseas numbers. When you call grandma in Nebraska, the NSA knows.
[voice clip] I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the Democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy.
Jake Sullivan: I think what came out around the Snowden disclosures was a sense that capabilities had grown along with just technology, without people thinking through where this is headed. I do think saying that, you know, we need to make sure that the US government cannot abuse its powers of surveillance, and we want to have legislation that is very specific about when that power can be utilized, is something that would appeal to people, you know, across the spectrum.
Jon Favreau: Following Snowden’s release, The New York Times editorial board summed up much of the criticism of Obama’s surveillance policy, quote “The Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms that we are not going to tell you about to make sure we do not violate your rights. Those reassurances have never been persuasive, whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency’s phone records, or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism, especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability.” These criticisms from the left were based on national security decisions that Obama ultimately made on his own after weighing the trade-offs and listening to military advisers. But some of the biggest challenges he faced were the ones where he had to get buy-in from the blob, where he had to persuade the hawkish foreign policy establishment or convince some Democrats not to be afraid of what Republicans will call them in 60-second ads.
Jake Sullivan: It’s that fear. Nobody wants that problem in their district or state, and I understand that. But nobody wants a war with Iran either. We try to give people that confidence to say: look, there’s a couple of options here, you know, they get a nuclear weapon, we go to war to stop them, or we have a diplomatic agreement to stop them. And I think he brought the party along on that and you see Democrats holding together now in defense of that agreement. Where we had a harder time, I think is on some of these harder-edged challenges, like we couldn’t close Guantanamo.
[voice clip] As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don’t do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.
Jon Favreau: Matt Duss shared with me his disappointment in President Obama not closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Matt Duss: It’s pretty amazing in retrospect. And he had the support of a huge chunk of the military, like General Petraeus on down, talking about Gitmo as a constant source of recruitment for terrorists. It seemed like he got out there and he proclaimed this policy goal—which I thought was awesome, and which a lot of people thought was awesome—and then when he got some pushback, he kind of backed off it. Right? It was a feeling I would get used to over the next eight years.
Jon Favreau: Ben Rhodes explains why this was so difficult.
Ben Rhodes: We couldn’t close Guantanamo because of congressional restrictions that prevented us from closing Guantanamo, which is crazy. I mean, we literally have, you know, something like 60 people sitting in a prison in Cuba at a cost of, you know, millions of millions of dollars to operate that prison, when they don’t need to be there. And they could be in a supermax prison in the United States. But Democrats were afraid, I think, to take on that fight with Republicans. And now we have this kind of stain of Gitmo on us around the world.
[clip of Rachel Maddow] Now, of course, four years later, Guantanamo is not closed. We have Congress to thank for the fact that it’s still open. Congress has blocked the president’s options for closing that offshore prison.
Jon Favreau: Of course, for Republicans, it didn’t matter if Obama took out a lot of terrorists, or if some Democrats in Congress stood with them on Gitmo or Iran. They called Obama weak. They called the whole party weak.
Ben Rhodes: It was always this sense that you need to be tougher on terrorism. When in fact, you know, we’re using military force in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan, and ultimately in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. We use military force against terrorists a lot. And people on the left, frankly, were upset about the use of drones and other things. That’s where the party got kind of trapped, because you have a left wing that is deeply uncomfortable with drones and surveillance. And then you have this kind of centrist wing that doesn’t want to have debates about these issues, and just kind of wants to look like they’re being tough and we’re not going to give any space to Republicans to say that we’re weak—and that’s where the party gets tied in knots.
Jon Favreau: All of these challenges and political tensions came together in Syria, where Obama had to decide what to do when President Bashar al-Assad began to slaughter his own people.
Samantha Power: I think President Obama looked at the Syria map and the number of armed groups and the diversity on the ground and the factionalism, and started with a disposition of pretty significant skepticism that using force would be ameliorative.
Jon Favreau: That’s Samantha Power, a long-time foreign policy aide to President Obama, who served on the National Security Council, and then became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in June of 2013.
Samantha Power: Then, of course, in August of 2013, you saw the largest chemical weapons attack of the war. 1,500 people killed, hundreds of children just laid out, paralyzed basically in their sleep, gassed to death—I mean, the most horrific scene that I saw certainly in the time that we were making hard decisions on a whole range of issues. And at that point, I think President Obama says: OK, if we don’t act in response to this large-scale chemical weapons attack, we’re going to see more attacks at this scale, not just here, but across, potentially across the region. Like this is a genii that’s been let out of the bottle.
[clip of President Obama] It is time for that regime to move on. And it is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government.
Samantha Power: And so many members of Congress had been pushing him to use force, and describing his foreign policy as feckless. In the two years that we had used every other tool in the toolbox: diplomacy, economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime, trying through the U.N. to get monitors on the ground—doing all kinds, it wasn’t like we were “doing nothing on Syria,0” we were doing all these other things, but we weren’t bombing. We weren’t involved militarily. And so he decides that the time has come. And he had said that if they use chemical weapons, it was a red line, and now they staged this huge attack. And so we were going to respond.
[clip of President Obama] After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.
Samantha Power: And overnight, the constituency that I think it looked like existed for him to engage militarily and in a more robust way, seemed to evaporate. Some people had real concerns right out the gate about the war powers of the president, and taking too great a license to use military force from the White House without congressional support. And then you started to see internationally a lot of the sense of like: why won’t America lead, and I get that you’ve done all these other things short of military force, but now, OK, now’s the time for you to bomb. As soon as Obama came out and said “we’re going to bomb” you began to see publics in these countries expressing great skepticism. And so suddenly you went from all of this sort of pent-up frustration with the United States, you went from the sense of, quote “do something” to President Obama coming out, articulating what he wanted to do, and then like looking for the high fives, like: where’s my Democratic support, where’s my Republican support of people who thought I was feckless five minutes ago, where are my closest allies? So that was the landscape.
Jon Favreau: For all the criticism Obama received from Democrats and Republicans about the timidity of his Syria policy, he couldn’t find enough Democrats or Republicans in Congress who were willing to authorize a military strike. They may have been responding to the 60% of the public who said they were opposed to such a strike. Americans were still war weary from Iraq and Afghanistan. They didn’t want to be part of another conflict in the Middle East. But as Syria fell apart, and ISIS took over large parts of the country, and millions of refugees flooded into Europe, all of the post-9/11 fear mongering and suspicion around terrorism returned to the forefront of global politics. At the same time, there’s this simmering anger over a global economy that seems to be working pretty great for rich people, but pretty shitty for everyone else. So you start to see the rise of nationalism and populism. You see the rise of autocrats and demagogues. We saw it with the return of Putin. We’ve seen it throughout Europe. We saw it with Brexit. And here in the United States, we saw it with the election of Donald J. Trump. In 2016, Trump didn’t just run the usual Republican campaign against Democrats as soft on crime and terrorism, he supercharged the attacks with identity politics and ethno-nationalism. He ran a campaign that was explicitly anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, and that was something new.
Jake Sullivan: Trump was very effective in the campaign of somehow creating this bizarre casserole of refugees, immigrants, terrorists, walls, bans, you know, the “other” into some kind of thing that, like: Democrats don’t care about keeping you safe from those people, and I do. The answer to which cannot simply be about what we’re going to do over there and our foreign policy. The issue has now become partly about who we let in here: immigration, identity issues—all of which Trump is turning into national security questions.
[clip of President Trump] My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else . . . OK, are you ready? Who’s going to pay for the war? [crowd “Mexico!”] Who? ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. OK. He’s the founder . . . Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States . . . I call it extreme vetting.
[voice clip] The Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100% of illegal Southwest border crossings to Department of Justice for prosecution.
[clip of President Trump] We’re very powerful nuclear country. Nuclear holocaust would be like no other.
Jon Favreau: Obviously, it’s an existential problem for humanity that a maniac who gets his national security briefings from Fox & Friends, controls our nuclear arsenal. But Trump’s racialized nationalist politics also present a challenge for Democrats. And it’s going to be even messier if a true national security crisis coincides with an election year.
Ben Rhodes: The thing that concerns me is Trump’s legislative agenda is done, right? They did their tax bill. That’s the thing that they wanted to get done and it was really hard. But now they have no legislative agenda beyond averting shutdowns. And so what does the president do? He pivots to national security. Most presidents do that. You know, like we did that. The incentives for Trump this year to pivot in a huge way to just being a national security president are all there. And he’s already beginning to do it.
[clip of President Trump] I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
[news clip] The leader of the free world, President Trump, meeting face-to-face with one of the world’s most brutal dictators, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
[clip of President Trump] He’s the head of a country, and I mean, he’s the stronghead: he speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.
[voice clip] It’s just a terrible negotiation. The president gave concessions without getting anything. The kind of vague commitment the North made to denuclearize is even more vague than the commitment they’ve made in the past.
Ben Rhodes: And that’s where the risk of a conflict with North Korea, the more extreme anti-immigration arguments rooted in national security, or more conflicts in the Middle East: that’s going to be what shapes the rest of the Trump presidency. We’re heading into an election year. This year could be defined by national security. And if we’re in a war with North Korea, God forbid, or a war with Iran, or he’s doing all kinds of national security-justified actions at home, or there’s a major terrorist attack, what are the Democrats going to do? I don’t think people know the answer to that question right now, and that’s a problem.
Jon Favreau: Big thanks to Ben for articulating the paralyzing fear that keeps me up at night. But even though we can’t control world events or Trump’s responses, Democrats can certainly control the foreign policy vision that we offer to voters. So what is that vision? What lessons have we learned from Iraq, and from the Obama years? We’ll dive in after the break.
Jon Favreau: We’ve just relived the last 20 years of American foreign policy, and, boy, did we have a good time. We learned that ever since 9/11, Republicans have stepped up their attacks on Democrats as weak on terrorism and national security. In response, some Democrats have tried to show that they’re just as tough and strong as Republicans. Others, like Obama, tried to change the Washington mentality that often favors the use of force over diplomacy and engagement. Obama had some success on this front, but by the end of his presidency, two things were clear: the blob is still the blob, and Donald Trump has taken the Republican critique of Democratic foreign policy to a dangerous new level. Despite this, Ben Rhodes believes that all is not lost.
Ben Rhodes: Trump is, in some ways he’s the end point of an ugly post-9/11 politics. You can trace it back to the kind of uglier elements of post-9/11 nativism, and fear of the ‘other,’ and kind of over-the-top xenophobia and jingoism. And there’s an opportunity for someone to step forward and say this era is over. This is the beginning of a new era for America, and a new way that we’re going to protect ourselves. I think that’s the kind of message that’s needed.
Jon Favreau: A new era for America. Sounds great. Where do we sign up? Oh, yeah, and what does that new era actually look like? How is it different from both the Trump era and what came before? The first thing I think we need to do is reframe the debate over national security so that we’re not arguing on Trump’s terms or the blob’s terms, but on our terms, with our values.
Ben Rhodes: Look, you and I believe that American values dictate that we shouldn’t kick out Dreamers and we shouldn’t have Muslim bans. But there’s also a national security argument. The Muslim ban is a recruitment tool for ISIS. It is going to make the terrorist threat worse. Immigration: guess who the people are who don’t get deported. It’s the gang members who know where to go, who have safe houses and have underground networks. I do think Democrats have to spend some time between now and the election making sure that on these values cases, where we are right, we’re also making a security argument that Muslim ban makes us less safe and makes us less respected in the world.
Jon Favreau: Marcy Wheeler suggests that we go even further in expanding the definition of what constitutes security.
Marcy Wheeler: We Democrats, the left, have not been aggressive enough at redefining what security means. There is not that voice that is bold enough to say: we need to reframe the way we think of security entirely. And that’s, I think, where the Democrats absolutely need to go. I think America will rue the missed opportunity of being a leader on climate change, you know, 20, 30 years from now. But had Democrats said: no way, climate change is a bigger national security issue than any of this stuff you’re talking about with Iraq—that might have provided a space to be hawks, but be hawks advocating for a very different policy than the Iraq War. And I think it would have exposed the absurdity of the Iraq War and a lot of ways.
Jon Favreau: In other words, real security for America doesn’t just come from droning terrorists or bombing countries in the Middle East. In fact, if those drones kill civilians, or we invade the wrong countries, that’s going to ultimately make us less secure. But real security also has to mean better economic security, which is going to help keep our democracy stable. It has to mean protecting people from flooding coastlines, drought, famine, and all the other devastation that’s going to come from climate change, including more refugee crises in the hardest-hit parts of the world. And it has to mean better diplomacy, so that we have more allies to help us fight terrorism and disease and dictators with nukes, threats that no one country can solve on its own. But you can’t get those allies with walls and ban and Twitter fights that piss everyone off whose help you need. According to Sam Power, this is where Trump has left Democrats an opening.
Samantha Power: In a funny way, the fact that Trump has walked away from so many first principles, allows us very calmly to return to first principles. So to return to the importance of using diplomacy and engaging other countries to solve problems, to make the world more prosperous and more stable, to return to first principles of having allies you can count on in a pinch—in contrast to insulting our allies and sucking up to autocrats.
Ben Rhodes: The terrain that Republicans had effectively occupied since Ronald Reagan, is that we promote democracy, we stand up for American values, we stand up for strong alliances, we stand up to Russia. And Republicans have basically vacated the Ronald Reagan territory, because they don’t want to acknowledge the Russia interference, and because they don’t want to criticize Trump for cozying up to dictators. There’s a whole open field now. And so Democrats now can have a very simple message that I think can unify the wings of the party: we are for the promotion of American values and democracy and human rights around the world; we are for strong alliances and being respected around the world, not being embarrassed about our actions around the world; we are for pursuing diplomacy before going to war but where we need to, we’re willing to take out terrorist organizations. It matters to Americans that when their president goes abroad, he’s respected, and that we’re the leader of the free world and that we have strong alliances. There’s something intangible that matters to voters. And Trump is like Bush on steroids because not only is he not respected, he’s not even welcome, in London, our closest ally. He said he’d make us respected in the world again. He’s made us a laughingstock in the world.
Jon Favreau: Ben’s right. In 2008, we saw in the data that one of the things that really pissed people off about Bush, was that he’d made America less respected around the world. And one of the reasons people really liked Obama is because they believed he could restore that respect, that he could restore the tradition of American leadership and diplomacy. Samantha Power believes the Democrats have to go even further, that we have to communicate why being respected in the world has tangible benefits for us, that it actually makes us safer.
Samantha Power: I think some Democrats there’s a temptation to just point to how isolated we now are in the world or how unpopular we are, and for a lot of Americans, that is a very distasteful feeling. Like being unpopular is not pleasant. But we have to show that it is incredibly counterproductive, that it is not pragmatic, that it is not good for the interests of the American people. When I say to people: are you aware that there are more than 100,000 police and troops in war zones, the most dangerous places, and that 99% of those peacekeepers are from other countries? All right, I know you are aware because President Trump has made you aware, that we’re footing a share of the U.N. bill that you don’t like, we’re paying more than a quarter of the share of the cost of sending these peacekeepers abroad. But if you ever thought about it, that means that 75% of the cost of putting them there is being borne by other countries. That’s what leadership buys you, right, is that you invest in the international system, and then somebody else’s troops are going places so you don’t have to.
Jon Favreau: As Samantha mentioned, the reason it’s so important to connect these dots is because a lot of people in both parties don’t understand why America always seems to be paying every price and bearing every burden. A lot of Trump’s voters found all his talk about America first appealing because they looked at our engagement with the rest of the world and they said: that’s not working for me, those trade deals aren’t working for me, those politicians are spending too much money on wars and foreign assistance, they’re letting in too many foreigners who want to kill us, they’re letting other countries kick our ass—all that populist, nationalist, isolationist stuff that you hear amplified by Trump and Republicans and Fox News. Jake Sullivan elaborates:
Jake Sullivan: I don’t think that the populist discontent is entirely wrong. I mean, I believe that on net, America’s global engagement has made the United States more secure and more prosperous. But a lot of people have been hurt, and we have not designed policies to take care of those people. And the national security folks have not spent enough time thinking: what about the distributional consequences of all these choices we make? What about the fact that so few people in our country are carrying the burdens of our wars overseas? What about the fact that some people actually do get screwed by our trade agreements? We actually have to have a serious conversation with ourselves and with the country about what are the things that aren’t quite working in the way that we conduct our foreign policy. And on globalism versus nationalism, I would just say we need to find a way to say there is nothing inconsistent about being fiercely nationalistic in the sense of looking out for the American national interest and not in the sense of being a nativist or xenophobe, and believing that if your neighbor’s house is on fire, you better grab a bucket. That we are tied to a larger world in which other countries being better off will make us better off in the long run.
Samantha Power: I think we need to do a better job arguing not only that, being engaged in the world and, you know, mobilizing other countries to do their part: why that is necessary—because the threats require lots of countries to be acting together. That is an argument we’ve been making. But also why that’s a good deal, right, for the American people, why we’re not getting ripped off. Like, quite the opposite: this system benefits us and our interests and our constituents more than just about anybody. I think there’s a way to say that by doing our share, we are able to get other countries to step up to do things so Americans don’t have to. And that if we want to make adjustments to the rules of the road, as perhaps we do in the areas of ge- economics and trade, the only way to make those adjustments is by being at the table, and indeed by being the convener and leading people down your path. You’ve got to make that affirmative case. We care about American standing in the world because when we are faced with challenges of the kind that will just keep coming—whether it’s North Korea, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s ISIS 2.0, whether it’s more extreme weather events—we will need other countries to come to our side.
Jon Favreau: As Samantha said, Democrats need to do a better job of persuading Americans that the benefits of American engagement outweigh the risks, and that most Americans will actually experience those benefits. Marcy Wheeler argues this also means knowing the difference between leading the rest of the world, and trying to dominate it.
Marcy Wheeler: I think one thing that we do when we’re out of power is to create the space to find something new. To replace the American exceptionalism myth. American exceptionalism increasingly means a denial on the part of Americans that other countries can compete with us. And will, and that we will be eventually held accountable for our breaches of norms, for our breaches of human rights overseas. And I think we need to have an accounting of what a faith in American exceptionalism has done over the last 70 years.
Jon Favreau: Ben Rhodes agrees that we need to redefine what American exceptionalism truly means. That what makes America exceptional isn’t our military or our economy or some cultural identity that has to do with what you look like or where you came from. It’s something else.
Ben Rhodes: I think people understand that Donald Trump does not represent the best of who we are. President Obama had a winning message on this in some ways, which is that American exceptionalism is defined by who we are as a country, not just our ability to blow things up around the world. That we have a democracy that allows us to get better, and that allows us to extend rights and opportunities to more of our citizens, and we set an example that is a city on a hill for the rest of the world.
[clip of President Obama] That’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation’s been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.
Jon Favreau: To paraphrase something that Samantha told me, this is the difference between an America that tries to dominate the world by force, and one that looks to lead the world by example. It’s not the kind of Trump’ian nationalism or isolationism that’s based on race and identity. It’s patriotism. It’s patriotism based on our belief in a certain set of universal rights and values that we defend around the world, and try our best to live up to here at home. That’s the space that Trump and the Republicans have ceded, and that’s the vision that I think Democrats can rally around.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman, Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer, Andrea B. Scott is our editor and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.