Those who have claimed that occasionally obsequious displays of deference to the president by Republicans were evidence of the party’s wholesale ideological makeover erred in some crucial ways. They mistook cosmetic exhibitions for substance while dismissing the GOP’s substantive departures from Trumpism as superficial.
The latest example of the GOP’s willingness to buck the president on policy has far-reaching implications. On Thursday, Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell passed an amendment to a bill on Middle East security that amounts to a stern admonition of Donald Trump’s conduct of foreign affairs. It rebukes the president for pursuing a “precipitous withdrawal” of American troops deployed in Afghanistan and Syria. It warns Trump that his reflexive decision risks abandoning the gains made by American soldiers in pursuit of U.S. national interests in these theaters. It foresees the prospect of terrorist elements regrouping as they exploit the confusion the U.S. leaves in its wake. And it cautions that hostile nations like Iran and Russia will eagerly fill the vacuums left by America in retreat.
The cloture vote on the amendment, which was co-sponsored by 19 of McConnell’s fellow Republicans, easily passed with the support of 68 senators.
According to Roll Call’s John Donnelly, “the text of McConnell’s amendment is neoconservative gospel,” but the amendment reads much more like empiricism than a statement of faith. McConnell’s maneuver followed the release of an extraordinary annual review of America’s global challenges, which Trump’s own intelligence and national security officials insisted was far graver than the president has suggested.
The annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” asserted that North Korea was not denuclearizing, and had no intention of doing so. The regime continues to view its nuclear capabilities as an existential necessity, and Kim Jong-un’s domestic and regional position has been strengthened as a result of a largely failed diplomatic effort to neutralize the country’s nuclear deterrent.
The report showed that the Islamic State militia group is not defeated. ISIS “remains a terrorist and insurgent threat” in Iraq and still commands “thousands of fighters” in Syria. Indeed, a recent Pentagon draft report indicates that the ISIS “caliphate” could begin expanding again within six months to a year absent continued military pressure.
Russia is poised to expand its military presence in Europe and the Middle East, and it is positioning itself to fill the political vacuums left by the United States in retreat. Moscow has the capability to execute catastrophic disruptions of American infrastructure in the event of a conflict and is prepared to execute more disinformation campaigns inside the United States ahead of the 2020 elections.
American efforts to reshape the global framework around trade have increased tensions between America’s allies and adversaries alike. China is prepared to use military pressure to expand its global footprint, broaden its economic and political influence, and displace the United States from the Pacific. Beijing’s political and military cooperative relationship with Russia is more stable than at any point since the Sino-Soviet split, and these two illiberal powers are competing intensely with the United States for regional dominance.
The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to sponsor terrorism, has plotted attacks in Europe, and is targeting American allies and assets in the Middle East. Tehran has not, however, restarted work on its nuclear weapons program. And America’s new partners in peace, the Taliban, continue to receive support from terrorist networks across South Asia, including al-Qaeda, and “has increased large-scale attacks” against Afghan government targets.
These challenges conflict with the political narratives Trump has tried to advance, and his response has been to lash out at his administration’s military and intelligence officials. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he declared. For Republicans who are reflexively predisposed to reinforce the president’s framing, that’s probably enough. But that is a response to a fleeting political imperative—protecting this president’s flank—not a reaction to conditions on the ground. It bears no resemblance to any sort of ideological predilection, and it has almost nothing to do with American grand strategy. As such, Trump’s position on America’s present foreign-policy challenges cannot outlast this presidency.
To observers with no investment in the political narrative that Donald Trump and the GOP are indistinguishable from one another—an objective shared by pro-and anti-Trump forces alike—this has been obvious for some time. The president has always displayed some rhetorical fealty to the Buchananite wing of the Republican Party’s foreign-policy prescriptions, but he has never articulated a coherent doctrine around those views that others could follow and duplicate. He certainly hasn’t governed as a Buchananite. As I wrote last year, “The secret of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it receives its highest marks when the president moves in directions preferred by establishmentarian Republicans and traditional conservatives.” And when Trump diverges from those preferred behaviors and policy prescriptions, the GOP bucks the president and embarrasses him.
This is a delicate dance for Republicans. Trump is by far the most popular GOP figure among Republican voters, and many in the party have found that the necessary work of maintaining the president’s confidence requires a certain willingness to bend the knee. But observers who mistake those performances for a comprehensive ideological transformation of a conservative party are mistaking the superficial for substance. The GOP is still the GOP, and it will be the GOP long after Trump has left the Oval Office.