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How Trump And House Democrats Can Work Together On Foreign Affairs

The significant growth in Pentagon spending over the last two decades has been largely driven by the overseas contingencies that candidate Trump saw as wasteful and unnecessary.


Following the 2018 midterms, political observers have begun forecasting dramatic battles between the Democratic House and the Trump administration over the next two years.

They predict that between the congressional investigations of the White House, wrangling with Republicans in the Senate, and political showmanship all around, little governing will actually take place. They may well be right, but for those on either side of the aisle interested in passing meaningful policy into law, there are definitely two areas where President Trump and congressional Democrats could work together: national security and foreign policy.

An old political adage is that politics ends at the water’s edge, and for much of the 20th century — save the Vietnam era –partisans on both sides generally agreed on matters of war and peace. Since the end of the Cold War, mainstream political leaders have largely agreed on a strategy to maintain “global order” through the spreading and protection of liberal democracy, by military means if necessary. That was until 2016, when then-candidate Trump triumphed over Republican rivals and the politically seasoned Hillary Clinton by rejecting the major tenets of the establishment’s national security platform.

His criticism of the Iraq War and desire to nation-build at home rather than abroad were more akin to outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul than Marco Rubio or Barack Obama. Trump’s unorthodox views on these issues, coupled with his base’s willingness to embrace them, creates an opportunity for his administration and the new Congress to find common ground around a bipartisan consensus for a restrained and prudent foreign policy.

A place to start would be addressing the U.S. military’s ongoing involvement in Yemen. Despite bipartisan pushes for extracting our support from the Saudi-perpetuated humanitarian crisis, Trump has been reluctant to pull assistance from an ally. But there are signs that this obstacle might be eroding in the face of the admission that Saudi officials were complicit in the murder of a U.S. resident in Turkey.

American intervention in a small, strategically unimportant country’s civil war is precisely the kind of costly foreign entanglement Trump campaigned against. Steps can be taken by Congress and the administration to limit support to countries involved in the conflict and remove the boot from the throat of the Yemeni people.

There is also room for positive work on the broader war on terrorism, where the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) — written in the impassioned aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — has long needed revisiting. Leaders in both parties have shown interest in reforming  or ending the open-ended authorization for a global war on terror and the Trump administration could demonstrate good governance by collaborating in this process.

Democrats hoping to pick up where Obama failed to end the war in Afghanistan could find a sympathetic ear in Trump. Practical authorities and restraints for counterterrorism need to be agreed on to keep our country safe, while providing more accountable oversight and preserving the constitutional principles on which our nation was founded.

The largest battle lines between the House and Senate will be drawn around budgets and spending. While issues like health care and border security will likely dominate the headlines, the national security budget is an area where compromises could be hammered out. Reports indicate Trump will request fewer defense dollars for FY20 than many Republicans had hoped, setting up a showdown between defense and fiscal hawks in the party.

Here, the administration, fiscal conservatives, and congressional Democrats could come to a sensible agreement on where Pentagon spending levels should be — to provide for America’s security but revisit global commitments that use U.S. taxpayer funds and risk American servicemembers to defend our wealthy allies — creating a coalition that would hold the upper hand at the negotiating table.

The significant growth in Pentagon spending over the last two decades has been largely driven by the overseas contingencies that candidate Trump saw as wasteful and unnecessary. He has also been critical of government contracting policies and the practices that led to budget overruns for acquisitions like the F-35 fighter jet and the new Air Force Ones. Democrats may even be inclined to be more cooperative on Trump priorities like NATO burden-sharing in order to reach an agreeable place within budget talks.

Of course, there are issues such as the Iranian nuclear program and Russian sanctions where there will be little margin for agreement between the two sides. Complicating matters, Trump has surrounded himself with advisors who often differ with his better inclinations on foreign policy and make it more difficult to successfully negotiate. Democrats have significant pressure from their base to prioritize investigation and impeachment of the president and his deputies, which will poison any possibility of cooperation on policy initiatives.

Hopefully this will not prevent cooler heads from seeking areas for cooperation and putting political animus aside for the sake of  good policies and providing a realistic strategy for our country’s defense.