President Trump is weak against Bernie Sanders in foreign affairs

President Trump is weak against Bernie Sanders in foreign affairs
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The overwhelming consensus, even whispered by committed Democrats, is that the reelection of President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE is assured. The combination of a blockbuster economy and the socialist ideas of Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Unhappy voters could deliver political shocks beyond Trump Democratic senator will introduce bill mandating social distancing on flights after flying on packed plane Neil Young opposes use of his music at Trump Mount Rushmore event: 'I stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux' MORE has lifted the confidence of Republicans. If I were a betting man, I certainly would put my money on Trump, but not all of it. One of his vulnerabilities is his affinity for neoconservatives in foreign policy and his abandonment of a notable pledge to bring home American soldiers from the Middle East.

While Trump has not launched any major new ground wars in the Middle East, neither has he delivered on his campaign promise to withdraw from expensive conflicts unrelated to American interests. Moreover, his recent deal with the Taliban will likely leave thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan with American casualties likely to continue. He has appointed a string of neoconservatives to senior foreign policy positions, and these officials have brought the country close to the brink of a battle with Iran.

The strategy of the administration in the Middle East appears largely as it has for decades, with airstrikes, dubious alliances, support for proxy wars, troops deployed in, troops deployed out, a significant military presence, and the possibility for events to suck the United States into a destructive situation when there are other problems. These are American activities in a region that has now been of marginal importance to national security.


Trump does not seem to understand that a focus on interventions in the Middle East has always been the death knell of White House popularity. Neoconservatives were the ones to persuade the first President Bush to invade the Middle East to settle an intramural dispute between two very loathsome regimes, a distraction from domestic issues that cost him a second term. Many Republicans simply look at their shoes when you tell them that the Iraq War, the crowning achievement of neoconservatives, forever destroyed the political reputation of the second President Bush.

Trump was critical of the Iraq War during the 2016 campaign, and it likely brought him victory in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where past Republican candidates seen as neoconservatives could not carry. Working class families from these swing states have been bearing disproportionate sacrifices for these unnecessary and endless wars, and they voted against John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton to voice their displeasure.

If Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, he will campaign hard in those three states with a message that Trump has maintained the status quo in the Middle East. This message will resonate with many veterans of these disastrous wars and with many families of soldiers sent overseas. In several ways, only those three states matter this year. The foreign policy team for Sanders understands this and should not be underestimated.

Trump has other campaign challenges, including his toxic unpopularity with many suburban women, his unrelenting hostility toward the media, and his record on closing the southern border to illegal immigrants. Yet none of these issues have the potential to blow up the Electoral College coalition that he assembled in 2016 as much as an all out war with Iran.

In counties of working class families across the country, there are many patriotic people who have grown incredibly sick and tired of seeing their high school football stars join the military, deploy to dangerous places in the Middle East, and finally come home in caskets or wheelchairs. If the United States becomes embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East, all the forecasts of another victory for Trump could go out the window.

No president should frame national security policy to meet crass political goals. But neither should a president continue deeply unpopular military interventions in the Middle East that do not advance American interests.

William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with Catholic University. He is the author of “Democracy and Imperialism.”