Last week, Sen. Chris Murphy said this about the 2020 election: “Make no mistake, this is going to be a national security election, and our nominee needs to be ready to confront this president on his foreign policy malpractice that is making America, and the world, less safe.”
I don’t think so.
While I agree that the Trump administration has committed foreign policy malpractice that has made the world a less stable place, I don’t think this will be a national security election.
Folks are more concerned about ideas for fixing a dysfunctional health care system. They are aggravated about a lack of economic fairness. Despite a prolonged economic expansion, many families continue to tread water, their bills getting no easier to pay. And they worry about the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, the opioid epidemic and — more so among Democrats — a changing climate.
Low down the list, I’m afraid, is national security and the role a smart foreign policy can play in it.
Yet Murphy, a Democrat who has served Connecticut for seven years in the Senate after six years in the House, is right that Americans, collectively, should be paying more attention to how the nation conducts foreign policy. Do it well and it reduces the threat of Americans getting pulled into military conflicts. Do it poorly and the United States both cedes influence to other countries and makes a military response the more likely fallback option when things go array.
How the nation manages foreign affairs is just not important to most people, until suddenly it is. And then it can become the most important thing.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a collective recognition that the country had to do a better job of monitoring and managing forces abroad to prevent them from metastasizing in the homeland. But after two decades of overseas military conflicts and no repeat mass casualty attacks, Americans opted to elect an America First, isolationist president. They just want the outside world to leave them alone.
Except it won’t.
Murphy has emerged as a major voice on foreign affairs policy, proposing an approach diametrically different from that of the Trump administration. The president has disregarded the cautious, brick-building work of diplomacy in favor of personal negotiations. Foreign service officers are demoralized by a president who provides no cohesive strategy and overrules experienced advisors to act on gut instincts. Trump spontaneously agrees to requests pitched by foreign leaders, such as his Syrian withdrawal order after talking with Turkish President Erdogan. He claims success when the facts show otherwise, such as in his one-on-one talks with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, which did nothing to curtail that nation’s nuclear arsenal.
“Our adversaries, from Iran to Russia to China … cherish our chosen blindness to all the non-military ways that they lap us, over and over, all across the world stage,” Murphy said.
Murphy would double the foreign affairs budget, dramatically increasing spending and staffing for the State Department and for foreign aid.
Doing a far better job of diplomacy, he said, can curtail the use of the military to try to solve political problems overseas.
“Invasions don’t give rise to democracies. Occupying forces don’t create corruption-free regimes. We need to realize that political and economic and social problems abroad need political and economic and social solutions,” Murphy said.
The senator made his comments speaking in Washington D.C. Tuesday to the group Foreign Policy for America. It formed after Trump’s election in 2016 in reaction to his nationalistic approach. It calls instead for, “Openness to the world, investment in international institutions and strong alliances, support for democracy and human rights, and restraint in the use of unilateral military force.”
Murphy’s ideas, which he provides in great detail in his 2017 policy paper “Rethinking the Battlefield,” include creating an anti-propaganda unit to combat misinformation campaigns targeting our country; building a global public health organization better able to react to disease threats before they reach our shores; and staffing a “hardened corps of diplomats” working on “complicated conflict resolution” in areas teetering on or recovering from conflict.
Instead of seasoned foreign service officers, the nation often sends into volatile areas with complex social issues “18-year-old soldiers who are expert at firing rifles but not ready or capable of rebuilding communities and societies,” he said.
A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last week Murphy — even while tied up with the obligations of the impeachment trial — made his foreign policy speech; attended an administration briefing about its proposed Middle East peace plan (Murphy was highly critical of it); held a press conference to criticize the circumstances surrounding the death of a U.S. citizen in Egyptian custody; and commented on the release of political prisoners in Nicaragua. He and a small group of senators had pressured the Central American nation about its human rights violations.
A Democratic candidate for president might do well to seek Murphy’s input in forming a foreign policy agenda. As he noted in his speech, “I’m not running for president, but I’ve given a lot of thought of how we would build this set of new ideas.”
Could Murphy emerge as a candidate for secretary of state in a Democratic administration? It is hardly far-fetched given his well formed strategic foreign policy approach.
But first a Democrat must win the presidency. And with all due respect to the senator, making foreign policy a primary focus won’t get it done.