Political Indifference:

How is the Democratic Party Losing its Foreign Policy Agenda?
Political Indifference:
November 1, 2021

Democrats in Congress are currently quarreling over the scale of domestic social spending, with so-called “moderates” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona urging their “liberal” colleagues to lower the price tag of President Joe Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill.

The chasm within the Democratic Party has garnered so much press attention for three main reasons: these divisions jeopardize the president’s agenda; the outcome of these negotiations will directly impact the daily lives of countless Americans; and Manchin and Sinema’s positions on social spending are seen as antithetical to the very ethos of the modern Democratic Party.

When it comes to domestic policy issues such as childcare, education, infrastructure, abortion, etc., the Democratic Party largely demands unanimity within its ranks. Sinema and Manchin’s independent thinking is thus seen as an unacceptable rebuke of the party’s platform and a threat to its own political survival.

On foreign policy, however, the Democratic Party generally demands much less of its members. As a result, a wide spectrum of views can be found within the party, some of which are diametrically opposed to one another.

In recent decades, the Democratic Party has generally been viewed as the home of the U.S. anti-war movement. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California was the only member of the House of Representatives to oppose the authorization of the Afghan War in September 2001. Similarly, 126 of the 133 votes opposing the invasion of Iraq in the House of Representative were cast by Democrats.

While the Democratic Party has indeed been the heart of the post-9/11 U.S. anti-war movement, it is worth noting that the party has always had a more hawkish underbelly. 81 of its members in the House approved of President George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Under Democratic President Barack Obama, the U.S. drone campaign hit its full stride. High-ranking Democrats, such as Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In September of this year, a bill in the House calling for the removal of U.S. troops from Syria failed due to nearly 100 Democrats voting against the measure. Finally, just this month, Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia advocated for pre-authorizing a war against China.  

These few examples show that the Democratic Party is far from a principled anti-war institution. As the old American saying goes, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” and it certainly seems that Democratic Party leadership has decided against formulating a clear and consistent political vision for U.S. foreign policy.

The one exception to this rule is Israel, as the Democratic Party elite have long pushed their members to toe the pro-Israel line. It is no mystery as to why this is the case. In U.S. politics, money talks, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the largest foreign policy lobby in the country. AIPAC and other members of the pro-Israel lobby have used their resources to effectively turn Israel into a domestic political issue. They have done so by inserting the small country into political debates, heavily funding the campaigns of pro-Israel politicians, often accusing those who question U.S. support for Israel of anti-Semitism, and pushing for laws that ban boycotts of Israel.

The efficiency of the pro-Israel lobby can perhaps best be summed up by a quip made by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2001, “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in their way.”

However, the pro-Israel orientation of the Democratic Party is beginning to turn. Polls show that large numbers of Democratic voters want to see the U.S. hold Israel more accountable for its violations of human rights and international law. A small but growing number of young members of Congress are also beginning to boldly question U.S. support for Israel. Yet, the leadership of the party remains vociferous in their pro-Israel line, which has led to some nasty and public intra-Democrat quarrels.

Amid a vote to approve $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system in September, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Palestinian-American, gave a rousing speech accusing Israel of “apartheid,” citing groups such as Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem. She was instantly attacked not just by Republicans, but also by her own party. Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with the Middle East, angrily denounced Tlaib’s remarks and even accused her of anti-Semitism. In the end, only nine members of the Democratic Party voted against the Iron Dome funding.

This incident shows that support for Israel remains strong within the Democratic Party, but it also demonstrates that the elite are losing their grip on the party’s rank-and-file vis-à-vis Israel. It appears that Israel is on the path to becoming just another foreign policy issue for the Democratic Party, one in which its leaders will be unable—and maybe even unwilling—to police its members.

Ultimately, the Democratic Party has much larger foreign policy questions than Israel. Two decades after 9/11, the party has failed to become the anti-war party, even though Americans on a bipartisan basis have become weary of endless wars. In fact, Republicans of many stripes—from former President Donald Trump, to “moderates” such as Iraq War veteran Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan—now loudly oppose the endless wars.

It is fair to say that Democrats and Republicans are now less distinguishable on foreign policy matters than at any other time in recent memory. In a nation hyper-consumed with domestic policy and often indifferent to foreign affairs, it is unlikely that Democrats will take any bold moves to distinguish their foreign policy platform. This will likely do little to harm the party at the polls, but what does it portend for U.S. global strategy?


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