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The Biggest Barrier to a Leftist Foreign Policy: Democrats

When it comes to Iran, Israel, and Latin America, Democratic leaders are closer in mindset to the Trump administration than you might think.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In the last six weeks, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has called for President Trump to invade Venezuela. National Security Advisor John Bolton proclaimed that the Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well” as he announced new sanctions on Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua in front of a group of Bay of Pigs veterans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said there would be strikes on Iran for any attack on “American assets” in the entire Middle East. And over Memorial Day weekend, the administration announced it was blowing through an informal Senate hold on an arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by declaring the sale an emergency, while reports circulated that the U.S. might send 15,000 troops to the Persian Gulf raising the prospect of war with Iran.

None of these actions provoked an organized response from Democratic leadership beyond a belated, tepid, and symbolic resolution of disapproval on the arms sale.

How did we get here? The Obama administration, even if it failed to deliver as many foreign policy innovations as promised or hoped for, presided over two major breakthroughs in the form of the Iran Deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and a “Cuban Thaw”—a repudiation of the old Reganite, Cold War–era policies toward Latin America that destabilized the region. Democratic leaders could have built on these accomplishments, committing to a new policy of engagement with regions of the world where America has historically not been the best actor. Instead, these Obama-era victories were undermined and pushed aside in favor of a more twentieth-century, interventionist vision of American diplomacy.


Democratic leadership on foreign relations is symbolized in no small part by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, as the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And both of these individuals, while they have opposed the Trump administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, are closer to the Trump administration on some matters of foreign policy than one might expect. Menendez was against the Iran Deal when it was announced, believing the coordinated sanctions that were used to get Iran to the table could still coerce more concessions. Engel was also against the Iran Deal, claiming that it would not stop Iran’s “destabilizing influence” in the region.

After Donald Trump, who campaigned on repealing the Iran Deal, was elected, the sanctions bill that in fact reinstituted sanctions on Iran was the “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017,” which instituted sanctions on Iran and Russia at the same time, and was pushed through the House with only three Republicans voting against it based on constitutional issues. (In the Senate then Republicans tacked on further sanctions on North Korea.) The writer of that bill was Engel. On the Senate floor, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the temporary ranking member for the Democrats, credited Menendez as the “leader on Iran sanctions,” and Menendez said this was about sending a message to Iran about “violating the international order.”

This wide-ranging piece of legislation put sanctions on North Koreans and their state-run businesses, Russian government officials and affiliated oligarchs for their activity in Ukraine, and Iranian nationals involved in the ballistic missile program and fighting in Syria. Every Democratic representative in the House voted for the bill. The only Democratic lawmaker to vote against it was Senator Bernie Sanders, who spoke on the floor of his fear that sanctioning Iran would lead Iran to exit JCPOA. While many media figures understandably, in the wake of the election, focused on the Russia sanctions the bill included, the Iranian sanctions furthered undermined Iranian-American relations. One year later Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran Deal, saying the deal did not address Iranian ballistic missiles or its destabilizing behavior in the region. On this subject, Democratic lawmakers were closer to the current administration’s views than Obama’s: In fact, the twelve conditions Pompeo said that Iran would have to meet before the United States is willing to withdraw sanctions bore remarkable resemblance to those mentioned in the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act, including withdrawal from Syria and ceasing the ballistic missile program.

Menendez also opposed Obama’s “Cuban Thaw,” something he called naïve. “There is no reason that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that, if he extends his hand in peace, the Castro brothers will suddenly unclench their fists,” he wrote in USA Today in 2014. He applauded Trump’s rollback of Obama’s diplomatic achievement in 2017 but even claimed it didn’t go far enough in punishing the “Castro regime”: The United States, he argued, “was enriching a dictator at the expense of democracy and basic human rights.”

This cold war view of Latin America seems to extend to Venezuela as well. Both Menendez and Engel have sided with the Trump administration in backing of Juan Guaido as the rightful president of Venezuela. Neither have objected to the choice of Elliot Abrams—who helped coordinate right-wing, human rights–violating paramilitaries in Latin America in the Reagan administration—as new special envoy to Venezuela. They have stopped short of allowing an authorization for military force, and have spoken “with concern” about new extreme sanctions that Trump administration have put on Venezuela’s oil companies. But they have also called for Maduro’s resignation, and have not backed Bernie Sanders’ or Representative Ro Khanna’s proposals for a negotiated settlement and new elections. Menendez has criticized Sanders’ refusal to call Maduro a dictator, a label in that in the establishment thinking allows for forced regime change.


Engel and Menendez rose to leadership roles in their respective chambers during the Obama era, but reflect an establishment consensus those behind the Obama administration’s foreign policy were pushing against. In 2016, a New York Times profile of Obama adviser Ben Rhodes reported that Rhodes even referred to the foreign policy establishment as “the Blob,” a group, the profile explained, that “includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.”

Broadly speaking, this establishment consensus holds that America is required to lead the world in action—that America is the “indispensable nation,” in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It plays off the concept of American exceptionalism: that America is not bound by the norms and laws of others and is morally superior to the rest of the World. Adherents of this school of foreign policy espouse a harder-edged sort foreign affairs than that of the former president—a liberal internationalism is driven by American interests and enforced through sanctions and even military intervention.

The efficacy of the sanctions—one of the primary tools in the foreign-policy establishments box—is debatable. Do they wind up punishing innocents more than oppressive regimes, as has been strongly suggested in the examples of Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, and Sudan? Do they stoke anti-American sentiments, as analysts have suggested in the case of Russia? Do they lead to further consolidation of power within a state as the leaders feel their power is being challenged from the outside? Do they drive “rogue” regimes toward each other in solidarity, driving smaller states in particular to seek help from China and Russia?

The post-cold-war liberal internationalism Menendez and Engel adhere to still dominates the Democratic Party. Many who voted for the Iraq War authorization remain in leadership positions, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Engel, Chairman of House Intelligence Adam Schiff, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Senator Dianne Feinstein, former Vice President Joe Biden and even former presidential nominees Clinton and John Kerry. And while a few of those leaders supported the Iran Deal, many still believe in American indispensability. Democrats have criticized Trump for trying to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, prevented him from pulling troops from South Korea, and have approved of lethal arms being sent to Ukraine, potentially escalating tensions with Russia. It has taken a new generation of politicians in the form of Khanna and Representative Ilhan Omar in the Progressive Caucus, and the rise of Sanders within the party, to start to challenge the establishment’s thinking on intervention, Israel, and long-held bipartisan allies like Saudi Arabia. But the bloc of establishment-oriented Democratic legislators remains—a major check on a more leftist foreign policy, even should a more progressive candidate win the White House in 2020 or beyond.

The JCPOA was premised on the notion that, by removing sanctions and increasing investment in exchange for something that the U.S. valued (the verified halt and inspection of a nuclear program), a win-win situation could be created. That meant treating Iran as a normal state, rather than a “uniquely malevolent actor,” as journalist Peter Beinart put it last month in The Atlantic. The Cuban Thaw involved similar treatment for Cuba. This dark side of American liberal internationalism, and the American exceptionalism it’s based on, is that our enemies are our enemies because they are evil or irrational. This Manichean mindset is something one might expect out of an administration with close ties to the religious right, but Democrats have every reason to think more creatively: Rather than returning to the foreign-policy consensus of the 1990s, they have the chance to articulate a foreign-policy vision more consistent with what polls say the majority of voters want—a restrained foreign policy where the Iran Deal and the Cuban Thaw are a model for how America acts in the world.