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The Ulterior Motives of the Anti-War Right

Liberal critics of Trump's Iran belligerence got bipartisan support this week, but they should watch out for their sudden allies' agendas.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Wednesday’s classified Hill briefing on the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani seems to have gone poorly for the White House. According to Republican Senator Mike Lee, Trump administration officials not only failed to fully justify Trump’s strike but also suggested they would have had no trouble assassinating the supreme leader of Iran without prior authorization, as well. Earlier, Lee had described the meeting as “the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue.”    

“They had to leave after 75 minutes,” he told the press afterward, “while they were in the process of telling us that we need to be good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public.” Senator Rand Paul agreed. “I see no way in the world you could logically argue that an authorization to have war with Saddam Hussein has anything to do with having war with people currently in Iraq,” he said. 

Lee and Paul’s outspokenness has been unsurprising. Both have condemned military intervention in the Middle East and voiced support for restoring congressional war-making authority for some time now. Lee, in particular, has been a leader of efforts to withdraw American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen; Paul has joined him in this endeavor. But while the pair have garnered media attention for standing apart from their Republican colleagues, reducing their opposition to Trump’s strike to a simple anti-war stance obscures the nature of the right’s rift on foreign policy. 

It’s true that their criticisms of Trump stood out all the more within a discourse on Soleimani’s assassination that has been colored by rhetoric from conservatives even more grotesque than the bluster Trump offered in his own defense. In an appearance on Lou Dobbs Tonight this week, Republican Congressman Doug Collins, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, intimated that Democrats critical of Trump were, in essence, terrorist sympathizers. “They’re in love with terrorists,” he said breezily. “They mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani.”

On Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee effectively endorsed this rhetorical approach by confronting members of the Democratic caucus with the question of whether Soleimani was a terrorist. Those who ignored the question were recorded in videos the NRCC’s Twitter account captioned gleefully. “Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans,” one read, “but @GilCisnerosCA can’t bring himself to acknowledge he was a terrorist or that America is safer with him gone.”

Republicans are following the lead of the conservative press. On Tuesday, for instance, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka mused that Iran’s counterattack on bases holding American personnel was a good thing, in that it potentially opened the door to a larger conflict. “Paradoxically, we should welcome what they have decided to do,” he said, “because now they have done in the open what they have been doing against us and our friends for decades in the asymmetric warfare domain.” The next day, Fox’s Pete Hegseth managed to outdo Gorka’s bloodlust:

What better time than now to say, we’re starting the clock, you’ve got a week, you’ve got X amount of time before we start taking out your energy production facilities. We take out key infrastructure. We take out your missile sites. We take out nuclear developments.…

We take out port capabilities. Or, you know what, take out a Quds headquarters while you’re at it, if you want. I understand that’s not a popular idea. I don’t want boots on the ground, I don’t want occupation, I don’t want endless war. But Iran has been in endless war with us for 40 years. Either we put up and shut up now and stop it, or we kind of wait, go back to the table, and let them dither while they attempt to continue to develop the capabilities to do precisely what they said they want to do.

What’s emerged in the days since Soleimani’s assassination is a clear split, not just between a handful of Republican critics of intervention like Paul and Lee and the conservative establishment, but within the institutions of the conservative establishment itself, including Fox News. Tucker Carlson, for instance, has spent the week condemning Trump’s strike. “There are an awful lot of bad people in this world,” he said last Friday. “We can’t kill them all, it’s not our job. Instead, our government exists to defend and promote the interests of American citizens. Period.” This was the kind of messaging that earned him his largest-ever audience on Tuesday night.

It would be easy to chalk the growing constituency for anti-interventionism on the right to Trump’s erratic, on-and-off promotion of a populist isolationism during his 2016 run. But a Republican divide on foreign policy had already begun to emerge well before he arrived on the scene. Lee and Paul, for instance, had inveighed against intervention in Syria and Libya during the Obama administration. In the long lead-up to the 2016 presidential primary, old comments Paul had made criticizing the neoconservative consensus, including remarks that Vice President Dick Cheney had been motivated by Halliburton to back the war in Iraq and that a nuclear Iran would not pose a threat to Israel, were unearthed by conservatives and seen as a liability for his anticipated campaign—so much so that Paul defended himself in a 2014 Time magazine piece titled, “I Am Not an Isolationist.” Among other things, that broadside criticized Obama for not acting “more decisively and strongly against ISIS.” The next year, Paul voiced support for arming the Kurds.

All of this might feel like ancient history, but there are two things about Paul’s and Lee’s records that are of particular importance now. The first, of course, is that both Paul and Lee ultimately opposed the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, both joined 45 other Republican senators in sending a letter to Iran arguing that the Obama administration lacked the authority to broker a real deal, a move that was widely seen as an effort to undermine negotiations. The second thing, which is more significant as a guide for the future of Republican foreign policy, is that both Paul and Lee have been ambivalent at best on certain relevant questions of immigration policy.

Paul, for instance, opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States and defended Trump’s Muslim travel ban. “You don’t have a right to come here,” he told The Guardian in January 2017. “We have a right to make rules on who comes.” Lee initially responded to the ban with “technical questions” for the White House and has since been a defender of the constitutionality of Trump’s efforts. After the Supreme Court upheld a version of the travel ban in June 2018, Lee affirmed his approval to The Deseret News. “It is not the place of the Supreme Court to question the wisdom of a presidential action,” he said, “but rather to resolve disputes as to whether such an action was lawful and constitutional.”

Anyone who doubts the relevance of those stances should take a closer listen to the rhetoric being offered against Trump’s strike by voices like Carlson, who drew a connection between the risk of war with Iran and undocumented immigrants immediately after news of Soleimani’s assassination broke last week:

[T]he very people demanding action against Iran tonight, the ones telling you the Persian menace is the greatest threat we face, are the very same ones demanding that you ignore the invasion of America now in progress from the south. The millions, the tens of millions, of foreign nationals living among us illegally; the torrent, more significantly, of Mexican narcotics that has killed and disabled entire generations of Americans—nobody cares, in case you haven’t noticed.

Carlson refers to the Iranians as “Persian” because he and others on the right see the world through the lens of civilizational conflict. As Carlson has suggested himself, he came to oppose the war in Iraq not only because it was strategically unwise, but because he came to believe the Iraqi people were too inferior to care about. “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semi-literate primitive monkeys,” he said in 2008. “That’s why it wasn’t worth invading.”

This attitude, combined with anxieties that chaos in the Middle East could drive more refugees from the region to the U.S., as well as anti-Semitic theories about Jews puppeteering the world’s major powers as agents of Israel, drove much of the opposition from the far right to Trump’s strike in Syria in 2017. For example, the white nationalist site VDare accused Trump of fostering an “anti-West, pro-terrorist foreign policy.” It was thus unsurprising, in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, to read Richard Spencer, once again, repudiating his former support for Trump.

Lee and Paul now regularly pair up with progressives such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ro Khanna on anti-war measures. These collaborations are to the good as long as progressives keep in mind that the widening gulf on the right between old-fashioned interventionists and isolationists of various stripes has emerged for reasons not fully reducible to diverging assessments of the war in Iraq and the costs of American empire. Any alliances between those who oppose war because they recognize the common humanity of innocents abroad and those who oppose war precisely because they do not will always be uneasy. If the anti-war right is ever assured that conflicts abroad and the sustenance of American hegemony can be maintained without the risk of refugees fleeing to the U.S.—and without putting boots on the ground, thanks to American technological power—these alliances will also be short-lived.