Party extremists in foreign policy derive respect for American leadership

Storm clouds are gathering around the world. In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, tyrants and terrorists are on the march, while the country best able to oppose them—the United States—is cruelly divided.

Hamas’s massacre of 1,200 Israelis on October 7 was a harrowing display of barbarism breaking through a fragile layer of civilization. In Europe, Russian “dictator” Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his criminal war to force Ukraine into submission to Moscow.

China under Xi Jinping has traded its reassuring mantra of “peaceful rise” for a new attitude of despotic jingoism. He suppresses internal dissent, “re-educates” Uyghurs in concentration camps, bullies China’s neighbors in the South China Sea, and rattles missiles at Taiwan and the United States.

Most sinisterly, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea appear to be forming a new pact of totalitarian states dedicated to making the world safe for dictators. What unites them is their mutual hostility to a liberal international order that rejects their demands for a free hand in so-called spheres of influence and holds them accountable for horrific human rights abuses.

In the early days of the Cold War, probably the last time the United States faced an external threat of similar magnitude, many embraced the patriotic maxim that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” This was not always the case, but both sides helped create a broad public consensus behind deterring Soviet aggression and suppressing communism.

It is hard to imagine such internal cohesion today. Not only are Democrats and Republicans at odds, but both are torn apart from within by pernicious ideas imported from the ideological fringes. Our main parties cannot unite, much less rally the country to face the new dangers.

Donald Trump has blasted Republicans by reviving the “America First” doctrine espoused by isolationists and German sympathizers in the 1930s. On the other side are the Reagan Republicans who still believe that US international leadership is an integral part of protecting our security and values.

What Trump and his followers mean by America First is amoral and self-serving diplomacy that rejects collective security, global trade rules, and other supposedly “globalist” commitments that supposedly subjugate the US to foreign interests.

The concept of enlightened self-interest that has underpinned America’s global leadership for seven decades means nothing to Trump. He views everything – business, politics, the national interest – through a zero-sum lens. But in today’s interconnected and multipolar world, a stand-alone national strategy is even less credible than it was almost a century ago.

Ukraine is a hotbed of GOP disunity. Members of Trump’s Freedom Caucus are not interested in what is happening there and want to divert aid to Ukraine to the southern border. Other “firsts” argue that Washington should shift its focus from a declining Russia to a rising China.

Strategically, it’s the wrong choice. It’s also sweet music to Putin’s ears. The only thing that could pull him out of his Ukrainian quagmire is Trump’s return to the White House.

Throwing millions of Ukrainians, 43 million in 2021, to the wolves of Moscow would be rank treason that also harms vital US interests. Besides feeding Putin’s neo-imperial appetites, it would demoralize and possibly split our European allies and return NATO to an irrelevant state.

On the other hand, preventing Russian aggression in Ukraine would force Beijing to rethink the value of its “borderless” partnership with Putin and its ability to score an easy knockout in Taiwan.

If Trump-supporting Republicans become apologists for Putin, Democrats find apologists for Palestinian terrorism on their left wing.

After Hamas’s sadistic rampage, most Democrats, including President Biden, instinctively sided with our traumatized ally. On university campuses, however, morally confused young protesters called the genocidal attack a legitimate response to Israel’s “occupation.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) accused Biden of condoning the genocide of Palestinians by affirming Israel’s right to self-defense. This malicious rhetoric earned her a House censure.

In fact, the Biden team worked diligently to minimize civilian casualties, but that is easier said than done in densely populated Gaza, where Hamas cynically uses civilians as human shields.

Americans should insist that Israel is acting within the framework of a just war that excludes the indiscriminate use of force. But it is not our place to demand a ceasefire that leaves Hamas free to continue killing Israeli civilians.

Young activists who advocate “justice for the Palestinians” lose all credibility by glossing over an indisputable fact: For Hamas, “justice” means the extinction of Israel.

Most Americans get this. In a poll conducted after the October 7 attack, voters overwhelmingly (84-16) sided with Israel over Hamas. Among 18- to 25-year-old voters, however, that margin narrowed dramatically to 52-48.

This split presents a political dilemma for Democrats. Young activists who despise Israel are threatening to sit out next year’s elections. But it is better for Democrats to lose them than to lose the country by abandoning America’s historic commitment to Israel to appease terrorists.

For decades, American liberals and college leaders have failed to confront the virulent anti-Semitism incubating on American campuses. It is past time for them to decisively reject the juvenile mix of bad history and intersectional clichés that brand Israelis as a “settler colonial project” that subjects holy Palestinian victims to a racist “apartheid” system.

Heading into a key national election, Democrats must take an unequivocal stand against Hamas and its use of terrorism to achieve political goals. If Trump loses next year, Republicans should seize the opportunity to return America First to the dustbin of historically discredited ideas.

After all, America was the first to fail our country catastrophically in the run-up to World War II. It no longer makes sense to isolate ourselves from our democratic friends and allies today.

A world stalked by terrorists and belligerent autocrats needs strong American leadership more than ever. Before they can deliver it, our major parties must break with the apologists for both evils in their ranks.

Will Marshall is the founder and president of the Institute for Progressive Politics.

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