Do Americans have foreign-policy principles or just partisan interests?

The crocodile tears for Ukraine and the Kurds being shed by Trump’s critics after backing Obama’s policies provides a lesson in skepticism for friends of Israel.

Kurdish YPG and YPJ fighters in Syria, Sept. 22, 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Kurdish YPG and YPJ fighters in Syria, Sept. 22, 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As a general rule, the average American doesn’t care much about foreign policy as long as the discussion doesn’t involve sending Americans to fight in foreign wars. But we are now experiencing one of those rare moments when foreign policy seems to be more in the news than the economy.

That’s because American politics in 2019 revolves around opinions about President Donald Trump with his foes determined to oppose everything he does, with his fans just as resolute about supporting his actions. So when Trump is accused of placing illegitimate pressure on Ukraine and of withholding aid to that embattled country, Democrats rally to its defense. Similarly, Trump’s foolish decision to abandon the Kurds and allow Turkey to run amuck in northern Syria has caused Democrats to both become ardent supporters of the Kurdish people and to flay the president for a policy predicated on a belief that America should withdraw from the Middle East.

Critics of Trump’s policies do present a persuasive alternative to the choices made by the administration. Moreover, those who go further, arguing that punting Syria to Russia and Turkey not only emboldens those two hostile powers—while at the same time helps Iran extend its malevolent influence in the region, which also endangers Israel—are correct. This gives Jewish critics of Trump, who have been hard-pressed to justify their skepticism about his unprecedented support for the Jewish state, ammunition to back up their claim that despite his stands on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, accountability for the Palestinians and the Iran nuclear deal, he is actually not as good an ally for Israel as his supporters claim him to be.

However, there’s one big problem with these otherwise reasonable assessments of Trump’s shortcomings: Most of the Democrats making them are brazen hypocrites.

It was only a few short years ago that the same people who are now heading to the barricades in support of Ukraine were utterly indifferent to Kiev’s pleas for help when Russian President Vladimir Putin was invading their territory, stealing the Crimea and kicking the Ukrainians out of the eastern portion of their country, where ethnic Russians predominate.

While they now express outrage over Trump’s temporary withholding of military aid to Kiev in order to prompt it to investigate potential corruption on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, they were singing a different tune during the Obama administration. At that time, they voiced no protests over Obama’s and Biden’s refusal to give the Ukrainians the weapons they needed to defend their country (a U.S. policy that was only ended when Trump became president). Instead of worrying about collusion between Trump and Putin, they were winking when Obama was caught telling a Putin underling that he would be able to be “more flexible” in giving the Russians what they wanted after he was re-elected.

The same applies to Syria and the Kurds. In 2013, when Obama disgraced himself just as thoroughly as Trump has just done by backing off his “red line” threat about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, we heard crickets from Democrats. Those who decry Trump’s decision to bug out of Syria now did not oppose Obama’s abandonment of Syria to Russia and Iran. Nor did they worry about enhancing Iran’s power when Obama struck a nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015 that empowered and enriched the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

Still, the Democrats aren’t the only hypocrites on foreign policy. Many Republicans who rationalize and even try to justify Trump’s alleged shaking down of the Ukrainians and his desire to leave Syria or even his betrayal of the Kurds were among those crying foul over Obama’s all-too-similar stands. Seven years ago, Republicans howled in outrage when Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia was America’s greatest geostrategic foe. Now many of them mimic Trump’s willingness to appease Moscow. While to their credit, a good number of Republicans, as well as a majority of GOP members of the House, have denounced Trump’s Syria policy, many on the right have reflexively supported the president and even been willing to abuse Ukraine and the Kurds as not being worthy of American support despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

All too many Americans have no real foreign-policy principles. What they do have is partisan loyalties. In this age of hyper-partisanship, that means that we can rely on most of the politicians and talking heads—and even many of the voters who listen to them—to merely react to controversies involving Eastern Europe or the Middle East strictly on the basis of whether it is a club with which to beat Trump or an instance where the president requires his supporters to defend him.

What this means is that those who are now expressing concern about Trump’s neo-isolationism leaving Israel in the lurch aren’t really serious about the issue. Nor should we expect them to protest if, as is likely, a Democratic successor does the same thing after January 2021.

In the past few generations, Democrats have been consistent opponents of U.S. interventions abroad. Obama’s weak policies were in line with that tradition, and the same is true of the foreign-policy stands of most of the Democratic candidates running for president. Those who think the party will (if only to oppose Trump) embrace the principle that the abdication of U.S. power abroad is dangerous not only to Israel but also to the interests of Americans and other allies are dreaming.

As problematic as Trump’s confusing mix of Mideast policies may be—strong support for Israel and opposition to Iran, along with a determination to abandon the region and some of America’s faithful allies—his Democratic critics have neither clean hands on these issues nor a coherent alternative that ought to persuade friends of the Jewish state to trust them to do any better.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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