On Thursday, for the first time in the 45-year history of the War Powers Act, senators passed a resolution that would end a war—in this case, United States involvement in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
The catalyst for the resolution had little to do with the war itself. In March, senators had voted 55-44 against bringing the same resolution to the floor. But then, in October, the Saudis murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside their Istanbul consulate. After Khashoggi’s death saturated the news, the outrage boiled up into Washington’s political class.
Even the most hawkish members of the establishment felt personally betrayed by their Saudi partners. Senator Lindsey Graham, a hard-line Iran critic, called for Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to be replaced. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believed bin Salman had “committed murder” by ordering Khashoggi’s death and declared Saudi Arabia “a semi-important country and a semi-important ally.” In Khashoggi’s wake, a fundamental rethinking of the alliance might yet be in the works.
The effect of the affair on US-Saudi relations serves as an important directive for a left foreign policy: By increasing democratic input into the way the United States acts abroad, we might constrain our worst impulses.
Foreign policy is, by constitutional design, walled off from mass organizing and public input. We don’t hold national referendums on whether to enter into trade deals, form strategic alliances, or recognize other countries. Even in areas where our elected representatives are meant to give the public some say, such as going to war, Congress has abdicated authority.
In the perpetual state of emergency of the post–September 11 era, a blanket of secrecy has spread over US military action abroad. It’s become impossible for the average American to assess where or how many troops we have deployed, the support we provide to some of our most abusive allies, or the strategic rationale behind either. The sense of crisis that accompanies the “war on terror” has only exacerbated the tendency for Congress to throw up its hands in deference, giving rise to seemingly indefinite and unchecked conflicts around the world.
So what if a well-informed public knew better?
The unprecedented outpouring of anger over Khashoggi’s murder suggests that they do. An October Axios/SurveyMonkey poll found that 56 percent of Americans believed Trump had not been tough enough on the Saudis in the wake of the killing. A Rasmussen poll found that 57 percent of likely voters considered Khashoggi’s fate important to national security. Those views dovetailed with skepticism of the US-Saudi alliance: An Economist/YouGov poll found that only 4 percent of Americans considered Saudi Arabia an ally. This seemed to translate into strong disapproval of the Yemen war: A YouGov Blue/Data for Progress poll, in turn, found that 58 percent of Americans with an opinion on the matter wanted the United States to end its support, while 22 percent wanted to continue it.
This tells us that while the average American might know little about Saudi-Iranian proxy wars, the Houthi rebels, or the extent of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, ordinary people clearly understand a journalist’s murder to be an outrageous crime—and further, can connect that crime to the repressive nature of the Saudi regime and the morally compromising US-Saudi relationship.
American leaders as far back as Alexander Hamilton have been deeply skeptical about mass opinion. For years, scholars have debated whether more public input into foreign policy is good because it constrains elites, or bad because it is wild and unpredictable.
A common counter-argument to giving the public more say is that voters can too easily be whipped into a harmful nationalist fervor. In foreign policy, a sudden shift in opinion can sometimes entail a violent course change for the entire ship, causing nine-figure drops in foreign assistance budgets or the beginning of a war that kills hundreds of thousands.
“Once wars begin, a significant element of American public opinion supports waging them at the highest possible level of intensity,” the hawkish historian Walter Russell Mead wrote (favorably!) in 1999. Citing with affection what he characterized as the mainstream “Jacksonian” inclination toward honor and brawling in American mass culture, Mead wrote that “[h]aving gotten Jacksonian opinion into a war in Vietnam or the Persian Gulf, it was very hard to get it out again without achieving total victory.”
Writing at the peak of American hegemony, Mead only obliquely acknowledged why the mobs are sometimes so keen for combat: misinformation.
Four years after Mead’s article, the Bush administration launched the Iraq War—the single greatest blow to public faith in journalism and the foreign-policy elite in generations. Misinformation, as it turns out, can have disastrous results. From November 2001 until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, public support for removing Saddam Hussein with ground troops never dipped below 52 percent in Gallup polls. On March 20, the day of the invasion, almost 90 percent of Americans believed it was “at least somewhat likely” that we would find weapons of mass destruction.
The public, obviously, was wrong—but the responsibility wasn’t all theirs. Rather, it belonged to the journalists, think tankers, paid commentators, and politicians who either cheered on the war or failed abysmally to challenge its pretenses.
Daniel Bessner and Stephen Wertheim, historians of US international relations, have argued that foreign-policy experts, instead of addressing their post-2001 mistakes, hid away on the East Coast, many of them only to return as reformed never-Trumpers. Experts, as the philosopher John Dewey argued 90 years ago, are meant to “assist the public, not replace it”; in the September 11 era, they have rarely had to answer to anyone.
In Bessner and Wertheim’s view, the more democratized foreign policy of decades past at least attempted to get closer to the public, featuring citizens’ organizations such as the Foreign Policy Association, the Institute of Pacific Relations, and the Council on Foreign Relations, which established regional councils in middle America and hosted debates. This alone may not have changed Washington’s foreign-policy decisions, but it encouraged disagreement and critique. The 1966 Vietnam War hearings chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright, for instance, eroded President Johnson’s ratings for handling the war from 63 to 49 percent and, in the words of Fulbright’s biographer, “opened a psychological door for the great American middle class” that helped fuel the anti-war movement.
In the end, it is Congress that sits at the heart of the issue. Elected representatives need to harness the recent surge of support for more just and equitable policies at home to create a more just and equitable world outside the nation’s borders, too. The connection the American public made between the suffering of one man and the war in Yemen is a theme that senators and representatives can expand to other failings, such as the response to the crisis in Central America or our support for authoritarians in the Middle East.
Senators Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and Martin Heinrich already offered a detailed progressive foreign policy platform in 2015. More recently, Senator Bernie Sanders has begun putting forward a progressive story about international affairs that can animate voters. In an October speech at Johns Hopkins University, Sanders called for a “global democratic movement to counter authoritarianism.” Central to this worldview is the idea that foreign and domestic policy are inseparable, and that the United States cannot be taken seriously as a defender of democracy and equal rights in the world if it does not do so at home.
Echoing this theme, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for a “peace economy” that redistributes funds from war making to domestic needs. The idea is popular, including in some surprising places: According an October MoveOn survey, 54 percent of Texans said it should be a high priority to reallocate “some of the Pentagon budget to invest in domestic programs like Social Security and health care,” and roughly two-thirds said they would be more likely to support candidates who believe the United States should work more closely to solve global problems with international organizations.
These ideas also have an American pedigree arguably as deep and powerful as Mead’s “Jacksonian” tradition. In his landmark speech against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. told the crowd that when “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” and called for “a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.” Fourteen years earlier, speaking a month after the death of Stalin, President Eisenhower laid out a similar, domestic case for stopping the Cold War at its inception. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” Eisenhower said.
That Eisenhower’s speech sounds radical 65 years on shows how accustomed we are to the unnatural background hum of costly, indefinite, worldwide and unchecked conflict. It was not always like this, and most Americans want to do something about it.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately cited the month of Jamal Khashoggi’s death. He was killed in October, not November. The text has been updated.