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A Democratic senator on how Democrats need to rethink foreign policy

Chris Murphy.
Chris Murphy.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The left-wing Democratic Party has a problem: On foreign policy, it has no idea what it stands for or how to make that happen. Senator Chris Murphy, an earnest 41-year-old who represents Connecticut and has been involved in politics since winning a seat in the Connecticut statehouse at age 25, thinks he has a solution.

Murphy admits, quite openly, that his party has long been afraid to stand up to Republicans on foreign policy. He wants to play a role somewhat akin to what Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders have done on domestic policy: articulate a new left flank in the debate that could actually change the conversation inside the party.

In a June Foreign Affairs article, "Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy," Murphy and his co-authors, Sens. Brian Schatz and Martin Heinrich, wrote, "The new world order demands that the United States think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world, including reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft."

Transforming a party's approach to policy is a tall order, particularly as much of the party coalesces behind the hawkish Hillary Clinton as a likely presidential nominee. So I sat down with Murphy in his office to discuss the principles that underlie his vision of a progressive foreign policy, how they apply to contemporary issues, and how he thinks he can actually win over the party.

Murphy's goal is not just to block Republicans from launching wars or put checks on the presidency, but to push his party to rethink foreign policy itself. As Murphy said at one point, "Democrats need to understand that there are programs like the World Food Program that keep us just as safe as a handful of Tomahawk missiles."

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: Conservatives have a very clear vision of how US foreign policy should operate. How would you describe the progressive worldview?

Chris Murphy: I think having broad views in which every conflict, every region, every fit of grievances fit into a bigger picture is incredibly dangerous today. I think that's how we get ourselves in trouble today: by believing one way of viewing the world fits every conflict in every region.

Very clearly, we do not lay out a page- or two-page-long vision of the world [in our Foreign Affairs piece], because that'd be unrealistic. There is no way to unify the threats faced by the Ukrainians in Donetsk with the threats from Sunni tribes in Iraq. What we're trying to do is put some conditions upon when the United States gets involved in conflicts without, frankly, simplifying the world in a way that you can explain every conflict or every set of grievances through the one simple lens.

If you challenged me to put labels on this, it's not just a progressive vision of the world; it's a realist progressive foreign policy.

ZB: So when you say "limits," the big case where things have gone wrong is the Iraq War — which a lot of Democrats supported at the time. Do you think the party has sufficiently learned the lessons of the war?

CM: I clearly don't think Congress has learned the lessons. It's frankly remarkable how the Republican presidential candidates are rehiring all of the people who got us into the Iraq War and who, by the way, are largely unapologetic about the mistakes they've made. On the Democratic side of the aisle, people have recognized the mistakes that they've made, but we all still want there to be American answers for every international problem.

I think there are still Democrats who believe in our power and our capacity such that there is no conflict, no region in the world that couldn't be made better through an American touch. I don't think we have fully learned the lessons of Iraq, in that even Democrats are still drawn to the idea that every problem around the world still has a partial American answer, and that's just not the case.

At the heart of what we're suggesting is that you have to ask some questions first to justify an American intervention. The fact that there are bad things happening around the world doesn't automatically mean there is a United States–led strategy to try to make that part of the world better.

ZB: Why do you think that idea — that there's an American solution to every problem — persists?

CM: Well, in the postwar environment, the United States stands alone. When you're an unchecked, unparalleled world power in the way that we are today, then it's hard not to believe in your own greatness, your own unlimited capacity. Simply by being an American citizen today, unrivaled in the world in a way that we weren't in the Cold War era, it's easy to believe in your exceptionalism.

What we're trying to do with these principles is ground America in a way that the balance of power doesn't.

Syrian rebels FSA

Free Syrian Army rebels train. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

ZB: The US today is in yet another war that Congress hasn't authorized, in Iraq and Syria.

CM: I think the way in which the president is conducting foreign policy in the Middle East makes it easy for Congress to sit back and do nothing. The president didn't wait for congressional authorization inside Libya; he uses the 2001 and [2002] AUMFs (Authorizations for the Use of Military Force) as justification to proceed inside Iraq and Syria. Congress doesn't have to act, because the president doesn't wait to act.

It's easy for Congress to just stand back and let the executive become more powerful when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy. In part because the president, I would argue, isn't abiding by the Constitution and waiting for congressional authorization before he proceeds militarily.

ZB: One thing you hear about the situation is that there's no solution to Iraq without Syria — and that a number of people, including Hillary Clinton, have proposed stepped-up arming of the Syrian rebels as a solution. If she were to become president, and propose a plan to escalate that effort, would you oppose that?

CM: I don't see any smart strategy in Syria that involves major US support for the Syrian rebels. Just look at who the Syrian rebels are doing business with: to the extent that they are advancing on Assad's regime, they are doing it in concert with groups the United States has been fighting for the past 10 years. The advances the so-called moderate Syrian rebels are making are going hand in hand with groups that pledge their loyalty to al-Qaeda.

ZB: Supposing there were a plan to escalate arming the Syrian rebels, how would you think about actually opposing or blocking it, given how limited Congress's foreign policymaking role has been recently?

CM: I've been on a bit of an island in opposing plans to fund and train the Syrian rebels. Clearly, the lack of an authorization has not stopped the administration and won't likely stop the next one. At that point, all that you're left with is the power of the purse. So I'd certainly be attempting to amend appropriations bills and authorization bills to try to stop US dollars from being used to fund the Syrian rebels.

Now, we're in a better position today than we were a year or two ago. Open source reporting will tell you that we've, for years, been covertly through the CIA training rebels. When you're covertly training them through the CIA, then the US Congress has absolutely no ability to check it, because those of us who are not on the Intelligence Committee can't amend bills that are on the Senate floor to try to check covert activities of the CIA. Now that we're moving the training of the Syrian rebels from the CIA to the Department of Defense, it allows us to at least make a case to restrict funding for those activities.

I don't think I have a majority, right now, to win a fight on the Senate floor. But it allows me a fighting chance to make my case in a way that we weren't able to do when the CIA was running those authorities.

ZB: Do you think it'd be plausible that you could put together a majority, or at least a blocking minority?

CM: I don't think it's possible, right now, with Republicans in charge of the Senate and the House and neoconservatives ascendant in their ranks. It's pretty clear that whatever president, Republican or Democrat, is going to have support for continuing to train the Syrian rebels.

ZB: So what's your theory of change on issues like this? Do Democrats just have to win elections?

CM: I think Democrats have to win elections, but I think Democrats also have to propose a new way of leading in the world that simply isn't dependent on military action. At the root of our principles is an attempt to give Democrats and progressives an answer other than simple military power, exercised overseas.

An example of this is the World Food Program. The World Food Program is about to run out of money for feeding Syrian refugees. The United States is the largest donor, but we rely on other nations in order to fund it.

We view this kind of humanitarian funding in a way that's fundamentally different from how we view military funding: when we decide on a military objective, like in Iraq, we provide all the money necessary in order to fund it. When it comes to a humanitarian objective, we only allocate "our share." Democrats need to understand that there are programs like the World Food Program that keep us just as safe as a handful of Tomahawk missiles.

My project here is not just for Democrats to win elections, but for Democrats to feel confident standing up on the floor of the Senate and saying there's a different way forward. I think there are a lot of Democrats who don't feel like they have any answers other than those that have been proposed by the Obama administration and are supported by traditional neoconservative elements within the Republican party.

ZB: That's an interesting point about Democratic confidence. One thing you might hear from a conventionally minded pollster is that Democrats are afraid to offer a more dovish worldview because they're afraid of being cast as "weak." Clearly, you think that's wrong. Why?

CM: I think there's still a significant hangover from the Iraq War in the United States. And I do not believe that the American public wants a foreign policy that's dependent on the massive deployment of American forces overseas. I think they're hungry for an argument that there are different ways to leverage American power in the Middle East other than simply by the deployment of troops.

But there are no Democrats who are really willing to make those arguments. We've let the terminology get away from us: we're starting by losing if we call economic support "soft power," as opposed to military support, which is "hard power." I think Democrats are loath to support major new economic interventions in the Middle East because it looks weak.

Hillary Clinton

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

ZB: So you think Hillary Clinton's position on these issues is closer to yours than to the Republican mainstream?

CM: I think a lot of these principles are borrowed from the work Clinton did when she was at the Department of State. She was the one who brought, to State and the administration, the term "smart power"; she coined "economic statecraft."

I think it's very clear that she understands, better than anybody else in this field, about the different ways the United States can portray power in the world besides using the blunt edge of military power.

ZB: But she also supported a larger Afghanistan surge than what we saw, and the Libya intervention, and arming the Syrian rebels. That seems to be a very different vision on the use of force than what you outline.

CM: There are certainly places in which I differ with Secretary Clinton and which we'll differ in the future.

Just like today, I don't support all of the choices that President Obama has made. Very clearly, Secretary Clinton understands the mistakes of the Iraq War. She admits that she made a mistake in voting for it, and is determined to use her presidency as a way to learn those lessons. She's learned them in a very personal way, which arguably will make her more committed to this new vision of American foreign policy abroad than someone who hadn't made those mistakes themselves.

Correction: This piece suggested Murphy had been elected to the House of Representatives at age 25. It was the Connecticut House.