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Trump’s State of the Union highlighted the GOP split on foreign policy

Trump exacerbates the Reagan vs. “America First” divide.

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) looks on January 9, 2019.
President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on January 9, 2019.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday was billed as a unifying speech — one that would bring Democrats and Republicans closer together on divisive issues.

But the speech also reminded Republicans of the bitter pill they’ve swallowed over two years: Trump’s foreign policy.

The president continually finds ways to highlight the yawning gap between more traditional, Ronald Reagan-style Republicans who believe the US must serve as a moral and mighty global beacon, and the “America First” crowd who say the US should curtail its adventurism abroad. Trump’s speech in front of those same congressional Republicans on Tuesday night was just the latest illustration of how he has reignited an intraparty feud on America’s global role.

Take, for example, his refrain that the United States needs to withdraw from longstanding military campaigns. During the State of the Union, Trump said the US has spent too much blood and treasure in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, citing the thousands of dead and injured American troops who’ve fought in brutal battles since 2001. Those days, he concluded, are soon coming to an end: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

Trump is serious about that. In December, he ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria and apparently considered cutting the 14,000-strong American force in Afghanistan in half.

But most Republicans are just as serious about US troop deployments — and would rather they stay where they are.

A Senate vote exposed the GOP foreign policy rift

On Monday, just one day before Trump’s high-profile speech to Congress, the GOP-controlled Senate opposed the withdrawal of US service members from Syria and Afghanistan. Sponsored by Senate majority leader and staunch Trump ally Mitch McConnell, the nonbinding measure passed by a 70-26 margin.

“A precipitous withdrawal” would allow terrorists like ISIS in Syria and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan “to regroup, destabilize critical regions and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia,” the resolution read.

The result was, in effect, a victory for the establishment, internationalist wing of Republicans that say the US military has a vital role to play in world affairs. But the more isolationist, “America First” side railed against the result.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a longtime advocate for reducing America’s global footprint, called his colleagues “warmongers” and “supporters of forever war” after the Monday vote.

Trump’s split personality on foreign policy unsettles many Republicans

These foreign policy disagreements have long existed within the Republican Party. In fact, many experts have argued that Trump’s worldview is reminiscent of President Andrew Jackson, who also eschewed global engagement and was skeptical of alliances. But his unique twist on it has somehow piqued GOP officials across the foreign policy spectrum.

Trump is hawkish in the sense that he adores military power, letting his military run roughshod in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. During the campaign, for example, he famously said he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. That pleases those in his party who champion America’s military ability to fight terrorists or potentially stop human rights abuses.

But Trump is also wary about overextending the United States in foreign wars, and has criticized his last two predecessors for invading Iraq, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and sending troops into Syria in the first place. His reticence to reach for the military option in some cases has made him a champion of the anti-interventionist right, who have also found strange bedfellows in the antiwar left.

This sense of whiplash has contributed to the ongoing rift within the GOP.

“Everyone can agree to the general thought that we shouldn’t have endless wars — peace is good and violence is bad,” said Robert Moore, a former Republican Senate staffer who worked on national security. “The bigger question is how do we get to that point, and that’s where the GOP division is.”

The big question now is if Trump’s troop withdrawals — or a future decision to use the military — will make the intra-GOP feud even worse.

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