Partisanship requires a certain level of hypocrisy. Republican Congresses and the conservative media put on their green eyeshades and become budget hawks during Democratic presidencies, then abandon such fiscal principles in favor of big new spending commitments when Republicans are in the White House. We're seeing this play out in real time now: After eight years of railing against President Obama's deficit spending, the GOP Congress seems ready to embrace Donald Trump's big ideas about infrastructure spending.
Democrats have a version of this hypocrisy as well. It's on foreign policy.
Wars launched under Democrats are often lauded by many liberals as great patriotic exercises, vindicating our nation's commitment to human rights. When those same wars are prosecuted by Republicans, they ipso facto lack congressional oversight and authorization, and the connecting lines between U.S. action and the suffering of poor non-white innocents around the globe suddenly reveal themselves to the bleeding hearted.
In less than two weeks, Trump will assume the office of the presidency. He will inherit from Obama a U.S. military engaged in conflicts across the Islamic world. Will Democrats who either cheered or ignored these patriotic exercises of American power suddenly find it in themselves to oppose these wars as racist, imperialist actions of an arrogant unilateral superpower gone rogue?
The sheer scale of U.S. engagements astonishes. The Pentagon recently posted its annual report on U.S. military bombings. In total, the Pentagon claims the U.S. dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. Most of them were in Iraq (12,192) and Syria (12,095). Five other Muslim countries were further down the list: Afghanistan (1,337), Libya (496), Yemen (34), Somalia (14), and Pakistan (3). Even this very specific-seeming tally undercounts the reality. Each strike can involve multiple bombs. And this doesn't count the totality of the U.S. role in bombings, such as providing targeting data and refueling plans in Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.
By themselves, the numbers are an indictment of Obama's foreign policy. Eight years ago he campaigned against the “distraction” of the Iraq War, and on finishing the job in Afghanistan. His presidency began with a scheduled drawdown of American forces in Iraq and a "surge" in Afghanistan. But, faced with ISIS outrages and an Iraqi government on life support, Obama dramatically increased American air power there. While he embraced that distraction, Afghanistan got no better. The U.S. surge reclaimed more territory from the Taliban, but as the Obama surge faded, the Taliban surged in return.
Obama will avoid some of the judgment of history by passing these endless, festering conflicts onto his successor. Trump will have the unenviable choice of ending them in humiliation, passing the results on to triumphant and opportunist rivals, or trying a version of George W. Bush's and Obama's "surge to withdraw with a scrap of dignity" strategies. Any and every alteration to the current policy will surely stir up Democratic partisans to attack Trump, either as a pathetic weakling withdrawing America from the world as Russia surges, or as a warmongering megalomaniac.
But lo and behold: The great, fake partisan drama of Washington, D.C., occasionally draws in a man who hasn't entirely severed the attachment between his mouth and his principles.
If Democrats do find themselves drifting toward dovishness, they could do worse than turning on a microphone beneath the mouth of Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who managed to criticize American foreign policy even when Obama was running it, and even when the conflicts were obscure to the American public. In an interview in August, Murphy told CNN's Jake Tapper, "If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you, this is not perceived to be a Saudi bombing campaign. This is perceived to be a U.S. bombing campaign. What's happening is that we are helping to radicalize the Yemeni population against the United States." The Connecticut senator also noted that this intervention was "another example of a war being conducted by this administration without prior approval by Congress and therefore by the American public."
If we are to have one bit of consolation in the Trump era, it is this: At least for a moment, different set of truths can now be uttered about our government.