By Daniel Larison
June 22, 2016
The American Conservative
The 2016 presidential election has been a dispiriting one for Americans interested in a having a more restrained and responsible foreign policy. The Republican field was overflowing with hawkish candidates, and Hillary Clinton arguably has the most aggressive foreign policy of any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, offers the public a jumbled, incoherent mix of nationalist bluster, support for torture, yet an apparent wariness of new wars, combined with a shaky grasp of international affairs. A Clinton win will ensure at least another four years of the failed conventional Washington consensus, and no one really knows what a Trump administration would do overseas. That’s the bad news.
The good news this year is that the election may bring a few important changes to the make-up of the Senate that could have a salutary effect on the quality and direction of our foreign-policy debates. Several high-profile hawkish members of the Senate face difficult re-election fights this fall or are not seeking re-election. Their possible replacements promise to be a significant improvement, at least when it comes to opposing new wars and supporting diplomatic engagement with rivals and troublesome states.
In Illinois and Wisconsin, incumbents Mark Kirk and Ron Johnson are generally considered the two most vulnerable senators running for re-election this year. Both are first-term senators elected in the Republican wave six years ago, and both have been consistently trailing behind their respective challengers, Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former Sen. Russ Feingold. Kirk and Johnson have been struggling with abysmal approval ratings below 40 percent, and they look likely to be defeated in November. The outcomes of these two elections could represent the biggest shift on foreign policy that we see this year, and in each case it would mean replacing aggressive hard-liners with committed critics of the Iraq War and the foreign policy it represents.
Kirk has been a vocal Iran hawk, and over the last few years he repeatedly compared the negotiations over the nuclear deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich conference. Once the deal was done, he denounced it as being even worse than Munich, going so far as to say that “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman got out of Iran.” Kirk’s hawkishness hasn’t been limited to Iran, however. As a member of the House, he voted for the 2002 Iraq War authorization and backed the war to the hilt in all later votes. In 2013, he supported attacking Syria, and he backed the intervention in Libya in 2011.