Where is J. William Fulbright when we need him? Or if not Fulbright, perhaps Robert M. La Follette or George W. Norris. Personally, I’d even settle for William Borah or Burton K. Wheeler.
During the 20th century, each of these now largely forgotten barons of the U.S. Senate served the nation with distinction. Their chief contribution? On matters related to war and peace, they declined to kowtow to whoever happened to occupy the office of commander in chief. On issues involving the safety and security of the American people, they challenged presidents, insisting that the Congress should play a central role in formulating basic policy. With the floor of the Senate as their bully pulpit, they questioned, provoked and thereby captured public attention.
A century ago, La Follette of Wisconsin and Norris of Nebraska, both progressive Republicans, spoke eloquently and at length in opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence that the United States should go to war with Germany. Following the World War I armistice, Borah, a Republican from Idaho, emerged as an uncompromising critic of the Versailles Treaty that Wilson negotiated in Paris. During the late 1930s, having concluded that U.S. participation in that earlier European war had been a huge error, Borah and Wheeler, a Democrat from Montana, sought to prevent President Franklin D. Roosevelt from repeating Wilson’s mistakes. Three decades later, Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas and the influential chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became a thorn in Lyndon B. Johnson’s side as a sharp critic of the Vietnam War.
In opposing presidents whom they saw as too eager to wage war or too certain that they alone understood the prerequisites of peace, these senators were not necessarily correct in their judgments. Yet by drawing widespread public attention to foreign policy issues of first-order importance, they obliged their adversaries in the White House to make their case to the American people.
Whatever the issue — sending Americans to fight on the Western Front, joining the League of Nations, rescuing Great Britain from Hitler or defending South Vietnam — the back and forth between presidents and prominent Senate critics provided a means of vetting assumptions, assessing potential risks and debating possible consequences. In each instance, American citizens gained a clearer picture of what their president was intent on doing and why. The president became accountable.
Contrast that with our situation today. Donald Trump came to office almost entirely ignorant of statecraft. Rather than a considered worldview, he offers slogans and sound bites. As Trump approaches the first anniversary of his inauguration, we can say this about U.S. foreign policy: It has ceased to exist.
Any policy worthy of the name requires principles. Trump has none. So U.S. behavior on the world stage today consists of little more than random and often contradictory impulses. For recent examples, consider the inflammatory rhetoric directed at North Korea, stealth increases in U.S. troop contingents in Syria and Afghanistan, the inauguration of a U.S. bombing campaign in Somalia and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In each instance, the president acted without making the slightest pretense of consulting anyone outside a small circle of White House advisors. None of these decisions, to put it mildly, will Make America Great Again.
As American statecraft succumbs to incoherence, where is the Senate? Somewhere between missing in action and too preoccupied with partisan and parochial considerations to take notice. As a body, the Senate has done nothing to restrain Trump or to enlighten the American people regarding the erratic course on which the president has embarked. Occasional complaints registered by a handful of senators, such as the ailing John McCain, amount to little more than catcalls from the bleachers. In effect, senators of both parties have made themselves complicit in the unfolding folly.
The duty of the Senate is clear — to spell out the implications of Trump’s mishandling of U.S. foreign policy before the damage that he is inflicting becomes irreversible.
Given the chance, any president will treat statecraft as his personal fiefdom. History shows that even a small number of senators with sufficient gumption and wit can frustrate such ambitions. This is what La Follette and Norris, Borah and Wheeler, and Fulbright did in their time. That among their successors today there appear to be none willing or able to take up their mantle is a sad testament to the state of American politics.