Ross Douthat: Real disagreements over foreign policy are buried in Trump’s misconduct

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee and staff members prepare for the impeachment inquiry hearing on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, with Marie Yovanovitch, the former United States ambassador to Ukraine. "According to Donald Trump’s Republican defenders, the impeachment spectacle unfolding in Washington, D.C., is all about policy differences rather than presidential misconduct," writes Ross Douthat. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

According to Donald Trump’s Republican defenders, the impeachment spectacle unfolding in Washington, D.C., is all about policy differences rather than presidential misconduct, with career foreign policy bureaucrats cooking up excuses to remove a president whose worldview they disdain.

As is so often the case with defenses of our chief executive’s conduct, this argument fails completely as a defense of Trump’s own behavior, while nonetheless getting at something important about the larger political moment in the West.

It fails because in the specific case under scrutiny, Trump was clearly advancing no policy agenda beyond his own self-interest. Every attempt to depict the president as somehow anxious about corruption in the unstable Ukrainian republic founders on the accumulating evidence that he was only concerned about one case, the one case that happened to involve a political rival, and that he bent U.S. policymaking specifically with that one case in mind. His policy only differed from the policy of the bureaucracy in that its execution was premised on the extraction of a favor, a politically motivated ask.

However, the president’s defenders are right about this much: If you listened to the testimony from the witnesses this past week, you could sense submerged beneath the critique of Trump’s specific actions a larger policy worldview, one not so much argued for as simply assumed. All the people testifying believe that propping up Ukrainian democracy and supporting Kyiv’s struggle against Russian irredentism is an essential goal for U.S. foreign policy. All of them believe that Trump’s behavior wasn’t just wrong because it turned U.S. aid to partisan ends, but also because it undermined a vital policy objective that any patriotic American ought to share.

And this is why the Ukraine scandal is likely to be remembered as a theater-of-the-absurd moment in a more serious and longer-term debate: Because it is not only Trump himself who does not share the professionals’ view of America’s vital interests, but a great many people, voters and politicians, Democrats and Republicans.

Moreover, it is not only the United States where there is a gap between what the foreign policy establishment believes and what the public mood supports. And it is not only populists and troublemakers who are willing to doubt the policy vision that treats the constant enlargement of American commitments, NATO and European Union membership as an inevitable and necessary goal.

One prominent doubter is Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who resisted attempts to involve the United States in Ukraine’s military defense, and who spent his presidency conducting his own internal war against what one of his aides, anticipating Trump’s deep-state complaints, described as the D.C. foreign policy “blob.”

Obama fought a more civilized sort of bureaucratic war than Trump, with fewer ludicrous tweets and impeachable offenses. But it was a conflict over a similar question: To what extent should Western foreign policy prioritize democracy promotion east and southeast of the European core — as opposed to pivoting to a different grand strategy that disengages from those regions for the sake of other ends?

Another doubter is the man often cast as a kind of anti-Trump, a liberal establishment’s white knight — the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who has lately been arguing for a limit on the European Union’s expansion and a friendlier relationship with Russia, while expressing skepticism about the workability of Article Five, NATO’s mutual defense trigger.

These forays have earned Macron criticism from the same establishment figures who placed so much hope in his ascent. But really they should prompt a recognition that doubts about the West’s security architecture aren’t just the preserve of Russian trolls and isolationists. They reflect a deep and reasonable public uncertainty about the establishment’s post-Cold War autopilot, the extension of American and European commitments far past what prudence and public opinion both will bear.

Admittedly, the alternative to that autopilot is hardly clear. For Obama, it was a Russian reset that failed and a pivot to Asia that Middle Eastern troubles kept sabotaging. For Trump, it’s the containment of China and Iran by some sort of league of U.S.-friendly strongmen, with self-enrichment as a side benefit. For Macron, it might be a Europe that focuses more on internal integration in preparation for the challenge of migration waves to come.

But the uncertainty around alternatives will not prevent them from emerging, on the right and left alike, even if the establishment ultimately wins its war with Donald Trump. And if Trump’s manifest corruption and buffoonery has strengthened that establishment in certain ways — by persuading liberals, for instance, to subsume their skepticism of the national security state in newfound Russophobia — his political resilience is also an indicator of the limits on its influence.

The Senate Republicans who are likely to ultimately vote for Trump’s acquittal are unlikely to fully defend the specifics of his conduct. But the critique of American priorities that the professionals would like to see buried by association with his misconduct — that critique will rise again.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.