When the 13 Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee came out in unanimous opposition to the nomination of Colin Kahl to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy, most issued statements panning his judgment and suggesting he was unwilling to confront U.S. adversaries. Only one said Kahl “backed endless wars in the Middle East.”
Since former President Donald Trump left the White House, Sen. Josh Hawley has arguably been the top populist Republican on Capitol Hill. The Missouri lawmaker has supported cracking down on Big Tech companies, issuing $2,000 individual stimulus payments during the pandemic, imposing a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage for corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenues only, and reinstating Trump immigration policies as border apprehensions rose under President Joe Biden to cheers and jeers within his own party.
But part of Trump’s populist brand was also breaking with the recent GOP past on foreign policy, talking about ending endless wars, or hitting Biden and Hillary Clinton for their Iraq War votes. As Biden’s administration has taken shape, Hawley has stepped up his criticism of the Democrats on that front.
“What a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts,” Hawley tweeted of the incoming national security team in November. “Take Tony Blinken. He’s backed every endless war since the Iraq invasion.”
The senator made similar comments to reporters after Janet Yellen was identified as Biden’s pick for Treasury secretary. “My concerns, as I’ve said before, about what I’m seeing from Vice President Biden is the people who he wants to be in his cabinet are all a bunch of corporate liberals and warmongers,” Hawley said. “So I’d like to see him break the mold.”
Hawley’s shots at the administration come amid uncertainty about whether Biden will stick to a May 1 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan and questions about U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal. (Both the Afghan deadline and American exit from the nuclear pact were Trump administration policies.) This led CNN to unearth blog posts Hawley wrote as the president of the Yale Law School Federalist Society back in 2005, when he was 25, in support of the Iraq War.
The report only led Hawley to double down, with an aide saying the senator’s views “have definitely changed … If the twenty-year failed experiment in ‘neo-conservative’ globalism in the Middle East doesn’t work, nothing will.”
This could set Hawley apart from possible rivals, either for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination or influence over the direction of the party going forward. The Trump administration figures best positioned to run next time around if the former president himself does not — former Vice President Mike Pence, who just reemerged with a project to “synthesize” his ex-boss’s populist politics with the movement conservatism that came before it, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley — are all in seen in MAGA circles as closer to George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has moved to channel Trump’s populism on curbing immigration and confronting China. But his foreign policy reputation is still hawkish overall. Cotton praised Trump at last year’s Republican National Convention as a “commander in chief who speaks of winning wars and not merely ending wars, calls the enemy by its name, and draws red lines carefully but enforces them ruthlessly.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has similarly begun questioning “free market orthodoxy” inside the GOP. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are both outspoken Trump critics on both style and substance.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida had positioned himself as a full-spectrum Trumpist, including on foreign policy. The congressman even voted against Trump on the war in Yemen and presidential war powers in Iran. Trump-aligned Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows also voted for the Yemen resolution before the latter resigned from Congress to serve as Trump’s last White House chief of staff. But Gaetz is now enmeshed in scandal.
Hawley allies argue he is not a recent convert. They point to his 2019 speech to the Center for a New American Security, when, a year after his election, he said the “American public is rightly skeptical of open-ended commitments and rightly tired of endless wars.” Hawley sought to separate himself from what he saw as trends in conservative foreign policy following the Cold War.
“Conservatives have not fundamentally disagreed with their counterparts on the Left about the ultimate goal of creating a progressive international system,” Hawley said. “It’s just that they doubted it could be realized through multilateral institutions. At the end of the day, conservatives didn’t trust anyone to get the job done but America.”
To that end, Hawley pressed the Trump Defense Department on reports the administration was considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East. He also wrote former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to encourage him to “stand with Trump and bring our troops home as expeditiously as possible” from Afghanistan. And he repeatedly argued the biggest national security threat came from a rising China, not the Middle East.
Trump’s failure to end the war in Afghanistan has made some skeptical of populist foreign policy promises in general. A libertarian-leaning Republican Capitol Hill aide called it the “Ted Cruz shtick” of occupying foreign policy space “somewhere between Rand Paul” and the late John McCain.
“A lot of people who were with John McCain in 2008 are closer to Trump or even Rand now,” said a Republican strategist.