Witcover: A crack in Senate Republican solidarity behind Trump

 U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell

Are Senate Republicansfinally stirring themselves from their stupor over President Donald Trump's reckless Middle East foreign policy?

The recent resounding 68-23 Senate vote for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's amendment rebuking the president over pulling out U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan may signal an overdue break with Mr. Trump by his heretofore most staunch ally on Capitol Hill. Joining the protest were 43 Republicans.


Mr. McConnell's warning that al-Qaida and ISIS and their affiliates in the two war-torn countries "continue to pose a serious threat to us here at home" calls on Mr. Trump to maintain his efforts against them "before initiating a symbolic withdrawal of U.S. forces" there.

"The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from either country would put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security," Mr. McConnell said. "I believe the threats remain. ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated, and American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions there."


He added: "It is incumbent upon the United States to lead, to continue to maintain a global coalition against terror and to stand by our local partners."

The Senate leader argued that his amendment was not partisan, citing that opposition to pulling American forces out of both countries was also backed by four Democratic senators who are either seeking their party's 2020 presidential nomination or contemplating it.

But the significance of Mr. McConnell's amendment was that it marked the second time in two months that he publicly broke with the president, and that fellow Republicans followed suit. In December, they voted to end U.S military aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, in protest of Mr. Trump's failure to rebuke the Saudis in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Noting these breaches is not to say that the Republican Senate majority is about to unravel against Mr. Trump in his latest hour of political travail. His party did, after all, pick up three more Senate seats in the otherwise disastrous midterm congressional elections that saw the House go Democratic.

But in a Sunday interview on CBS, the president said he was ready to send American troops back into Syria on short notice if circumstances warranted, perhaps an indication of his awareness of the dissent within Senate GOP ranks.

His insistence on withdrawing American troops from Syria and Afghanistan, coupled with his general alienation of our allies in NATO and the European Union, strikes at the heart of the Western foreign policy of collective security that grew out of World War II.

Mr. Trump's naïve flirtation with other autocrats across the globe, from Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping to North Korea's Kim Jong Un, has undermined America's standing around the world and made the United States a laughingstock, even among her staunchest allies.

At stake now is much of the international good will and spirit of cooperation and shared responsibility that came about with the decline of totalitarianism in the West, and the concurrent extension of democracy.


Mr. Trump's assault on all of that, in his narcissistic quest for greatness beyond the reach of his limited intellect, wisdom or humanity, has already exacted a price on the great American experiment in self-government. He finds himself in a role for which his abilities and even comprehension of the responsibilities of power are sorely lacking.

It can only be hoped that before too much longer, enough clear-headed and truly patriotic Americans, especially in the vanishing Grand Old Party that Mr. Trump captured, will see the light and find a path for Republican redemption.

Where are the old GOP giants of yore, from Howard Baker of Tennessee to John McCain of Arizona, who put their principles and love of country ahead of party loyalty? And who today will recognize what Mr. Trump has done to the GOP brand of responsible conservatism, and take steps to restore it?

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at