The GOP Is Divided Over Iran and Iraq - and It's on Vivid Display on Fox News

The political and ideological divide between the Republican ‘establishment’ and Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has taken center stage on Fox News

President Donald Trump gesturing as he speaks at his Black Voices for Trump rally in Atlanta, November 8, 2019.
John Bazemore/AP

After the killing of Iranian Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani this month, a battle erupted on Fox News and in the halls of Congress between the hawks and doves on the American right. While President Donald Trump regularly boasts of a 95 percent approval rating in the GOP – a disputed stat he never cites a source for – his most recent moves in the Middle East have divided the party and further illustrated what pundits have long argued: The Republican Party isn’t what it used to be, especially when it comes to national security.

The GOP divide is on stark display on Fox News, where top-rated host Sean Hannity and “Fox & Friends” co-host Pete Hegseth have pushed for even greater military action, while host Tucker Carlson and Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera are strong voices against intervention.

Hegseth even argued on the air that Trump should “rewrite the rules of war” and make good on his promise to bomb Iranian cultural sites, while Hannity suggested bombing Iranian oil refineries to cause “major poverty for the people of Iran.”

The split on the network got so heated that Hannity appeared to cancel Rivera’s appearance on his show after Rivera tweeted that he would try to talk Trump down from any further escalation – via Hannity’s show, of which Trump is an avid viewer.

Fox News features prominently in Trump’s foreign policy calculus, as Carlson was a key voice against bombing Iran last June after the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone. And Trump regularly parrots talking points from “Fox & Friends” on Twitter and in official remarks.

Carlson, a former MSNBC host who has become an ideological voice of the Trump movement, riffed on Trump’s rhetoric that U.S. intelligence agencies shouldn’t be trusted and that “endless wars” and Middle Eastern adventurism should be avoided at all costs.

“It’s hard to remember now, but as recently as last week, most people didn’t consider Iran an imminent threat,” Carlson said in an opening monologue on his show. “Iranian saboteurs were not committing acts of terror in our cities. Oh, but our leaders tell us they were about to any second and that’s why we struck first.

“What’s so striking is how many people appear to accept this uncritically. Just the other day, you’ll remember, our intel agencies were considered politically tainted and suspect.”

Carlson outlined another contradiction in Trump’s latest foreign policy move – trusting the intelligence community when it suits him.

Fox News revived some of George W. Bush-era rhetoric, bringing on the air former officials who helped craft the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer and political adviser Karl Rove reacted to Soleimani’s killing on the air, with Fleischer saying, “I think it’s entirely possible this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani, [putting] pressure on the Iranian government to stop the terrorism, stop supporting all of the various terrorist movements it has around the world.”

While Fleischer was offering the pro-democracy, neoconservative talking points that were popular in 2003 during the regime-change era, a 2011 video of Bush slamming “America First” ideology (before Trump had even used phrased) went viral.

Bush said in January 2011 that “if you study history, there are some ‘isms’ that occasionally pop up. One is isolationism and its evil twin protectionism and its evil triplet nativism. So if you study the ‘20s, for example, there was – there was an American First policy that said, ‘Who cares what happens in Europe?’” As Bush put it, “Well, what happened in Europe mattered eventually because of World War II.”

Bush’s warning against isolationism, protectionism and nativism has taken on new meaning this month during the GOP’s battle between “establishment” Bush-era foreign policy and “America First.”

The Trump Doctrine

Trump campaigned on seemingly contradictory promises. He wanted to stop “endless wars” and bring troops home, while he was keen to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State and end Iran’s reign of terror. In 2016, Trump campaigned against the policies of Bush, his Republican predecessor before the Obama era, and even accused him of lying to start the Iraq War.

Trump and his administration are struggling to explain the “imminent threat” Soleimani posed. Trump didn’t go through the regular legal channels à la Bush in publicly presenting intelligence and making a case for military action in Iraq. At the time, Bush sought authorization from Congress and consulted the United Nations.

Trump’s killing Soleimani and risking a full-on war with Iran without consulting Congress is costing him support in Congress – a divide between the hawks and doves that mirrors what’s going on at Fox News.

His Iran strike laid bare a conflicting duality, especially now that the United States has deployed thousands more troops to the Middle East. This duality is being dubbed in the media the “Trump Doctrine.”

Fox trotted out Trump's former Chief Strategist Steven Bannon to extoll the virtues of the "Trump doctrine." Bannon said on Sunday, “This is the Trump doctrine whether it’s in Hong Kong, the ballot box in Taiwan, in the streets of Tehran, freedom and democracy" – apparently giving Trump credit for democracy movements in Asia as well.

GOP senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky have ripped the administration over a closed-door briefing on Iran, saying they will now support a resolution reining in Trump’s military powers.

Lee said it was “the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue,” and condemned the administration for arguing that the strike’s merits shouldn’t be debated in public: “It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s wrong.”

Lee went on to co-sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders’ efforts to deny funding for “unauthorized” military force against Iran. Lee’s statement and actions show a rare GOP split on Trump: The party won’t parrot Trump points that many know are blatantly false. 

A separate measure from Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia aimed at restraining Trump's war powers had enough Republican support to pass as of Wednesday. Senators Lee and Paul co-sponsored the measure while GOP senators Todd Young of Indiana and Susan Collins of Maine said they would support it.

A Trump ally and hawk, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, bashed Lee and Paul. “You know, they’re libertarians,” he said.

Meanwhile, the House has voted for a resolution curbing Trump’s war powers on Iran. While most Republicans voted against, a close Trump ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, broke ranks. “Engaging in another forever war in the Middle East would be the wrong decision,” Gaetz said.

Graham, however, pushed for unity in the face of a national challenge; he and the GOP must now deal with the fallout from the Soleimani killing. A nationwide USA Today/Ipsos Poll shows that by more than a 2-1 ratio, Americans believe the killing of Soleimani has made the United States less safe.

In the survey, 52 percent of respondents said the attack made it more likely that Iran would develop nuclear weapons. Only 8 percent said no. Trump’s pullout from the nuclear agreement and the latest events, which many pundits argue are a direct result of that decision, will feature heavily in the 2020 election. Foreign policy is back in the spotlight.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria says it has halted most of its operations to focus on protecting coalition forces and bases, amid the tensions with Iran. This contradicts Trump’s declaration that ISIS has been “100 percent” defeated.

Also, Graham, who argued that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be a huge win for the Islamic State, Iran and Russia, must now contend with the threat of U.S. troops being expelled from Iraq. Graham, a military lawyer who served in Iraq in 2007 as a reservist, knows the importance of U.S. troops in Iraq as a buffer against Iran.

Trump’s killing of Soleimani also led to NATO’s announcement that it would suspend missions in Iraq. U.S. troops have effectively been paralyzed in the country.