Last week, President Donald Trump bolstered his shaky reelection claims to being a peace candidate with a striking nomination for a key foreign policy job: He tapped William Ruger, a scholar who wants a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, to be the new American ambassador in Kabul. This week, Trump’s own party is set to doom his latest gambit to “end endless war.”
The Republican-led Senate will likely fail to advance Ruger’s nomination in the brief period left before the chamber adjourns until after the November election, according to people familiar with the situation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must vote on Ruger before the full body does, has not scheduled a hearing for him and the chances it will do so are diminishing, though administration officials say they are still trying to put him on the committee’s calendar.
The whole situation highlights two big problems with the president’s attempt to convince voters that he will end unpopular American wars: Trump’s own incompetence and the GOP’s ideological muddle on national security.
Ruger is well-respected by many lawmakers and foreign policy analysts; bringing him onto Trump’s team didn’t have to be a reach. And Ruger’s presence would help Trump argue that he was challenging hawks who have traditionally dominated Washington policy-making by giving more power to people who advocate a more restrained approach internationally.
“Having somebody who has been firmly, clearly and publicly committed to withdrawal as soon as feasible and with very few preconditions, not withdrawal as some kind of aspiration ― that’s a big change,” said Gil Barndollar, a researcher at the Catholic University of America who is personally close to Ruger. (The Charles Koch Institute, where Ruger currently works, has funded projects that Barndollar has worked on.)
The Afghanistan ambassador job would give Ruger responsibility for helping to achieve one of Trump’s top priorities. The president is pulling more than 4,000 troops out of Afghanistan before the election. Under a deal he authorized with the Taliban militia the U.S. is fighting, all American forces will withdraw by the middle of next year ― if negotiations proceed as planned.
Ruger has worked with many progressives and influential advocacy groups as one of a handful of crucial conservative allies for the campaign to end U.S. support for the brutal Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Combine that with his relatively dovish views, and his supporters could envision his nomination passing with some Democratic votes even if a few hardline Republicans opposed it, handing Trump a rare bipartisan victory.
Instead, the president waited more than a month, according to a source familiar with the process, to send the nomination to Capitol Hill after he settled on it. He hasn’t described it as a priority. Sealing the deal has fallen to lower-level legislative staff at the White House and State Department. Some of Ruger’s supporters are prodding Senate Republicans publicly and privately but they are mostly deferring to Trump’s aides out of respect.
To trust the current administration to implement a complex strategy is always a risky choice; to expect it to do so as part of an effort to change the GOP’s orthodoxy is a big gamble. Ruger’s positions are far less bellicose than those of top lawmakers who will determine his fate, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho). Those lawmakers may not want a public fight with the president over the nomination ― and they almost certainly blessed Trump’s choice behind closed doors before he sent it to Capitol Hill ― but they may also decide the easiest option is to simply never consider the matter at all.
Ruger and a White House spokesman declined to comment for this story. Spokespeople for McConnell did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, supporters of a more hawkish foreign policy are attacking Ruger. The Washington Free Beacon published a story last week alleging that three Hill staffers had said he could not be confirmed. One of its sources, described as “a senior Republican congressional aide,” called the nominee “an anti-Israel, pro-open borders, hardcore isolationist.”
The report also tied Ruger to Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel known for violent and racist commentary whom Trump wants to appoint as the U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Proponents of a less activist foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, have repeatedly been accused of disregarding or even opposing U.S. ally Israel. (And there is, of course, a history of American isolationism flirting with anti-Semitism.) But for Ruger’s critics to bring up that charge now shows how heated the GOP’s internal fight over its future foreign policy has become.
In taking over the party, Trump loudly criticized the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and a broad array of ambitious American projects abroad. His election offered an opportunity for conservatives who want a more restrained posture abroad to gain greater sway than they have had in decades. His harshest Republican opponents are figures associated with the party’s neoconservative school of thought, which has promoted aggressive U.S. efforts to try to reshape the world ― and many of them have now left the GOP. But more militaristic thinking still persists among many of the most powerful Republicans, who have connected such an approach to Trump’s own narrative about looming foreign threats.
The tussle between these factions plays out in proxy fights. Ruger’s nomination is one. And it’s especially important because he is connected to another: the clash over the Quincy Institute, a nascent think tank whose funders include the Charles Koch Institute. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has bashed the Quincy Institute on the Senate floor and the Free Beacon suggested in January that it is “dogged by charges of anti-Semitism” because people connected to it have previously criticized the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
This take on anti-intervention conservatives seems especially unfair in Ruger’s case; the aide quoted by the Free Beacon last week notably included no evidence for their claims about the nominee. Ruger has spoken of supporting and defending Israel ― and, in fact, visited the country on a trip organized by American supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel bond, said a source involved in his confirmation who would only discuss the sensitive process on the grounds of anonymity.
The source also challenged any association between Ruger and Macgregor, who while calling for drawing down American troop deployments in places like Europe, has also urged U.S. officials to institute martial law at the border with Mexico and potentially “shoot people,” per CNN.
Ruger’s “work is part of a growing restraint-oriented foreign policy consensus that’s gaining strength because it’s representative of where a strong majority of the American people actually are. If pro-war voices are anonymously criticizing him in the press, that’s only a point in his favor,” said Matt Duss, the foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders has said he would be open to speaking with Ruger about his vision to end the Afghanistan War.
Proponents of a more restrained foreign policy note that no high-profile Republicans have openly disparaged Ruger’s nomination. But the slow nature of the process is also diminishing their hopes of a move toward more dovish policy.
“Even in this putatively populist Republican politics, there’s ... a very small bench” of elected conservatives who question hawkishness, Barndollar said. The trend is “advancing in fits and starts. ... Hopefully Will’s confirmation will be one of those.”
Should Ruger actually secure the ambassador job, he would have the chance to demonstrate that relatively unconventional figures with strong anti-intervention views can succeed in important foreign policy roles. “He’s not frequently seen as part of the Afghan expert community,” said a former senior State Department official who requested anonymity to offer context on diplomatic matters. The former official said specialists in the agency were surprised by Trump’s selection, particularly the timing of it ― and wondered if it was connected to a political desire to court the well-funded Koch network.
The former official also suggested Ruger could have a tough time from the outset because of his past statements, like describing Afghanistan as far less strategically important to the U.S. than the way it’s been treated, which could make Afghans wary.
For Barndollar, a fellow supporter of a U.S. withdrawal, that would be a benefit to having Ruger as ambassador: “There’s no sense of false promises or being misled by the Americans if you have an emissary who’s somebody like Will.”
UPDATE: Sept. 25 — A week after this story published, Ruger’s nomination remained in limbo even as some conservatives continued to promote it. Suzanne Wrasse, a spokesperson for Risch’s Foreign Relations Committee, told HuffPost the responsibility for the delay lies with Trump’s team.
“Before the [committee] vets any nomination, we need a complete file from the nominee and the White House, and as of today, we still don’t have that,” Wrasse wrote in an email on Sept. 25. “Once we do, we can move forward on vetting and meetings with senators before a hearing could be held. That said, [the presidential personnel office] needs to complete its work before we can begin to consider when we might hold a hearing.”