In the areas of foreign policy, national security, and military affairs, the U.S. Senate has traditionally been seen as a center of gravity and the land of influential voices. Agree with them or not, our place in the world and the role of our diplomatic and military power over the last thirty years were shaped and defined by the likes of McCain, Levin, Kerry, Hagel, Lieberman. Their shadows were long, their influence was real, and none of them currently walk the halls of congress.
As many in Washington will tell you, the passing of that generation of senior leaders and thinkers has left a void, with no natural successors emerging in the Senate and an executive branch that has not shown an ability to identify or promote new, serious national security voices. So, we are left asking: where is our next generation of great foreign affairs leaders going to come from?
Tuesday night’s midterms may have provided an answer, or at least the beginnings of one. A record number of veterans and national security professionals ran for and were elected to the House of Representatives, continuing a shift away from the Senate and towards the House in the area of foreign affairs leadership.
According to Seth Lynn, the former Marine who runs the Veterans Campaign, more than 75 veterans won House races this year, including 16 freshmen. This continues a trend from recent elections, with 14 veterans joining Congress in 2016 and a dozen each in 2014 and 2012.
As the number of veterans grow in the House, the people’s chamber is also poised to play a more active role in foreign-policy debates as a counterpoint to the Trump White House and the Republican-controlled Senate. Democratic control, coupled with the investigatory powers of the House, will mean more opportunities for representatives from both parties to weigh in on issues of foreign affairs, national security, and military policy.
That includes, of course, those House members who have firsthand knowledge of some of the toughest problems facing America in the world today. They bring to these debates instant credibility grounded in their service, and an intimate understanding of the consequences of sending men and women into harm’s way.
Assuming that the current vote totals in New Jersey’s third congressional district hold, joining the former military members in the new freshman class will be three recent national security officials who could position themselves to influence America’s footprint abroad for decades to come. Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski and Elissa Slotkin each have years of experience on the front lines of America’s foreign policy, having earned their stripes in positions across government under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Kim and Malinowski will both represent New Jersey, crossing paths on their commutes up and down the Acela corridor. The son of Korean-American immigrants, Kim is a Rhodes Scholar who served in Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to Generals Petraeus and Allen and most recently ran the Iraq portfolio for President Obama on the National Security Council.
Malinowski, himself a first-generation American who was born in Poland, served in the Clinton and Obama administrations under numerous Secretaries of State, culminating in his posting as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
A Michigan native, Slotkin joined the CIA after 9/11, racking up three tours in Iraq and then climbing the ranks in the world of defense policy. She ultimately served as the Acting Assistant Defense Secretary overseeing Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa before heading home to run for Congress.
All three of them understand how Washington and foreign capitals work, and have spent time on the ground in national-security hot spots. Had they not run for Congress, all three would have been on the short lists of almost every serious Democratic contender for 2020 as potential campaign advisors and eventual nominees to senior positions at State or DoD. They each bring not only a wealth of relevant experience to the table, but a reputation for getting things done and Rolodexes that allow them to connect deep in the Pentagon, across combatant commands, with think tanks and nonprofits, and into embassies around the globe. They should be considered, and will be, serious players from day one in Congress.
Besides having spent significant time in the situation room, Slotkin, Malinowski, and Kim have something else in common: all three ran campaigns aimed at reaching across party lines and recruiting supporters among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. As Slotkin said on the campaign trail, “I spent 14 years in national security, three tours in Iraq, and no one ever asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t matter, because you’re focused on the mission.”
It is a sentiment shared by many who have served, both in and out of uniform, on the front lines of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. And their numbers are growing in elected office, especially in the House of Representatives. As we look at the next generation of national security challenges this should give all of us hope, hope that the House can lead the way in restoring the bipartisan tradition that was a hallmark of American foreign policy in the past.