The Indiana senator with a bipartisan streak on the Middle East

Republican Todd Young has forged a host of unlikely foreign policy alliances on Capitol Hill. He sat down with Jewish Insider to talk about his philosophy, his role models and why it’s OK for politicians to change their minds

For years, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) has worked to articulate a “progressive foreign policy,” building a name for himself among supporters of diplomacy and anti-war activists. 

He has found an unlikely ally and frequent collaborator in Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican who spent the 2020 election cycle overseeing Republicans’ Senate campaign arm. The pair has led the effort in Washington to rein in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, issuing several statements together forcefully calling attention to the country’s devastating humanitarian crisis and Washington’s role in perpetuating it. 

The two, who together lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East subcommittee, work closely together in Washington; in April, they attended a dinner at a Washington restaurant with Qatari diplomats to seek a Qatari donation to counter widespread hunger in Yemen.

In May, while Israel and Hamas were embroiled in a deadly flare-up, Young and Murphy again joined together to speak in one voice on the Middle East, issuing a joint statement calling for a cease-fire.

“Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas’ rocket attacks, in a manner proportionate with the threat its citizens are facing,” read the statement. “As a result of Hamas’ rocket attacks and Israel’s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further.”

Young was the only Republican to sign onto the letter, along with 27 other Democrats, giving the statement a coveted and rare “bipartisan” label. But several hours after the letter’s release, Young removed his name. At the time, he did not offer an explanation as to why he initially signed on. But he told JI last week that it was a matter of changing his mind as he received more facts. 

As Young remembers it, a news report suggested that Israel supported a cease-fire. “It said in there, ‘Israeli government seeks cease-fire,’” Young recalled. He later learned the reality was more complicated.

He and Murphy felt “like we should have our voices heard on this, let the state of Israel know that we have their backs on this as they try and achieve this cease-fire,” Young said. But other Republicans accused President Joe Biden, who had also called for a cease-fire, of undermining Israel’s interests. At a press conference at which Young also spoke, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) argued that, in a phone call with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden “condescended and lectured to Prime Minister Netanyahu and urged him to stop defending Israel against the terrorists.”

A spokesperson for Young told JI at the time that the senator “shares his colleagues’ concerns about a premature cease-fire or one that occurs on Hamas’ terms” and called for  Israel to take out Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza.

“This would embolden Hamas, if you call for a cease-fire before, frankly, before the State of Israel has an opportunity to respond in kind and demonstrate that Israel will respond, and that’s necessary for their own deterrence,” Young explained last week. “I was persuaded by that latter argument, unfortunately after having affixed my signature.”

“I’m willing to admit when I don’t have all the information. You never have all the information. But I learned more, and I changed my position accordingly,” said Young. 

But the public divergence from Murphy, who did not comment at the time on Young’s reversal and did not respond to a recent request for comment from JI, shows that Young’s work with progressive Democrats on foreign policy may have its limits. Murphy has been a leading supporter of the Biden administration’s efforts to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, while Young decidedly opposes reentering the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“We shouldn’t go back to the JCPOA,” Young, who is up for reelection in 2022, said. “We haven’t gotten anything for withdrawing [from the deal in 2018] and if anything, the Iranians have used their additional wherewithal to expand their malign activities across the Middle East and beyond.”

He called for increasing sanctions on Iran, and said that “we should reassure Israel that whatever they decide to do,” he explained, “we’ll be supportive of that.” 

To Young, this fissure with Murphy is not indicative of a problem in their relationship, or with other sometimes-partners from across the aisle. It’s a defining feature of his approach to foreign policy. “There are no permanent partners,” said Young. “I like members who are critical thinkers. If they’re too predictable, they’re probably not my favorite members to work with. Because to be predictable often means to lack nuance or, really, critical thinking.”

In his first term in the Senate, Young has become an unexpected leader on issues of foreign policy, and one with a penchant for flying under the radar. In April, Business Insider called Young “the most important senator you’ve never heard of.” 

“I think the progressive label and the conservative label applies more to domestic policy,” said Young. “When it comes to foreign policy, I look for other labels. Are you a realist? Are you realistic in your analysis?”

“I’m so impressed with how quickly Todd Young has become one of the most consequential voices on national security and foreign policy issues,” said Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Her nonprofit, which advocates for U.S. global leadership through development and diplomacy, honored Young and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at its virtual gala earlier this month.

There is no “America First” in Young’s worldview, although he is far from a never-Trumper. Nor is there the reflexive disdain for the Biden administration’s actions espoused by many Republicans, although Young posits that the current American government is viewed as “weak” by many adversaries and allies. (This is not just about Biden, Young explained: “Our system is perceived to be weak.”) 

On domestic issues, he’s a small-government conservative who doesn’t like raising taxes. On foreign policy, he takes an expansive view of America’s role in the world, and he isn’t opposed to creating new government programs to bolster what he views as “our democratic values.” 

He authored the Endless Frontier Act, legislation that would counter China’s growing influence and edge in technology and artificial intelligence by creating a new office in the State Department to “improve national competitiveness in science, research, and innovation to support the national security strategy,” according to the bill’s text. The bill passed the Senate in June but has not yet been voted on by the House. 

“I think the progressive label and the conservative label applies more to domestic policy,” said Young. “When it comes to foreign policy, I look for other labels. Are you a realist? Are you realistic in your analysis?”

Young thinks of himself as a realist, willing to acknowledge when situations change and when his position should change, too. 

That’s what happened in Yemen: He and Murphy spent years campaigning for the U.S. to stop supporting Saudi Arabia in its campaign against the Houthi rebels in the country, but now, Young acknowledges that America’s stronger interest is in stopping the Iran-aligned Houthis, rather than ending the Saudi-led campaign entirely. 

That doesn’t mean he’s ready to say America was always in the right, though.

“I’m quite certain that we, working with our friends in the region Saudi Arabia and UAE, pushed the Houthis into the arms of the Iranians by destabilizing the region,” Young said. “It was mostly the Saudis who destabilized the region, but we gave them diplomatic cover. We gave them military support. And we’re a part of the coalition.”

Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young (R-IN) speaks to reporters following the Senate Republican policy luncheon which both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended on March 10, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

More than six years after the Saudis began their campaign in the country, the Houthi rebels remain entrenched and are firmly aligned with and supported by Iran. “The Houthis have become so destabilizing, so aggressive in their activities in Saudi Arabia — specifically their targeting of the Saudis and others, including Americans who are in the country, with their drones, missiles, rockets — that we need to support the Saudis’ efforts to defend themselves,” said Young. “So as conditions change, my position as to our approach certainly needs to change.” 

Still, the Indiana senator also sounded a word of caution for partners, mostly on the left, who continue to sing the same tune on Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. 

“The visceral apprehension that some of my colleagues have to recognize the changed circumstances in Yemen strikes me as really unwise,” Young said. “No one was more critical, more vocal against the Saudis, and to a lesser extent the Emirates and even the U.S. government when I needed to be than me. But we’re now at a point where the more serious threat to our interests and to our values is the Houthi movement.” 

Young has not released any statements on Yemen with Murphy since July, when they praised Qatar’s announcement of a $100 million donation to help alleviate the country’s humanitarian crisis. But earlier this month, the pair were not among a bipartisan group of senators who tried to stop a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. They voted against rejecting the sale. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become toxic in some corners of Washington since the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (“Which is insane,” said Young, nearly shouting: “No one paid any attention to the death of thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of people on account of starvation in Yemen when I was screaming.”) When former President Donald Trump met with the crown prince, known as MBS, in 2019, he garnered criticism for saying the Saudi leader was doing a “spectacular job.”

Meeting with MBS should not be off-limits to Biden, Young said. But he would advise the president to meet with the crown prince, who is believed to have ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, only if there are “clear deliverables that were likely to be achieved.” 

“It’s a bad habit to put the president of the United States, or for himself to go into situations where you’re not accomplishing much,” said Young, “especially at a time when many leaders and even just rank-and-file people around the world are perceiving our government to be weak.” 

The realist school of thought, to which Young subscribes, has often been associated with a strong defense posture and a commitment to national security, and the idealist school of thought has been considered more diplomatic, based on the positive intentions of allies and adversaries. But Young’s vision of a strong America is not necessarily an America that rushes into military action. 

His biggest priority this year has been repealing two bills authorizing military force in Iraq from 1991 and 2002. The latter has allowed four presidential administrations to strike with near-impunity in the Middle East.

Young has spearheaded the effort with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). Together, they have led efforts to repeal the 2002 AUMF that has been used by presidents to justify military action far beyond Iraq. Young, who in 2001 had recently left the Marines and was working as a staffer at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, thinks the AUMF has been applied far too broadly, with most members of Congress too scared to express opposition to it.

In a June article in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, Kaine and Young argued that Congress’s failure to rein in presidential war powers reflects political weakness.

“This elevation of political fear over the Constitution is Capitol Hill conventional wisdom: If Congress can evade a tough vote on military action, it will. And this failing is completely bipartisan,” the senators wrote, criticizing actions taken by both Democratic and Republican administrations. 

Like Murphy, Kaine has sought a leading role in the burgeoning progressive foreign policy movement. He diverges from Young on a lot of national security issues, perhaps chief among them Iran, but they maintain a strong working relationship.

Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

“Todd brings his military background, his conservative fidelity to constitutional principles, and his deep appreciation for U.S. diplomacy, influenced no doubt by his early work for [former Republican Sen.] Richard Lugar, to every issue,” Kaine told JI. “I pay him the highest compliment I can pay to a colleague — when you convince him on the merits of an issue, he will not let polls or pols dissuade him.” 

But an understanding of the seriousness of waging war — and the constitutional requirement that Congress be involved in military strikes — does not mean Young seeks diplomacy above all else. 

Young fashions himself a statesman in the mold of his former boss and mentor,  Lugar, for whom he worked as a legislative assistant two decades ago. The goal is to keep learning and studying, something Young appears to take to heart. 

“There are plenty of role models to be found out there,” said Young. “Usually they’re the ones who aren’t generating a lot of heat, but instead focus on creating light where they could and shining a new perspective on issues or some new facts that hadn’t been considered before.”

He ticked off a list of some of those role models that serve alongside him in the Senate: Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Richard Burr (R-NC), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ). 

“You’ll always find that as relates to foreign policy, there are more details to be discovered, more nuances to be considered, and new policy instruments to be brought to bear in order to advance the U.S.’s interests,” said Young.

Bernard Hasten, a prominent Republican pro-Israel activist from Indiana, pointed out that Young’s foreign policy expertise is probably not why Indianans elected him. 

“The majority of Hoosiers do not care much about foreign policy. They care more about what’s going on domestically and relying on the state of Indiana,” said Hasten, who has known Young since he first ran for the House of Representatives, where he served from 2011 to 2017 before moving to the Senate.

But Schrayer, of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, has seen Young make the case for American global leadership to his constituents. 

“I hosted him in Indianapolis with hundreds of his constituents. It was a very diverse group,” she recalled. “I remember specifically with him at this event how profoundly he connected with his constituents about why leading globally matters locally.”

One way he might bring home the importance of foreign policy leadership to his constituents back home? Soccer. He has spoken with the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, about bringing a soccer game between the Israeli and Emirati national teams to the Hoosier State.

“Soccer was my passion growing up. I learned a lot about life, and maybe even politics, through soccer,” Young explained. “Sports have not only been used throughout history as a tool of statecraft, but I think currently, it’s an underutilized tool. There’s nothing that brings middle America together more than sports.” 

Young has sought to expand the Abraham Accords, not just in new opportunities between the nations that forged peace deals last year but also in adding new countries to the Accords. 

In a meeting with Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked last month, he brought up an idea — “and I’ll be vague, because it remains half-baked” — with the goal of “incentivizing other countries to continue to establish deeper relationships with Israel, which of course would help the United States in many respects,” Young said. “She liked the idea. It was a nice back-and-forth.”

In the meantime, there’s soccer.

Young played high school soccer in Indiana, winning a state championship for Carmel High School before going on to play Division I ball at the U.S. Naval Academy. He still hits the soccer field occasionally for exercise, and as a member of the House, he played in the annual congressional soccer game.

Call it soccer diplomacy: “To the extent we can engage in competitive activities on the field and then come off and shake one another’s hand, that’s a healthy exercise,” said Young. 

“Is it going to change the world single-handedly? No, of course not,” Young acknowledged. But, he added, “I hope we can make that happen.”

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