The October 15 Democratic presidential debate had more foreign policy than any debate before it, and the exchanges continue to make news. We are actually having a debate about anti-war policy in the Democratic Party.
The hottest story is clearly the smearing of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard as a Russian agent because she is such a forceful antiwar voice. Hillary Clinton and the New York Times and CNN have called her a Russian asset and Bernie Sanders has defended her. But let’s look first at the leading candidates’ positioning.
In the debate, Gabbard, who served in a combat zone in Iraq in 2004-2005, said that Turkey’s “slaughter of the Kurds” was yet another negative consequence of US intervention in Syria and then challenged frontrunner Elizabeth Warren to “join me in calling for an end to this regime change war in Syria, finally.”
So, look, I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way…. We need to get out, but we need to do this through a negotiated solution. There is no military solution in this region.
This was braver than Warren has been on the issue before. Evidently, she got in front of herself. “Her campaign considered it enough of a gaffe, they actually tried to correct it in the middle of the debate itself by clarifying that she did not mean withdrawing from the Middle East, where we have an extensive series of bases, but simply meant that she wanted to end combat troops, and combat missions in the Middle East,” Susan Glasser of the New Yorker said on NPR.
Glasser is an embodiment of liberal-interventionist establishment thinking on these questions. She went on to say that even that adjustment was “kind of a questionable strategy, in the sense that, What are the troops going to be at the bases for if not to fly for example counter terror missions and the like.”
The star of the debate for liberal interventionists was Pete Buttigieg. The South Bend Mayor served as a Navy intelligence lieutenant in Afghanistan and used Gabbard’s stance to endorse armed American engagement.
Respectfully, Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong. The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence. It’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values…. When we abandon the international stage, when we think our only choices are between endless war or total isolation, the consequence is the disappearance of U.S. leadership… from the world stage, and that makes this entire world a more dangerous place.
Buttigieg raised a lot of money after the debate and the haul is being attributed in part to that militant stance. So did Senator Amy Klobuchar– and it would not be cynical to say that had something to do with her outspoken support for Israel at that debate, the first time Israel has been mentioned in four debates.
Joe Biden also addressed the abandonment of the Kurds, calling it “the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history — excuse me, in terms of foreign policy.” (You’d think there’s some competition on that one.)
Bernie Sanders echoed both Biden and Buttigieg in saying that the U.S. had betrayed the Kurds in a capricious manner.
Now, you tell me what country in the world will trust the word of the president of the United States. In other words, what he has done is wreck our ability to do foreign policy, to do military policy, because nobody in the world will believe this pathological liar.
Susan Glasser embraced Buttigieg for his interventionism, and characterized Warren and Sanders as isolationist:
[Buttigieg] seemed quite confident in saying that it’s a false choice between endless wars, fighting forever, or complete isolationism. He said that was going to be the death of American leadership….
Both Sanders and Warren essentially are adopting some of the language that President Trump is using now. He’s ending the endless wars, he’s ending forever wars. It’s not entirely sure what kind of American leadership in the world they want to substitute for that.
Trump is clearly putting down markers here, making political headway lately with strong antiwar rhetoric. He says his biggest applause line comes when he says he is bringing troops home. His speech on October 12 to the Family Research Council included a long emotional description of seeing “those coffins off those planes” at Dover air force base and of relatives throwing themselves on the coffins even as the soldiers carry them out stoically. He continually assailed the decision to go into Iraq — which Joe Biden supported — and even attacked the “military industrial complex.” The speech echoed his speeches of three years ago blaming Hillary Clinton for fostering war and chaos across the Middle East. That stance arguably won him the more war-affected states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and with them the election.
But the Democratic interventionists are all in. Glasser again: “It’s also not entirely clear that the American presence in Syria that President Trump has now upended would actually qualify as one of those forever wars.”
Warren is plainly torn between the establishment and the left, which is why she accepted Tulsi Gabbard’s challenge on the one hand and kisses up to a pro-Israel group on the other. Back in June, Warren opposed “endless wars” in fairly vague language.
We need to stop the endless wars. No great nation fights endless wars. We bring our people home, that is billions of dollars that we have to spend here at home on our people…
For me, this is not about how to help a giant industry. This is not about how to make a department bigger and bigger and bigger. This is not about how to support endless wars.
Warren is uncomfortable with the subject, even though she is not a novice in foreign policy, Glasser rightly observes. “She served in the Senate Armed Services Comittee and to me at least she seemed not really very fluent in the subject and quite uncomfortable, a stark contrast to her very strong views and very clearly articulated plans for everything. She didn’t really seem to have a plan that was well thought through on the foreign policy side.”
Sanders has been very clear on withdrawing from the Middle East. In the spring he published an article in Foreign Affairs on “ending America’s endless war.” The war on terrorism and the militaristic approach have been a “disaster” that has “corroded our own democracy.”
In the nearly two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States has made a series of costly blunders that have not only weakened our democracy but also undermined our leadership.
During a podcast interview last week, Clinton said Gabbard was a “favorite of the Russians” and was being groomed “to be the third-party candidate,” offering no evidence to support her assertion. Gabbard, who is running a long-shot Democratic presidential campaign, quickly fired back, calling Clinton the “queen of warmongers” while claiming the “corporate media and war machine” were trying to destroy her reputation.
Clinton echoed a New York Times attack on Gabbard that called her an “isolationist,” guilty of “unpredictable attacks” (i.e. telling truth about Kamala Harris and the prison-industrial complex), a creature of the alt right and some say a Russian agent. An all-time low, even for the Times.
Gabbard called the charge “despicable” and challenged Clinton to get back in the race, so she could run against “the warmongering and corrupt powerful establishment.” They’re after her for a reason, Gabbard said: “If anyone stands up to speak out to end the regime change wars… We will be labeled as foreign agents, we will be labeled as traitors to our country… [for challenging this] longheld foreign policy of the United States of which Hillary Clinton was the champion…going around the world, acting as the world’s police.” That’s why Clinton and “her minions” are smearing Gabbard as a traitor, she said. (She also cited “the mainstream media, who have been championing and cheerleading this regime change war.”)
On NPR, Susan Glasser dismisses Gabbard as having no base inside the Democratic Party.
Look, she’s a distraction. She doesn’t have any real support in the Democratic primary field. But she represents on foreign policy in particular a completely outlier perspective on the debate stage. She was essentially agreeing not only with Donald Trump but with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Last night Bernie Sanders stood up for Gabbard:
Tulsi Gabbard has put her life on the line to defend this country. People can disagree on issues, but it is outrageous for anyone to suggest that Tulsi is a foreign asset.
Gabbard is enjoying her moment. She tweeted a video challenge to Hillary Clinton to acknowledge the humanitarian and geopolitical disaster her policies have caused, so that the party can escape her influence.
It’s time for you to acknowledge the damage you have caused and apologize for it. It is long past time for you to step down from your throne so the Democratic Party can lead with a new foreign policy which will actually be in the interests of and benefit the American people and the world.
So the debate is on in the Democratic field about forever wars. Sen. Chris Murphy is not in the race but he is emerging as a leading Democratic foreign policy voice. He spoke at the neoconservative Hudson Institute yesterday, pushing “democracy promotion”. And last week he gave a speech on the Senate floor characterizing the United States as the indispensable nation for world peace.