Published: October 11, 2019
We all know what Donald Trump thinks about foreign policy. America should not fight a war on behalf of the Kurds because they "didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy." Both of these things are true, despite the fact that there is no meaningful logical relationship between the premise and the conclusion. (I do wonder, though, what Trump thinks Japan was doing circa June 1944.) Still, in his bumbling inconsistent way, the president manages to get more things right about foreign affairs than any of his predecessors since George H.W. Bush, which is admittedly a low bar. His response to Turkey's recent campaign against Kurdish militants — doing nothing, while vaguely insisting that President Erdogan not do anything out of line — is essentially in keeping with this.
What about his Democratic challengers, all 19 of them? Foreign policy has not been a major theme so far either on the campaign trail or in their televised debates, which have focused either on the president's character and scandals or on domestic issues such as health care. It doesn't help that keeping track of where this party is supposed to be — No Blood for Oil, closing Gitmo, droning random funerals in Pakistan, invading Libya on a whim — on all of these issues has been almost impossible for the last two or so decades. My sense is that what Democrats think depends mostly on the news cycle and what rhetorical advantages they think they have over the GOP at any given moment.
Is Trump an unstable warmonger who is going to revive torture and blow the Middle East to smithereens as soon as he finds the giant red button, or is he Tehran Don, a craven peacenik who licks the boots of everyone from Erdogan to Kim Jong Un? Is he undermining NATO by calmly suggesting that Europeans who mock us for our inadequate welfare state while showering their own citizens with weeks of paid vacation and excellent health should maybe contribute more to their own defense? Or is he some kind of inhuman monster for refusing to take arms on behalf of an obscure communist guerilla front half a world away? Even now, I thought, we were in the middle of a worldwide agony fest about the rise of nationalism, but apparently the national self-determination of the Kurdish people is something for which Americans should be willing to die. Why, exactly? The mind reels.
Looking at the actual responses of the 2020 candidates to Trump's action — or lack of action — in Syria is instructive. It immediately becomes clear that very few of his opponents actually think he is wrong. No one says we should leave the troops in Syria or that the territorial aspirations of the Kurds are worth fighting for. Instead, we have Elizabeth Warren saying "We should bring our troops home, but we need to do so in a way that protects our security," which is just empty tone policing. (Does she think we have become less secure in the last 72 or so hours? How?) Warren's remarks are fairly representative of her party. Practically the only people who seem to disagree with Trump substantively are conservatives, who have the dubious honor of being far more consistent in their idiotic foreign policy views over the years. (Like my colleague Damon Linker, I include Joe Biden in the latter group.)
The honorable exception is Tulsi Gabbard, who has offered the only coherent criticism of Trump's conduct in the Middle East I have heard from any politician. As Gabbard points out, the administration remains essentially committed to the goal of regime change in Syria, from which no one (with the possible long-term exception of ISIS) stands to benefit.
Will these things be discussed during next week's Democratic debate? Probably. Will any of it make sense? Only if Gabbard's microphone is actually turned on.
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