Democratic presidential candidates have largely avoided talking about foreign policy on the campaign trail.
As President Trump lights a match in one of the world’s worst tinderboxes, now would be a great time to start.
Trump’s abrupt announcement Sunday that the United States would withdraw troops from Syria was another foreign policy blunder, and deepens the long-term damage he has inflicted on America’s standing in the world. If a Democrat wins in 2020, it’ll be up to the new president to pick up the pieces. Voters deserve to hear more about how the candidates would approach such a crucial part of the job — not just what they’d do about Syria, but how they think about America’s role in the world.
Trump announced that he’d yank a small contingent of American troops out of Syria, where they’ve been part of a coalition alongside Kurdish fighters to combat the Islamic State terrorist group and keep captured Islamic State members in detention. Abruptly abandoning the mission could allow the Islamic State to reemerge; it’s also a massive betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies, who now face a likely Turkish invasion.
“This severely undercuts America’s credibility as a reliable partner and creates a power vacuum in the region that benefits [the Islamic State],” said Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy and Utah Republican Mitt Romney in a joint statement. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said “a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.”
Yes, the Americans stationed in Syria need to come home eventually, but doing so on a whim is not the way a responsible country should behave. On Monday, facing a tide of criticism, this is how the president of the United States responded: “. . . just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
Within the United States, many Republicans seem to feel obliged to pretend such blather and bravado is a foreign policy, just as they’ve lent active or tactic support to the rest of the president’s absurd statements.
In the rest of the world, though, those are the kinds of words that have made the last three years a time of a steady disillusionment with the United States, its leaders, and its political system. Every time the supposed leader of the world makes a decision based on self-pity, churlish resentment, or greed — and every time the political system in the United States fails to stop him — America seems a little less reliable, a little less principled, and a little less worthy of emulation. The way that Trump has made foreign policy decisions purely to spite his predecessor — reversing the opening to Cuba, for instance, or withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — might not cause much of a stir at home, but overseas it creates the impression that America has stopped taking its role in the world seriously.
So what would the Democrats do? Democratic candidates run the gamut, from isolationists like Representative Tulsi Gabbard to liberal interventionists like former vice president Joe Biden. But their differences aren’t getting much airtime in the primary campaign. The Globe’s James Pindell crunched the numbers and found that just 42 out of the 348 questions at the Democratic debates so far were about foreign policy.
Would candidates continue the president’s talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un? Should the United States rejoin the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade pact designed to limit China’s influence that Trump quit early in his term? How would they handle Syria? What’s the future of the US alliance with Saudi Arabia, in light of the Saudi monarchy’s reckless war in Yemen?
Under what circumstances would candidates put the US military in harm’s way? When, if ever, would they use the military unilaterally? Would they support military budget cuts to fund domestic programs, and, if so, what specifically would they seek to cut?
Aside from specific questions: Do they see restoring American leadership as a goal? And if so, how will they overcome the international doubt and distrust that President Trump will leave as his legacy?