You have to give South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg credit. The youngest candidate in the Democratic field, the one with no civilian experience above the position of mayor, is leading the debate on Syria and pushing one of the top-tier candidates to rethink a major strategic decision.

Buttigieg was on CNN and “Fox News Sunday” expounding on Syria. He told Fox News’s Chris Wallace:

When it comes to what is being done to not just the Middle East, for example, but to American credibility. The fact that right now people who put their lives on the line, trusting that the United States would have their back, and are now betrayed, the fact that U.S. troops in the field feel that their honor has been stolen from them by their commander in chief, how can you not be fired up about something like that? And this is the season for us to lay out what we care about, what we’re passionate about, and what’s different among each of the candidates. And I want to make sure there’s no question in any voter’s mind how their life would be different under my presidency than if any of the others were to be elected.

It is worth underscoring that Buttigieg does not get many Brownie points in a Democratic primary for making a robust defense of U.S. leadership in the Middle East. He could, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), prattle on about “getting troops out of the Middle East.” However, that would be no different from President Trump. Buttigieg has decided to be the grown-up, and incidentally, preserved his viability in the general election as sufficiently tough on national security.

Buttigieg candidly told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that he wasn’t going to play the game of promising an immediate pullout:

We know that we need to promote stability, that we need to stand by our allies and that there will be legitimate Turkish security concerns that will also be part of the equation. But right now what’s happening is the future over there is being decided by everybody but the United States. Russia, Iran, Turkey. And we are nowhere because American leadership has been withdrawn. And the implications of this aren’t just the regional security picture in the Middle East. It’s the credibility of the United States ourselves. And the first order of business will be to restore U.S. credibility. Not just with regard to the Middle East but globally.

And he showed restraint when offered the opening to threaten to kick Turkey out of NATO:

Well, right now what we’ve got to do is engage Turkey as an ally. You know, I served alongside Turkish troops in Afghanistan. That alliance is important. And it’s leverage for us to make sure that we use our influence to prevent bad outcomes like the one that Donald Trump greenlighted that they’re doing right now. If they don’t act like an ally in the long-run, that’s going to have consequences.

Buttigieg declined to join Warren and others who have cheered for an immediate pullout from Afghanistan. Instead, he said that “what I’ve said about Afghanistan is that where we need to get to, and by the way, it will involve negotiations. It’s not a unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal. What we need to do in Afghanistan is get to where we have a light footprint presence of counter-terrorism, specialized, special operations troops and whatever intelligence capabilities we need to protect the homeland and no more.” As Buttigieg pointed out, a lighter footprint with counter-terrorism capacity is “exactly what we had in Syria. A matter of just a few dozen troops, special operators in just the right places, making it possible to prevent the descent into chaos we’re seeing now. So you see, what was withdrawn from Syria is exactly the sort of thing that if we had it in Afghanistan would prevent endless war of the scale that we’re seeing now.”

Someone should ask those who are mimicking Trump’s foreign policy whether the Syria debacle has changed their viewpoint.

Speaking of shifting positions, after Warren’s supporters have been attacking Buttigieg for pushing her to explain how she is going to pay for Medicare-for-all, Warren said she would figure out how to pay for the proposal. Although not the only one to push Warren in the debate, Buttigieg was the most vocal and was the only candidate to go up with an ad on the topic.

On Fox News, Buttigieg again pitched an alternate path to Medicare-for-all:

I think that we have a chance to build an American majority around bold action. But it is the case that we could wreck that majority through purity tests. Look, take the example of this Medicare question. I’m proposing Medicare for all who want it. It means we create a version of Medicare, everybody can get access to it, and if you get — if you want to keep your private plan, we’re okay with that. I think that’s a better policy than kicking people off of their plan.
But I also think that it’s something that more Americans can get behind. And when you think about the condition our country’s going to be in when this presidency comes to an end, one way or the other, when you think about how torn apart by politics we’re going to be, how polarized and divided this country is, this, to me, is not a political question, it’s a question of governing. The good news is, we can govern in a very bold and forward-leading direction, but we’ve got to make sure we do it in a way that moves toward unifying rather than further polarizing the American people.

Likewise, on “Meet the Press,” he pointed out that “my plan is paid for. And we have an opportunity to get everybody health care without kicking people off their private plans and without the multitrillion-dollar hole that appears to be there, unexplained, in Sen. Warren’s plan.”

The Warren defenders did protest too much, we now know, and Buttigieg was right. Evading a gaping problem on a top policy priority is not a viable political strategy. Buttigieg’s tough but polite challenges broke through, suggesting that Warren might not be the best debater on the stage and that she overestimated her ability to sidestep the tax problem. (Her math should be interesting, since even the more forthcoming Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has not put out a realistic and specific formula regarding who pays how much for his over-the-top generous and totally free[!] plan.)

If Buttigieg is trying to position himself as the younger, more verbally adept moderate in the Democratic race, pushing Warren around and defending an internationalist foreign policy might earn him a starring role. As he shows command of policy and of the debate stage, he is making the case for his viability in the primary. And he implicitly is demonstrating that his cool, deliberate style would be a huge asset against Trump in the general election. A candidate who can go on any talk show and run a “straight-talk express” kind of bus tour with the media is one confident in his ability to be his own best advocate.

If Warren does come forward with details on her Medicare-for-all plan, Buttigieg can claim victory. Then, perhaps, he can get her to explain why it is so necessary to eliminate choice for Americans (if expanded Medicare is so great, they’ll select that under the public option) and how she is going to seamlessly reconfigure our entire health-care insurance system, going from primarily private to exclusively public payment. Remember how hard it was just to get the Affordable Care Act website up and running?

Buttigieg is not the only candidate advocating a responsible internationalist role in the world, nor the only one challenging Warren. He might, however, have been the most effective and might the biggest impression with primary voters.

Read more: