In this election cycle, the contrast between a Democratic nominee who is poised, rational, fact-based and candid and President Trump, who is impulsive, corrupt and ignorant, could be quite stunning. And oddly, while not widely covered or debated, foreign policy is where South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose cool and deliberate demeanor some compare to Obama, may excel, despite former vice president Joe Biden’s decades of experience. (Biden voted for the Iraq War.)
Buttigieg sat down with The Post Editorial Board last week and, especially on foreign policy, showed his steadiness, both in rhetoric and in policy. Consider his answer to The Post’s David Ignatius, who asked about Afghanistan, Syria and the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA):
Pete Buttigieg: So the Syria model actually informs the answer, I think, to the Afghanistan question in the medium term. After all, what we had there was a small number of troops, special operations and intelligence capacity, really a tiny number if we talk about the area that the president withdrew from, who were able to prevent the worst outcomes just by being there. And I think that as we develop a much more narrow and specific account of what the American objective in Afghanistan is, which from a military perspective is the defense of the American homeland — from a political perspective, it’s a lot more, we want to continue to support gains that have been made there — but from a military perspective, it’s protecting America, then it does lead to a likely medium-term scenario, where the bulk of the ground troops are gone, something, by the way, that I believed was underway in 2014. I thought, I was made to feel like I was one of the very last troops turning out the lights when we were packing up and leaving. And years later, we’re still there in comparable proportion. So that’s clearly got to come to an end.But part of that way out, in order to keep the core American security objectives, may well involve a very light-footprint presence of highly specialized and capable intelligence and special operations people on the ground.
Here he avoids parroting the “get out of the Middle East” rhetoric popular in the right and left these days. Instead, he makes an informed critique of Trump and the common-sense observation that Syria (before Trump betrayed the Kurds) was the sort of deployment we might hope for in Afghanistan. Buttigieg is not promising to abandon U.S. leadership and responsibilities, but rather to transition to a different military posture.
On Iran, Buttigieg explained, “As for Iran, it’s unlikely that we could simply resurrect and rejoin the JCPOA in its prior form. But leaving it was a mistake, and agreements to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions remain a good idea. The picture is different.” He continued, “The economic pressures are different. The political scenario is different. And crucially, our relationship with some of the allies that account for — I believe the “J” stands for ‘Joint’ — the allies that account for the coalition that was securing this has obviously changed."
Again, he is not spitting out the off-the-cuff, easy answer — Get back into the JCPOA. He understands the world has changed, and he will have to work, if elected, with what he inherits from Trump. Instead of Trumpian bluster, he advocates nonmilitary pressure. (“I also think there remains an opportunity, especially given the economic, if not isolation, certainly vulnerability of the Iranian regime, to achieve something that would help us once again slow or stop the move toward nuclear weapons there,” he said.)
Later in the interview, he was honest enough to acknowledge we have ongoing interests (e.g., not abandoning Afghan girls and women who can be educated) that have to be balanced with decisions on force size:
I think that what we need to recognize is, first of all, the role of the Afghans in their self-determination. Secondly, the role of the international community in supporting aspirations like securing and expanding the gains for women in human rights there, that are not just American policy objectives, they are human rights objectives that are consistent with what the community of nations wants to see and I believe what the Afghan people want; and our own responsibility because of the fact that we changed the trajectory of that country, to ensure that there is no backsliding, especially when it comes to the rights of women. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important that the Afghan government be at the table more than from public reporting they appear to have been, in the conversations that have gone on with the Taliban.And so there will not be an easy way to deliver this. I mean, empires have famously despaired of trying to get certain outcomes to happen in this area, but we do have responsibilities that go beyond our military objective and should use a number of different tools in our toolkit to try to bring them about and to secure them.
Again, he is willing, if not compelled, to show some nuance and to avoid flip, easy answers to hugely complex problems.
Buttigieg also spoke about the dual obligations of the leader of the Free World — to uphold universal human rights and to jealously guard the lives of our men and women:
The fact that American prestige has been reduced to an SNL mockery of the guy in the lunchroom nobody wants to talk to shows you what’s at stake and something that goes beyond just what’s interesting to foreign policy buffs, but the more basic question of whether America can continue to be regarded as a credible, reliable force for good in the world, something on which our own security depends, because our advantage has always been that our interests have aligned with universal interests or I should say, universal values, as well as more specific concerns. When you’re in communities, for example, that have disproportionately furnished the troops who’ve been sent to carry out these policies. Right now there’s probably a kid in Iowa or South Carolina or Indiana who is packing their bags for Afghanistan and wondering exactly what it is we’re doing there.
Buttigieg embraces the notion that American leadership in the world is essential, and must be grounded in our values (which serve to inspire and bind other democracies to us). As someone who served and confesses that in 2014 he thought “I was one of the very last troops turning out the lights when we were packing up and leaving,” he seems to fully appreciate the gravity of sending American troops to war.
Buttigieg knows it is a leap from mayor to president, although he makes the case that it’s not like senators have gobs of executive experience (“And with all due respect for what goes on on Capitol Hill, you could be a very senior senator in our country and have never in your life been responsible for more than a hundred people, in terms of day-to-day management,” he said.)
If he is to reassure Americans that he is ready for the job, it will be in demonstrating judgment, exuding poise and calm and showing he has thought deeply about complex issues. His rise in the polls suggests that approach, in combination with his military service, is paying dividends. In the realm of national security, Buttigieg is not the only candidate who has exhibited thoughtfulness and a nuanced approach to foreign policy. Just last week Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) delivered a solid, mature speech on foreign policy. However, for the youngest and least well-known of the top-tier contenders, Buttigieg’s continued success in clearing the bar on the commander-in-chief test will be essential to his rise in the polls.