Will President Donald Trump’s Syrian fiasco transform Democrats into the party of war? Former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg are taking shots at U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s continued support for getting U.S. troops out of the Middle East. And ever-martial Hillary Clinton is slandering Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the most forceful opponent to U.S. intervention in the race for the Democratic nomination, as a Russian asset. In other words, Trump’s Middle East follies are having perverse effects at home.
Not surprisingly, Democrats have rushed to condemn the president’s sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Opening the door to a Turkish invasion, abandoning our Kurdish allies, emboldening Syria, Russia and Iran, and standing aside while casualties and refugees mount — it is hard to imagine a more calamitous spur-of-the-moment decision.
The danger is that the opportunity to trash Trump will revive an interventionist temper among Democrats. After Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war cost her dearly against both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, even establishment Democrats began to realize that the public was tired of endless wars. Before Trump’s Syrian debacle, virtually all Democratic presidential candidates — led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Warren, Mass., and Gabbard, Hawaii — expressed strong opposition to the wars in the Middle East. During the September Houston presidential debate, even Biden said, “We don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home.” Buttigieg, a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, said that even if U.S. commanders cautioned against withdrawal, “we have got to put an end to endless war.”
But since Trump’s change of heart on Syria, the tone among Democrats has changed. Biden, who has always reserved a role for military force in the Middle East, took a shot at Warren’s commitment to bring the troops home, saying, “Leading the free world requires us to show up, have some skin in the game,” suggesting he’d reduce our forces but maintain bases in Pakistan and elsewhere with troops able to respond to potential threats.
Buttigieg, a former U.S. Naval Reserve officer, who has made himself the voice of a national security establishment outraged by Trump’s heresies, now rejects any proposal to “completely withdraw” troops from the Middle East. It will be “messy,” he says, but U.S. troops will be there “for as long as I am alive.” Buttigieg now argues that the U.S. deployment in Syria — a “light footprint” of 1,000 soldiers — should be the model for Afghanistan.
More broadly, Clinton, still embittered by her 2016 loss to Trump, put a despicable edge on the debate, warning that Gabbard, who called on Democrats to reject “regime change wars” during the last debate, was possibly being used by Russia as a third-party spoiler. Like other contenders, Gabbard has repeatedly denied any intention of running on a third-party ticket. Once again, those who challenge the failed policies of the establishment are tarred as apologists or worse.
The problem with the revived interventionist position is that it makes little sense. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years with no end in sight. The U.S. position in Syria — an armed occupation by a token force inside a foreign country without permission or legal mandate — was eroding long before Trump acted. Neither the Syrians nor the Turks were about to allow the Kurds to consolidate an independent region within Syria. If either decided to act, the United States had no desire to escalate to stop them.
With a competent president, a negotiated agreement might have allowed for a less destabilizing withdrawal. In both Syria and Afghanistan, however, our opponents are unlikely to make major concessions to a force that is on its way out. But in Afghanistan, the Trump administration’s effort at negotiation with the Taliban has collapsed; in Syria, Trump didn’t even try. Instead, Trump gave the green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invade, and dispatched 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia.
The Biden-Buttigieg posture is a classic example of the crackpot realism of the bipartisan national security establishment. The United States, the “indispensable nation,” can police the far corners of the globe, with a little “skin in the game” — “just a few dozen troops, special operators in just the right places,” Buttigieg suggests. The inevitable result is wars without victory and without end.
In a commentary for the Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered bipartisan support for this course, arguing for creating “conditions for the reintroduction of U.S. troops,” retaining “a limited military presence in Syria,” and maintaining “our presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.” Scorning the “neo-isolationism” of talk about endless wars, he concluded that “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.” He’s right. What is clear in Afghanistan and Syria is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, neither Obama nor Trump, neither the Democratic House nor the Republican Senate, neither Biden nor Buttigieg is prepared to commit the forces and resources needed to “win.” Instead, they will spend enough in lives and resources to avoid losing.
Trump’s toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance, his desire to pose as both the tough guy and the peacemaker are truly destructive. But so, too, is the establishment assumption that the U.S. can police the world with a “light footprint” without finding ourselves mired in endless wars for which we lack the will either to win or to end.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly column for the Washington Post. She has also edited or coedited several books, including “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama” (2011) and “Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover” (2009).