Buttigieg’s foreign policy might be the key to his success
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was up against a Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, who was the most experienced nominee in foreign policy since George H.W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis 20 years earlier. Obama passed the commander-in-chief test because, first, he argued he had the requisite judgment (having opposed the Iraq War) and, second, he radiated reasonableness, steadiness and quiet confidence. (You will recall during the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008, Obama seemed to be the calmer and more methodical of the two.) In other words, the candidate who generates the most confidence on national security might not necessarily have the most experience, although it is certainly an asset.
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.