Mayor Pete’s Foreign Policy: One Good Idea and Lots of Bad Ones

Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks on foreign policy and national security in Bloomington, Ind., June 11, 2019. (John Sommers/Reuters)
He points out Congress’s bipartisan cowardice in dodging responsibility for wars.

It is now a commonplace of American politics that successful presidential candidates run as doves, then find a hawkish side in office. Ike ran as a peace candidate, then increased involvement in Korea. Nixon promised an end to the war, and expanded the one he inherited into Cambodia. George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy in his first campaign, and then in his second inaugural preached liberating warfare and setting “a fire in the minds of men.” Obama ran while criticizing “dumb wars,” then stupidly involved the U.S. in a few more.

And so it’s hard not to feel like a sucker for praising the bleating of presidential candidates on foreign-policy issues. And yet, we have to praise the truth when it is spoken. So here goes: In Pete Buttigieg’s foreign-policy speech this Monday, he hammered home an important point. “If members of our military can find the courage to deploy to a war zone, then members of our Congress ought to be able to summon the courage to take tough votes on war and peace,” he said.

Buttigieg, a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, said that Congress had “abdicated” its responsibility in foreign policy. Buttigieg demanded an end to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has been used by presidents of both parties to justify a variety of military actions and wars that have been launched since the 9/11 attacks. This conviction that the role of Congress must be restored, and that American foreign policy had been insulated not just from the American people but from our elected representatives, was in fact, the most developed portion of his speech. “We should never find ourselves in a situation that we did in 2017,” Buttigieg said, “when we had four troops killed on a counterterrorism mission only to have senators from both parties admit that they didn’t even realize we had 1,000 troops stationed in that country.”

This is all true and all a shame.

But it is unclear if a president can actually make Congress responsible for foreign policy if they choose not to be. There is a refusal of responsibility from Washington from both branches. We saw this in the Obama administration, when the president seemed to be preparing the United States for a mission of regime change in Syria against Bashar al-Assad, and then punted the decision over to Congress. Popular opinion ran so hot against this that Congress refused to endorse such a mission. And yet, the CIA and the Department of Defense, and a limited number of ground troops, continued to run extensive missions aimed at undermining Assad. If the men who occupy offices of public trust can reread the 2001 AUMF authorizing war on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as a legal mandate for war on behalf of groups allied to al-Qaeda in Syria during 2014, then revocation may mean nothing at all. Surely such men would find legal justification for further interventions without the AUMF, or a vote in Congress.

The rest of Buttigieg’s foreign-policy speech was forgettable. He said he would rejoin the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. Even from a liberal perspective, is that really the best approach? Because the deal wasn’t a treaty signed by Congress, Trump pulled the U.S. out of it with a stroke of a pen. One can agree or disagree with this. But by doing so, Trump inadvertently proved the argument of Iran’s hardliners correct, the argument that America would not honor its commitments in Iran. What did being welcomed back into the good graces of America under George W. Bush do for General Qaddafi under Obama? Not much.

Buttigieg also included climate change as an “existential national-security” question. While it gets applause lines in the Democratic base, this habit of thinking warps both environmental thinking and defense. It’s not more clarifying than saying that Federal Reserve policy is a national-security question.

Mayor Pete also denounced the rise of authoritarianism in China and Russia, and worried openly about the marriage of authoritarian forms to capitalist ones, absent real democracy. All fine and good, but if, as he says, America’s interests must be shaped by American values, would he reevaluate the American relationship with Saudi Arabia or Turkey? He doesn’t say. On China, Buttigieg offered no detail about how he would treat trade and industrial policy. Is it because he agrees with the changing conventional wisdom since Trump took office and is reluctant to say so for fear of praising the president? Or does he think the United States can’t meaningfully change Chinese actions, but he is unwilling to look defeatist during an election?

It is true that Trump’s foreign policy is sometimes a target-rich environment. Buttigieg landed a rhetorical blow when referring to Trump’s policy on North Korea: Mayor Pete said he wouldn’t exchange “love letters on White House letterhead with a brutal dictator.” But this line of attack, and Buttigieg’s reticence to get into very many details or offer any new policy ideas on China, Europe, or the Middle East, leaves the overall impression that a Buttigieg presidency promises only “a return to normalcy.” What was normalcy before? Lecturing Central Europe on defects of liberalism while funding the extremist proxies of a theocratic regime in the Gulf and bombing wherever they point on a map. Watching other countries practice strong industrial policy on the back of our liberal “free-trading” world order. Launching wars that offer no real or lasting promise of victory with whatever pretext is at hand. The normal in America is electing dovish candidates who promise a new way forward, and getting the usual, unsatisfying, drift in American foreign policy. If that’s the promise of Pete Buttigieg, it’s one I believe he can keep.