It was easy for the Democrats in last night’s presidential debate to bash President Trump’s decision to cave to Turkey’s authoritarian president and pull a small number of troops from the border of Turkey and Rojava, the autonomous zone in northeast Syria protected by Kurdish militias that allied with the U.S. to crush ISIS in the region. Trump’s move has resulted in complete disaster. Turkey quickly invaded Rojava, raining terror on civilians and sparking a new phase of the Syrian civil war that threatens the Kurdish experiment with feminist democracy. ISIS is poised to make a comeback, and the Kurds have been forced to make a shaky alliance with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator the U.S. has opposed in the region in the first place.
However, it was much harder for the candidates to answer the question posed by moderators: What should the U.S. do now? Should the president send troops back into Syria to prevent an ISIS resurgence and protect our Kurdish allies?
Former Vice President Joe Biden immediately fumbled, claiming that the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops preparing to evacuate Syria came under fire from Assad’s forces. American forces did briefly come under fire from the Turkish side last week, shortly before the Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress moved to impose tough sanctions on Turkey for its invasion of Rojava.
The other candidates did not have any bright ideas either, instead using the opportunity criticize Trump, a main theme of the evening.
The most heated exchange on Syria came between the two veterans on the stage, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Southbend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Gabbard took the opportunity to attack politicians in both parties who supported the “regime change wars” in Syria and Iraq. She said she would end “draconian sanctions” against Syria and end U.S. involvement in the “regime change war” there. Buttigieg said Gabbard was “dead wrong,” noting there was only a small number of U.S. special forces (about 50 to 100) on the border of Rojava and Turkey who were effectively preventing all-out war with their mere presence. They were the backbone of a diplomatic mission to negotiate a “safe zone” in the border area, allowing Turkey to say it was protecting its territory from Kurdish groups it considers terrorists and move to relocate Syrian war refugees, while the Kurds allied with the U.S. continue their regional experiment with autonomy and democracy. You don’t throw your allies under the bus, Buttigieg argued.
Other candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, said they also want an end to endless wars overseas, but we must also continue supporting allies like the Kurds. Warren argued the U.S. should get out of the Middle East, but we have to be “smart” about what that withdrawal looks like.
What Warren meant by “smart” remains unclear. No real solutions to the current quagmire were proposed by Warren or any other candidate, and that says a lot about the kind of quagmire the U.S. faces in the Middle East more broadly.
Indeed, the troops Trump pulled from the Turkish border were backing up a diplomatic mission that had prevented Turkey from invading the Kurdish-held autonomous region, not involved in fighting. U.S. troops did not engage in much on-the-ground fighting against ISIS either. Instead, U.S. forces backed up Kurdish militias with training, logistics and airstrikes in their fight against ISIS, and the Kurds sacrificed thousands of soldiers in the effort.
For those who want an end to endless war, it’s heartening to see every Democrat running for president agree. But untangling the U.S. military from the quagmires in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is a hugely complicated task, shaped by real and perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests, as well as regional and seemingly unending conflicts between various partners and adversaries, whether they be Israel and Iran, or Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
What Trump unraveled in Syria was diplomacy, not “endless war.” Meanwhile, beneath the headlines, actual endless war continues to unfold in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.
Diplomacy is likely what will get the U.S. out of the “endless wars” that have become so unpopular with American voters. Unfortunately, the Democrats running for president appear to have few ideas about what that diplomacy should look like.
However, there is something that sets the leading candidates apart. Toward the end of the debate, after Biden went on an extensive rant about his political record of “getting things done,” Sanders reminded everyone that Biden voted to greenlight the U.S. invasion of Iraq spearheaded by President Bush. Sanders was one of the only members of Congress to vote against that disastrous war that precipitated the rise of ISIS. Meanwhile, last night, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro suggested Bush should be held accountable for his role in creating the mess, although he didn’t get into specifics (Bush and his administration have been accused of war crimes).
Sanders also reminded everyone that he teamed up with Republicans to pass a resolution under the War Powers Act rebuking U.S. support the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s brutal civil war, a historic act by a Congress that has sat on the foreign policy sidelines for decades despite its constitutional authority to decide when and where the military deploys.
Perhaps when American politicians agree to hold Bush accountable for invading Iraq and launching the global war on terror, the kind of diplomacy that will finally end the endless wars can truly begin. They can hold Trump accountable for shaping U.S. foreign policy around his fascination with dictators, his political ambitions and his business interests in countries like Turkey while they are at it. It takes courage to admit that the U.S. was wrong, but doing so would send a strong message to the rest of the world that the U.S. wants peace.