The cluttered field of 2020 Democrat candidates for president spent the past two days striving to distinguish themselves from President Donald Trump and each other; a feat easily achieved on issues like immigration, healthcare, and climate change.
On America’s oldest war, however, most attempted to bash President Trump’s approach to Afghanistan while offering words uncannily similar to what Trump has said as both presidential candidate and commander-in-chief.
CNN’s debate moderators spent precious little time on foreign policy, preferring instead to ask the two sets of candidates questions like “Why isn’t this sweeping plan to fight the climate crisis realistic?” and “Why are you the best candidate to heal the racial divide … stoked by the president’s racist rhetoric?”
On both nights, however, they finally mentioned the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan deep into the third hour of debate. The Afghanistan question did not make for compelling television, as if offered little room for the candidates to attack each other’s records or disagree.
The top tier candidates almost avoided the question entirely. Former Vice President Joe Biden mumbled something about opposing the surge while struggling against attacks related to his support for the Iraq War. Socialist lawmaker Bernie Sanders (I-VT), tellingly, claimed that the major difference between his foreign policy and the president’s is that “Trump is a pathological liar.” He then promised not to “denigrate” the United Nations and “bring countries together,” but did not challenge Trump’s specific policy on Afghanistan.
The lower-tier Democrats got a little more specific. Failed Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) promised to withdraw from Afghanistan during his first term. Moderator Jake Tapper set Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s deadline to withdraw at slightly sooner – his first year in office – and Buttigieg complied. Others, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), implied they would withdraw from Afghanistan immediately, but did not specify whether immediately meant they would do so within their first term, year, day, or hour in office.
“We have to do the right thing, end these wasteful regime change wars, and bring our troops home,” Gabbard said, before accusing President Trump of supporting al-Qaeda.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) promised to withdraw without a set timeline, which is President Trump’s current Afghanistan policy, but distinguished himself from Trump by promising not to tweet.
Only one candidate, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, argued for staying in Afghanistan, claiming that the United States has a moral obligation to the children of that country.
Hickenlooper aside, the only specific policy proposal the Democrats put forth on Afghanistan that differed from both candidate and President Trump came from Buttigieg, who said he would support a “sunset” provision on Congressional Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the legal documents that let presidents use military force without Congress having to declare war. America’s current military entanglements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere are legal because Congress passed an AUMF following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that grants the president the power to use military force against al-Qaeda anywhere on the planet. As the Islamic State was part of al-Qaeda in 2001, presidents have interpreted the AUMF to extend to attacking them, as well.
The highest-polling candidates did not bother with even this minor a deviation from Trump’s Afghanistan policy. Compare their comments, for example, to candidate Trump in 2016 calling President Barack Obama’s foreign policy a “complete and total disaster.”
“We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own. … One day, we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians. The next day, we’re watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls and absolutely falls apart. Lives lost, massive moneys lost. The world is a different place,” Trump argued then, promising to “[get] out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”
At the time, a Taliban spokesman called Trump’s words “not serious.” At press time, the jihadist organization has yet to remark on the same words coming out of the mouths of Democrats.
As president-elect, Trump kept an open line to the anti-war factions of Congress. Gabbard risked the Democrats’ ire by accepting a meeting with Trump to discuss Afghanistan, before meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and referring to the Trump administration as a “prostitute” of Saudi Arabia.
Trump has failed to withdraw from Afghanistan as president, and has admitted that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” Even in taking his top generals’ advice not to fully withdraw, Trump has expressed “frustration” and insisted that America is “not nation-building” in Afghanistan anymore. Meeting with Trump in 2018, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said the president “told me over and over again in general we’re getting the hell out of [Afghanistan].”
With former Pentagon chief Gen. Jim Mattis out of the way – who Trump claims he “essentially fired” because he stopped Trump from executing the policy he wanted in Afghanistan, Trump is once again seeking a way out, holding discussions with the Taliban to find a “political solution.” As of last week, a “political solution” may include the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the presence of Taliban candidates in the nation’s presidential elections.
“We got to get out of these endless wars and bring our folks back home,” Trump said in February.
O’Rourke and Buttigieg may not get the chance to withdraw from Afghanistan during their first year if they win because Trump might successfully do so in his – at least according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who floated the possibility of a military withdrawal on the eve of the first Democratic debate.
“He’s been unambiguous,” Pompeo told the Economic Club of Washington on Monday. “End the endless wars, drawdown, reduce. It won’t just be us. Those of you who have served know that [NATO’s] Resolute Support [mission] has countries from all across Europe and around the world. We hope that overall, the need for combat forces in the region is reduced.”
Pompeo suggested the withdrawal will hopefully occur by November 2020.
In a primary, members of the same party are expected to struggle in distinguishing themselves from each other – they are members of the same party for a reason. Unless John Hickenlooper becomes the Democrat candidate, however, the party will have the same problem in a debate against Trump on the subject of Afghanistan. They had better hope promising not to tweet will be enough to create the illusion of a policy difference.