Democrats, liberals, progressives—call them what you will—don’t really do foreign policy. Sure, if cornered, they’ll spout a few choice talking points, and probably find a way to make them all about bashing President Donald Trump—ignoring the uncomfortable fact that their very own Barack Obama led and expanded America’s countless wars for eight long years.
This was ever so apparent in the first two nights of Democratic primary debates this week. Foreign policy hardly registered for these candidates with one noteworthy exception: Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard—herself an (anti-war) combat veteran and army officer.
Now primary debates are more show than substance; this has long been the case. Still, to watch the first night’s Democratic primary debates, it was possible to forget that the United States remains mired in several air and ground wars from West Africa to Central Asia. In a two-hour long debate, with 10 would-be nominees plus the moderators, the word Afghanistan was uttered just nine times—you know, once for every two years American troops have been killing and dying there. Iraq was uttered just twice—both times by Gabbard. Syria, where Americans have died and still fight, was mentioned not once. Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, courtesy of a U.S.-supported Saudi terror campaign didn’t get mentioned a single time, either.
Night two was mostly worse! Afghanistan was uttered just three times, and there was no question specifically related to the war. Biden did say, in passing, that he doesn’t think there should be “combat troops” in Afghanistan—but notice the qualifier “combat.” That’s a cop-out that allows him to keep advisers and “support” troops in the country indefinitely. These are the games most Democrats play. And by the way, all those supposedly non-combat troops, well, they can and do get killed too.
The only bright spot in the second debate was Senator Bernie Sanders’s single mention of the word Yemen—specifically ending U.S. support for that war and shifting war powers back where they belong—with Congress. Still, most of the candidates had just about nothing to say on this or other war-related topics. Their silence was instructive.
Ironically, then, two more American soldiers were killed in another meaningless firefight in the long meaningless war in Afghanistan on the day of the first Democratic presidential primary debate. Indeed, were it not for this horrendous event—the deaths of the 3,550th and 3,551st coalition troops in an 18-year-old war—Afghanistan might not have ever made it onto Rachel Maddow’s debate questions list.
I mourn each and every service-member’s death in that unwinnable war; to say nothing of the far more numerous Afghan civilian fatalities. Still, in a macabre sort of way, I was glad the topic came up, even under such dismal circumstances. After all, Maddow’s question on the first night was one of precious few posed on the subject of foreign policy at all. Moreover, it spurred the most interesting, engaging, and enlightening exchange of either evening—between Gabbard and Ohio Representative Tim Ryan.
Reminding the audience of the recent troop deaths in the country, Maddow asked Ryan, “Why isn’t [the Afghanistan war] over? Why can’t presidents of very different parties and very different temperaments get us out of there? And how could you?” Ryan had a ready, if wholly conventional and obtuse, answer: “The lesson” of these many years of wars is clear, he opined; the United States must stay “engaged,” “completely engaged,” in fact, even if “no one likes” it and it’s “tedious.” I heard this, vomited a bit into my mouth, and thought “spare me!”
Ryan’s platitudes didn’t answer the question, for starters, and hardly engaged with American goals, interests, exit strategies, or a basic cost-benefit analysis in the war. In the space of a single sentence, Ryan proved himself just another neoliberal militarist, you know, the “reluctant” Democratic imperialist type. He made it clear he’s Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer rolled into one, except instead of cynically voting for the 2003 Iraq war, he was defending an off-the-rails Afghanistan war in its 18th year.
Gabbard pounced, and delivered the finest foreign policy screed of the night. And more power to her. Interrupting Ryan, she poignantly asked:
Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan? Well, we just have to be engaged? As a soldier, I will tell you that answer is unacceptable. We have to bring our troops home from Afghanistan…We have spent so much money. Money that’s coming out of every one of our pockets…We are no better off in Afghanistan today than we were when this war began. This is why it is so important to have a president — commander in chief who knows the cost of war and is ready to do the job on day one.
In a few tight sentences, Gabbard distilled decades’ worth of antiwar critique and summarized what I’ve been writing for years—only I’ve killed many trees composing more than 20,000 words on the topic. The brevity of her terse comment, coupled with her unique platform as a veteran, only added to its power. Bravo, Tulsi, bravo!
Ryan was visibly shaken and felt compelled to retort with a standard series of worn out tropes. And Gabbard was ready for each one, almost as though she’d heard them all before (and probably has). The U.S. military has to stay, Ryan pleaded, because: “if the United States isn’t engaged the Taliban will grow and they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts.” Gabbard cut him right off. “The Taliban was there long before we came in. They’ll be there long [after] we leave,” she thundered.
But because we didn’t “squash them,” before 9/11 Ryan complained, “they started flying planes into our buildings.” This, of course, is the recycled and easily refuted safe haven myth—the notion that the Taliban would again host transnational terrorists the moment our paltry 14,500 troops head back to Milwaukee. It’s ridiculous. There’s no evidence to support this desperate claim and it fails to explain why the United States doesn’t station several thousand troops in the dozens of global locales with a more serious al-Qaeda or ISIS presence than Afghanistan does. Gabbard would have none of it. “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11,” she reminded Ryan, “al-Qaeda did.” It’s an important distinction, lost on mainstream interventionist Democrats and Republicans alike.
Ryan couldn’t possibly open his mind to such complexity, nuance, and, ultimately, realism. He clearly worships at the temple of war inertia; his worldview hostage to the absurd notion that the U.S. military has little choice but to fight everywhere, anywhere, because, well, that’s what it’s always done. Which leads us to what should be an obvious conclusion: Ryan, and all who think like him, should be immediately disqualified by true progressives and libertarians alike. His time has past. Ryan and his ilk have left a scorched region and a shaken American republic for the rest of us.
Still, there was one more interesting query for the first night’s candidates. What is the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States today, asked Maddow. All 10 Democratic hopefuls took a crack at it, though almost none followed directions and kept their answers to a single word or phrase. For the most part, the answers were ridiculous, outdated, or elementary, spanning Russia, China, even Trump. But none of the debaters listed terrorism as the biggest threat—a huge sea change from answers that candidates undoubtedly would have given just four or eight years ago.
Which begs the question: why, if terrorism isn’t the priority, do far too many of these presidential aspirants seem willing to continue America’s fruitless, forever fight for the Greater Middle East? It’s a mystery, partly explained by the overwhelming power of the America’s military-industrial-congressional-media complex. Good old President Dwight D. Eisenhower is rolling in his grave, I assure you.
Gabbard, shamefully, is the only one among an absurdly large field of candidates who has put foreign policy, specifically ending the forever wars, at the top of her presidential campaign agenda. Well, unlike just about all of her opponents, she did fight in those very conflicts. The pity is that with an electorate so utterly apathetic about war, her priorities, while noble, might just doom her campaign before it even really starts. That’s instructive, if pitiful.
I, too, served in a series of unwinnable, unnecessary, unethical wars. Like her, I’ve chosen to publicly dissent in not just strategic, but in moral, language. I join her in her rejection of U.S. militarism, imperialism, and the flimsy justifications for the Afghanistan war—America’s longest war in its history.
As for the other candidates, when one of them (likely) wins, let’s hope they are prepared the question Tulsi so powerfully posed to Ryan: what will they tell the parents of the next soldier that dies in America’s hopeless Afghanistan war?
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army Major and regular contributor to The American Conservative. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post, Truthdig and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.