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Buttigieg’s Increasingly Hawkish Foreign Policy

The Washington Post editorial board interviewed Pete Buttigieg recently, and his foreign policy answers left a lot to be desired. When he was asked about Iran and the JCPOA, he said this:

As for Iran, it’s unlikely that we could simply resurrect and rejoin the JCPOA in its prior form. But leaving it was a mistake, and agreements to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions remain a good idea. The picture is different. The economic pressures are different. The political scenario is different. And crucially, our relationship with some of the allies that account for — I believe the “J” stands for “Joint” — the allies that account for the coalition that was securing this has obviously changed.

But I also think there remains an opportunity, especially given the economic, if not isolation, certainly vulnerability of the Iranian regime, to achieve something that would help us once again slow or stop the move toward nuclear weapons there.

Buttigieg’s answer is vague and his remarks at the end about “the move toward nuclear weapons” suggest that he accepts a very hawkish framing of this issue without having given it much thought. He begins by saying that it is unlikely that the U.S. could “simply” rejoin the JCPOA as it was. Why is that unlikely? If the next administration is determined to reenter the agreement and lifts the sanctions imposed by Trump, it is not hard to imagine how the agreement might still be restored. Buttigieg doesn’t want to commit to doing this, and so he gestures in the direction of some future agreement that might be made. He is trying to pass off a very underdeveloped position as if it is clever and nuanced, which is par for the course for his presidential campaign.

When Buttigieg turns to talking about the “opportunity” to exploit Iranian economic vulnerability, that is where his answer goes from weak to awful. Trump’s economic war on Iran has strengthened hard-liners politically inside Iran, and it has undermined supporters of engagement with the U.S. so much that a future administration will be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to negotiate as long as the economic war continues. Golnar Motevalli and Arsalan Shahla report:

“By undermining Rouhani’s most important achievement, Trump gravely damaged his presidency and popularity,” said Ali Vaez, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “What has been fatally damaged in the process is not just pro-engagement Iranian politicians, but the whole concept of engagement with the West.”

If a future administration tries to use more economic coercion after years of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, they will find Iran to be just as intransigent as they are now. The damage to supporters of engagement inside Iran has been done and it won’t be easily repaired, but a surefire way to give hard-liners an additional boost is to continue coercive measures aimed at extracting more concessions.

Buttigieg’s line about “the move toward nuclear weapons” shows that he doesn’t understand that the Iranian government isn’t moving toward these weapons and hasn’t been doing that for the last 16 years. He talks about their “nuclear ambitions” without acknowledging that those ambitions don’t include developing and building nuclear weapons. In that respect, he comes off sounding more like a young John Bolton than a Democratic presidential candidate.

The candidate’s understanding of the U.S. role in the world and U.S. interests also warrants a few comments:

The fact that American prestige has been reduced to an SNL mockery of the guy in the lunchroom nobody wants to talk to shows you what’s at stake and something that goes beyond just what’s interesting to foreign policy buffs, but the more basic question of whether America can continue to be regarded as a credible, reliable force for good in the world, something on which our own security depends, because our advantage has always been that our interests have aligned with universal interests or I should say, universal values [bold mine-DL], as well as more specific concerns.

The claim that U.S. interests have always “aligned” with “universal values” is nonsense, and the worrisome part here is that Buttigieg may actually believe it. It is an assumption that has warped the conduct of our foreign policy for a very long time, and it is usually invoked as a pretext to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and to trample on international law. Buttigieg’s statement suggests that he has a dangerously expansive definition of U.S. interests that is divorced from reality.

Buttigieg’s foreign policy speech earlier in the year was underwhelming, and in the last six months he has become a much more conventional and hawkish candidate. That will undoubtedly satisfy “centrist” hawks and members of the “Blob,” but it doesn’t offer Democratic voters much of an alternative.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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