A rare, underappreciated drama broke out in last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Ohio: The candidates had a serious argument over foreign policy.
Asked about President Trump’s decision to let Turkey seize northern Syria, the Democrats unleashed a predictable flood of condemnation: “outrageous,” “shameful,” “a betrayal of American values.”
But they divided on what U.S. strategy in Syria ought to be.
“I would not have withdrawn the troops,” former Vice President Joe Biden said. “I would … make it clear that they’re not going anywhere.”
“A small number of specialized, special operations forces and intelligence capabilities were the only thing that stood between that part of Syria and what we’re seeing now, which is the beginning of a genocide and the resurgence of ISIS,” added Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren dissented.
“I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East,” she said. “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.”
Warren’s campaign later clarified that she doesn’t propose to abandon the Middle East entirely, but only wants to withdraw all “combat troops.”
Even so, the Massachusetts senator made clear that one of her first priorities is to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
So next year’s presidential election could offer voters two choices when it comes to foreign policy that haven’t been seen since the 1930s: A race between two candidates who both want to scale back U.S. commitments or a contest between an isolationist Republican and a more hawkish Democrat.
Since World War II, both parties have shared a rough consensus on U.S. engagement abroad — except when they divided between Republican hawks and Democratic doves.
This time, the cleavage between hawks and doves splits both parties, thanks to Trump, who often talks like a hawk, threatening “fire and fury” against countries that get in his way, but acts like a dove, avoiding real confrontations.
The Democrats’ internecine debate is nothing new. The contest of relatively centrist, internationalist candidates (Biden, Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) against progressive insurgents more skeptical of U.S. engagement abroad (Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii) would be familiar to anyone who has watched a primary contest since the Vietnam War.
The Republican fracture is more unusual, more disruptive — and perhaps more portentous.
Trump is breaking with a Republican foreign policy tradition that’s been in place since 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated the isolationist Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio for the GOP nomination.
Republican internationalism persisted through the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and (in an assertive variant) George W. Bush, who launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Trump, who was a registered Democrat during most of that period, doesn’t see himself as an heir to that tradition. His closest Republican forebear is Patrick J. Buchanan, who campaigned for president in 1988 as a neo-isolationist.
The president disdains traditional military alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He has campaigned for increased military spending, but less use of military force.
“I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that’s what I’m doing,” he told reporters last week.
In a not-very-Republican vein, Trump blamed the “military-industrial complex” for some of America’s wars.
“A lot of companies want to fight, because they make their weapons based on fighting, not based on peace,” he said.
He’s getting furious rhetorical pushback from a few traditionalist Republicans in Congress, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“Withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake,” McConnell wrote in the Washington Post on Friday. “It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances.”
“There is no substitute for American leadership,” McConnell added. “As neo-isolationism rears its head on both the left and the right, we can expect to hear more talk of ‘endless wars.’ But rhetoric cannot change the fact that wars do not just end; wars are won or lost.”
Public opinion polls suggest that McConnell, not Trump, speaks for a majority of Americans — including many Democrats.
A survey in June by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 59% of Americans supported military intervention in Syria and Iraq to quash Islamic terrorist groups. That included 59% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans. But surveys also indicate that support for internationalism is broad, but shallow — while voters on the left and right who want to bring troops home often feel passionately about the subject.
Trump “may be right on the politics,” said David Axelrod, a former strategist for President Obama. “A lot of his voters are nodding their heads in agreement with him, and I think he knows that.”
Those survey numbers also suggest that there may be an opportunity for a Democrat who differs sharply with Trump to woo a few crossover votes from traditionalist Republicans.
Will this issue decide the presidential election? Almost certainly not — unless another blunder by Trump makes foreign policy a front-burner issue. International issues typically rank low among voters’ concerns except in times of crisis.
But that doesn’t mean the stakes are low.
Will the next president continue the work of Trump’s first term and disengage the United States from alliances that have lasted for 75 years?
Or will he or she stay engaged overseas without falling prey to new military interventions?
America’s role in the world will be on the ballot, too.