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Mayor Pete: Neocon?

Pete Buttigieg has clear views about America's role in the world. And they're a lot like the old-school, Cold War Democrats'.
January 14, 2020
Mayor Pete: Neocon?
South Bend, Indiana mayor and Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Democratic party is fighting for its soul on all fronts, including foreign policy. The party which has been associated with doves and a fundamental lack of interest in foreign policy for a generation has a rising star who is rejecting post-McGovern isolationism and wants to bring Truman back into the Democratic party. I’m talking about Pete Buttigieg, whose love for Cold Warrior Democrats is so great that he has named his dog after the 33rd president.

The 9/11 wars, combined with the financial crisis of 2008, created a backlash against American leadership and military involvement in both parties. A veteran of the Afghanistan War, Buttigieg is pushing back against the recent Democratic consensus.

In a foreign policy address at Indiana University last June, Buttigieg was welcomed by Lee Hamilton, the widely-respected, hawkish, former Democratic congressman from Indiana. Before beginning his remarks, Buttigieg honored the memory of Richard Lugar, a former Republican senator from Indiana and another hawk respected by both sides. The actual substance of Buttigieg’s speech made it clear that he shares Hamilton’s and Lugar’s foreign policy instincts.

Buttigieg’s foreign policy priorities include addressing climate change, combating authoritarianism around the world, and winning the emerging Cold War with China. The three are more intertwined than you might think. For instance, climate change and human rights are two major cards to play against China, the world’s biggest air polluter. Trump has received a lot of credit for having made the threat presented by China a point of our national conversation. But while it’s true that Trump has waged a trade war against China, he has mostly ignored the rising military threat that the country poses. Here’s Buttigieg on Trump’s half-confrontation:

They entered into this trade conflict without a plan, and it is making farmers worse off. If this next round of tariffs kicks in, it’s going to make consumers worse off. And it ignores the bigger issue in the China challenge, which is not about the export-import balance. It’s about whether the rest of this century happens on terms that are favorable to the American model or the Chinese model. And, obviously, I’ve got a pretty strong sense of which model is best, but you see the Chinese model being held up as a credible alternative to ours because ours looks chaotic and unstable and theirs has generated such growth.

Early into the speech, Buttigieg warned against “isolationists in [his] party.” The Iraq War was a disaster, he said, but to say that the promotion of human rights and democracy and standing for American values abroad is counterproductive learns the wrong lesson.

During the most recent Democratic debate, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cut the livestreaming of the debate inside China because Buttigieg attacked the CCP for its human rights violations. This is a breath of fresh air. The current president calls the protestors in Hong Kong “rioters,” which is how the CCP also refers to them. He has said that he finds the CCP “easier to deal with” than American Democrats. He lavishes praise on Chinese strongman Xi Jinping and has expressed a faint hope that maybe, one day, America will try “president for life,” too. These are not just foolish comments. These are comments that the CCP uses as propaganda to prove the supremacy of their system to the Chinese people.

Yes, we have reached a point where a mainstream Democratic presidential candidate is more hawkish than a Republican president.

The last president to have seriously engaged the issue of human rights in China was George W. Bush. But even this was an inconsistent stance.

A neoconservative policy hand once quipped that “if you are promoting human rights in Iran but not Saudi Arabia, you don’t have a human rights policy. You have an Iran strategy.”

At least from the relative safety of the campaign trail, Buttigieg seems to have an actual human rights policy. He says that the U.S. should promote human rights on both sides of the Persian Gulf. And Buttigieg even goes the full philosophical mile: He talks about how, while deployed in Afghanistan, he understood that the counter-narcotic operations his unit conducted helped real people back in South Bend. Which is essentially another version of George W. Bush’s belief that “the condition of people abroad affects us at home.”

Buttigieg says that power is not just military power, but also the power to inspire democracy movements. Throughout the campaign, he has called for “American leadership.” He uses lines such as “the world needs the best of America right now,” which is something that Reagan might have said, word-for-word.

And he is realistic about what this leadership requires. One thing everyone, on both sides, understands is that the United States cannot lead the world if the current level of political polarization and foreign policy discontinuity lasts.

Buttigieg seems keenly aware of this fact.

When it comes to the use of military power, Buttigieg has broken ranks with his rivals: While most of the Democratic candidates have called for budget cuts, Buttigieg and Joe Biden are the only two top-tier candidates objecting to further cuts.

Buttigieg has not called for spending more on defense, but he hasn’t ruled it out, either. His position is that as cyber-conflicts, irregular warfare, and artificial intelligence make conflicts more unconventional, our military budget is not reflecting this change. (That National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 totals $738 billion in spending; of that, research on AI is only allocated $1 billion, and this is after two years of “major” increases.) And Buttigieg has committed “to maintain absolute military superiority.” Which is more than you can say of the current administration.

When it comes to Israel, a sensitive issue within the Democratic party, Buttigieg is no fan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, yet, he acknowledges that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are major obstacles to peace, something that most Democratic candidates are unwilling to say, including Bernie Sanders—who wants to end aid to Israel and direct it to Hamas. In his support for the Jewish state, Buttigieg says, “security of Israel is a tenet of American interest. Nobody should play partisan politics with Israel’s security.”

This is not to say that Buttigieg’s foreign policy views are beyond criticism. He favors a withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Although he maintains that the United States needs to make sure that Afghanistan is secure through limited intelligence and special operations, so threats won’t rise again.) But, whatever you think about the wisdom of having American forces in Afghanistan, Buttigieg is correct when he says that there needs to be a new Congressional authorization for our mission in Afghanistan to legitimize it after 18 long years.

On Iran, he supports returning to the Iran nuclear deal, but unlike the Obama and Trump administrations, he believes that this should be coupled with parallel policies to confront Iran for its “abysmal human rights record” and support for terrorism. Even as some Democrats condemned the killing of the former Qods Force’s commander Qassem Soleimani, Buttigieg took a different route. In his statement’s first paragraph, he wrote that “[t]here is no question that Qassim Soleimani was a threat to [the] safety and security [of Americans], and that he masterminded threats and attacks against Americans and our allies.” His concern was that this operation will have large effects on regional security, which the current commander-in-chief is unfit to deal with.

Then came a gaffe. Iran shot down a civilian airliner as it responded to the attack. Buttgieg tweeted that civilians were now dead because of “an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” implying fault on the Trump administration, while the blame is 100 percent on the Iranian government, which is what a large portion of the Iranian society also believe, as they have poured into the streets in protests against the regime, its killing civilians, and its following coverup. In doing so, Buttigieg failed to stick to his own narrative of being above partisan politics when it comes to national security. In a moment of crisis, Buttigieg’s instincts betrayed him.

While the world was preoccupied with the Soleimani operation, the Venezuelan dictator, Nicolas Maduro, attempted to take over the country’s National Assembly, its last remaining democratic institution. Buttigieg condemned the “illegitimate takeover,” called Maduro a dictator, and said that he stands “behind [the legitimate president of Venezuela] Juan Guaidó and the Venezuelan people as they strive to reclaim their democracy and defend their rights.”

Whatever else you want to say about Buttigieg, he doesn’t limit his promotion of human rights to one side of the Persian Gulf, and he doesn’t care whether an authoritarian is a right-wing or left-wing dictator.

Buttigieg is not trigger-happy when it comes to the use of force. He favors diplomacy, even though a little trigger-happiness can sometimes make diplomacy easier. But he is not opposed to the use of force. He says that he believes “we should use force when there is a clear and present threat to the United States; when it’s necessary to deter and defend against an attack on or imminent threat against the United States, our citizens at home or abroad, or our treaty allies; and when we act as part of a legitimate international coalition to prevent genocide or other atrocities. But when we must use force, we must also have an end game.”

Buttigieg is not Paul Wolfowitz. But on the foreign policy spectrum, with John Kerry on one side and Wolfowitz on the other, he is positioning himself closer to the Wolf’s end of things.

One of the many opportunities with Donald Trump’s presidency has gifted to Democrats is the chance to take back the mantle of muscular foreign policy, human rights, and the promotion of American values. And Buttigieg is drawing the party a road map.

Buttigieg has demonstrated that his understanding of the world is close to those of the Cold War Democrats, but his mishandling of the Iran crisis makes one wonder if he has reached the maturity to be the commander-in-chief.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.