It has become conventional wisdom that 2020 Democratic presidential candidates don’t talk about foreign policy, or that they don’t have much to say when they do. This wasn’t true before now, and it definitely isn’t true now that another candidate has spoken at length about it. Pete Buttigieg delivered a lengthy, fairly detailed address on this subject earlier today at Indiana University. The South Bend mayor made a few important commitments and offered a generally thoughtful outline of what he thinks the U.S. should and shouldn’t be doing in the world. Whatever one thinks of his views, Buttigieg offered a cogent, well-organized explanation of where he stands.
Buttigieg said some encouraging things about the need for Congress to reclaim its role in matters of war and the need to set a high bar for the use of force abroad. Like many other 2020 candidates, he pledged to take the U.S. back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and he called for ending our country’s endless wars. These were all good, albeit obvious, positions for any Democratic candidate to take. His position that the U.S. should repeal the 2001 AUMF is a welcome one. His insistence that the U.S. should “replace” it with a new authorization is much less so.
Buttigieg has been fairly criticized for being too reflexively “pro-Israel.” In this speech, he was willing to call out Netanyahu and came out against annexations in the West Bank. It wasn’t as much as he needed to say, but it was a start. He called for criticizing the Saudis for their human rights abuses. He begins talking about it here at 48:00 in the video. I was watching the speech online, and I was expecting him to say more than that about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but he didn’t. He dispenses with addressing Saudi abuses in less than a minute, and then moves on. Tellingly, he did not mention the war on Yemen or the Congressional effort to end U.S. involvement in that war. It is a big omission, and all the more so when we consider the important role that many of his 2020 competitors have had in challenging the administration’s despicable Yemen policy. Opposing Trump on Yemen should be a lay-up for a Democratic presidential candidate, and Buttigieg didn’t even try. The omission was all the more noticeable when he kept returning to the theme of defending American values and interests throughout the speech. The debate over the war on Yemen offers a clear example of the need to defend our values and interests against an outrageous policy that tramples on both, but Buttigieg didn’t mention it. That was at best a missed opportunity and at worst a sign that “Mayor Pete” really doesn’t understand that a lot of Democratic politicians and activists believe ending the war on Yemen to be a major priority and a moral imperative.
If Buttigieg was initially one of the candidates least interested in offering policy specifics, he made a serious effort to remedy that with a foreign policy speech that was at least as comprehensive as anything that most candidates in previous cycles have offered much later in the process. The idea that Democratic presidential candidates are afraid of talking about foreign policy is nonsense, and if the mayor’s speech kills off this narrative he has done everyone a service.