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Politics

Debaters seemed eerily like America-First Democrats

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- This week's Democratic presidential debates included little substantive discussion of foreign policy -- even about an imminent troop-withdrawal agreement for Afghanistan -- and most of the candidates seemed as eager to retreat from the world as President Trump.

The debaters looked eerily like America-First Democrats, with scant concern about how the United States should protect its interests abroad. Their eagerness to withdraw from Afghanistan matches that of Trump, who wants a peace deal with the Taliban that gets American troops out before the 2020 election.

Rather than questioning Trump's haste on Afghanistan, Democrats seem to be joining him in a race for the exit. More broadly, most Democratic candidates appear uninterested in complicated foreign-policy problems that don't yield an immediate applause line.

This disinterest in foreign policy is partly the fault of CNN, which organized this week's debates. The moderators posed only a few questions that touched on Afghanistan, America's longest war. Most respondents talked about a quick departure, rather than the national-security threats that might require a small residual force.

The Democrat who seemed to best appreciate the stakes in the Afghan peace talks was John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor. He said Tuesday night: "If we completely pull our troops out of there, you're going to see a humanitarian disaster that will startle and frighten every man, woman and child in this country." A wise and perhaps prescient warning.

Pete Buttigieg, the only Afghanistan veteran in the group, said Tuesday that he would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in his first year in office, apparently regardless of conditions there. Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman, at least stretched that pullout deadline to "my first term in office."

 

The best reality check during Wednesday's debate came from Sen. Cory Booker: "I will bring our troops home ... as quickly as possible, but I will not set during a campaign an artificial deadline." He rightly warned that too hasty a withdrawal could "create a vacuum that's ultimately going to destabilize the Middle East."

Most of the 20 Democratic candidates seemed to have their eyes fixed on the departure gate in Afghanistan. That's an understandable feeling for a war-weary country, but it's not a good stance for a prospective commander in chief.

Secret negotiations with the Taliban conducted by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have brought us near a momentous turning point. A breakthrough deal could be hatched this month, but the still-fuzzy details worry U.S. military officers and the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

"My underlying concern is the rush to make a deal," says retired Gen. Jack Keane, who's close to the Trump White House. He likens the situation to the 1972 Paris Peace Accords on Vietnam, where Democrats and Republicans were both eager for a politically expedient deal, even if it weakened South Vietnam.

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