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Pete Buttigieg Is No Foreign Policy Maverick

He’s called for an end to “forever wars,” but the Afghanistan veteran’s security strategy sounds more like the status quo.

Logan Cyrus /AFP/Getty

During last month’s Democratic presidential debate, on November 20, a tense moment—one of the few that night—arose when candidates Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard clashed over, of all things, sending troops to Mexico.

Days earlier, in a town hall–style gathering, Buttigieg—an eight-year Navy Reserve veteran who deployed to Afghanistan in 2014—said that he would entertain sending the American military to fight drug cartels in Mexico, “if American lives were on the line and if it was necessary to meet treaty obligations.” On the debate stage, Gabbard—the only other veteran in the Democratic race, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005—seized on Buttigieg’s comments as evidence that the South Bend mayor threatened Mexico’s sovereignty with a plan that would further militarize America’s southern border.

“Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” Buttigieg responded. Raucous laughter among the audience ensued. The substantive stakes of their clash—over America’s use of its overwhelming military force and whether war in the service of humanitarianism is humane—were soon lost as pundits weighed in on who emerged from the scuffle “unscathed.” (It was Buttigieg, they agreed.)

As Buttigieg rises in the polls in key battleground states prior to the Democrats’ next debate on Thursday evening, he has increasingly positioned himself as the moderate alternative to left-wing challengers such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on domestic policy. On Medicare for All and free college tuition, Buttigieg has personified the middle ground, the art of the possible. He has lampooned those universal welfare programs as unrealistic and more beneficial to the rich than the poor—“I’m skeptical of spending [tax revenue] on millionaires and billionaires”—and defended his work for the corporate-downsizing artists at McKinsey, hoping his steady gradualism on health care, taxes, and education will win over party elites, wealthy donors, and the well-to-do suburban and exurban base voters who fear that the stable status quo of the Clinton and Obama years is being disrupted by a surging left.

On foreign policy, though, Buttigieg has tried to carve a niche similar to those of Sanders and Warren … at least, rhetorically. Notwithstanding his collisions with Gabbard—an easy political target who’s flailing in debate-qualifying polls—Buttigieg has critiqued and opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, expressing support for repealing the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that’s become a blank check for bombing: “We have got to put an end to endless war.” He has decried asymmetric trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He’s argued for targeting climate change as an existential threat to the world’s population.

But on close examination, Buttigieg’s foreign policy departs very little from the suburban-friendly centrism of his domestic plans. His ideas are of a piece with those of previous Democratic presidential candidates who have sought to project military strength and entrusted U.S. strategy to an inherently hawkish establishment of national security experts. Despite the salutary rhetoric, plenty of evidence suggests a Buttigieg presidency would likely extend the forever war rather than terminate it.

Half a decade before donning a uniform to participate in the Global War on Terror, Buttigieg protested it, participating as a Harvard student in demonstrations against the 2003 Iraq invasion. At least one fellow protester—now-attorney and anti-war activist Jesse Stellato—has suggested Buttigieg’s objections to the war were calculated, not conscientious: “He seemed more like a partisan than a pacifist,” Stellato told The Washington Post. “I’m not sure he would have been there if the Democrats hadn’t come out against the invasion.”

In Buttigieg’s own telling, he had considered joining the military on the campaign trail in 2008, after meeting veteran canvassers from less privileged backgrounds than his. The hitch, of course, was that George W. Bush was still president. “Your service has to be neutral to politics, but you are making a choice when you join the military under a certain president,” Buttigieg wrote. The following January, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office; that September, Buttigieg took the oath of office of an ensign in the Navy Reserve.

Five years later, Buttigieg took a leave as South Bend’s mayor to deploy to Kabul. He states in his memoir that he saw the war in Afghanistan both from the perspective of a service member stuck in the quagmire and a Midwestern municipal servant—South Benders did not have to search for fresh water while scared “there were any bombs nearby.” By 2014, the war in Afghanistan lacked much purpose as a bulwark against terrorism. Still, Buttigieg “did not believe the Afghanistan War was a mistake,” just poorly executed: It failed, the former consultant suggested, because it did not match the proper means with the desired ends.

Buttigieg’s historical reference point for the “correct” use of American military power remains the Cold War. Asked last July by the Council on Foreign Relations to name “the greatest foreign policy accomplishment of the United States since World War II,” Buttigieg cited America’s values promotion—what was repopularized by Democrats as “soft power” during his undergraduate years: “From the design, implementation and success of the Marshall Plan to the fall of the Soviet Union, our leadership—until recently—has been based not only on our power but also on the ideals of America and our allies.”

Buttigieg’s reading of post-1945 American history is thus derived from a self-edifying argument common within the largely centrist “blob,” as the national security establishment is sometimes known: On this view, American primacy and “democratic capitalism” create peace and prosperity; therefore if you want peace and prosperity, you want American primacy and capitalism.

In Buttigieg’s variation on this theme, Democrats must be more conservative than Republicans, in terms of looking backward for foreign policy inspiration. Democrats became so absorbed with how Republicans were abusing American power in the Middle East, he told 60 Minutes’ Margaret Brennan last June, that they neglected to articulate what liberals should be fighting wars for: “We were so horrified by the way that democracy promotion was done at gunpoint then, that it very nearly made our party into isolationists, when actually we’ve often been the ones who believed in more international engagement.” Buttigieg does not believe liberal internationalism is a problem, let alone the problem; to him, its absence can only lead to a “total isolationism [that] is self-defeating in the long run”—and that creates a haven for America’s enemies and autocratic regimes.

This, in essence, was a Buttigieg Doctrine, laid out in a well-received major foreign policy speech in June: “The lesson of the Iraq disaster is not that there is anything wrong with standing for American values,” he said; rather, it taught that American values must be peacefully employed “to make better the everyday life of its citizens and of people around the world, knowing how much one has to do with the other.” The end is noble; you just need better means—softer power—to achieve that end.

But in historical terms, that soft-power approach doesn’t look very different from straight Machiavellianism. Protecting American-style democracy abroad has been part and parcel of our foreign policy since 1945 and has led to the commitment of force, usually in the less powerful global south. Buttigieg implies that such hard-power uses are the noble price we pay to safeguard democratic hegemony under the U.S.: “However imperfectly, we have represented and defended principles of freedom and democracy that stir human beings wherever they live. And whenever such principles have been vindicated around the world, American strength has grown.” Citizens of Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, among myriad others, might take issue with this sanguine view of democracy promotion.

Given the historical underpinnings of his ideas, under a hypothetical Buttigieg administration, two foreign policy concerns become apparent. First, Buttigieg would presumably rely upon the same body of experts who have waged the forever war without much success. On the eve of his June foreign policy speech, Buttigieg already had “a foreign policy brain trust, which includes more than 100 experts,” led by an Obama-era Pentagon spokesman, according to Politico. The distinction between his blob and Democratic predecessors’, supporters say, is generational: Buttigieg gives voice to experts who have learned from U.S. errors on Iraq and Afghanistan (and, in some cases, committed them).

But this leads to the second concern: Buttigieg’s very notion of fresh-faced liberal internationalism has a distinct vintage in American politics. It’s technocratic, seeing the use of force not as an inherent harm but a fine policy instrument wielded badly by imperfect actors. Policymakers during the Cold War, the “best and the brightest,” felt the same way: They inevitably relied on new “good wars” to correct the old “bad wars.”

What, in Buttigieg’s view, distinguishes a good war from a bad one? “[It] is, in short, the difference between Normandy and Saigon,” he has said. He meant that the former was necessary and the latter chosen, though the salient difference might also be that the U.S. won the former and lost the latter. But even Buttigieg’s intended point here is an empirically false trope: Throughout the Cold War, policymakers felt they must necessarily wage war against communism to stop its steady march across the globe. The line between choice and necessity is easily obscured by a moralizing ideology.

Indeed, it is striking how much Buttigieg owes to the Cold War liberals of yore. While avoiding the hyperbolic “axis of evil” rhetoric of the George W. Bush era, Buttigieg sees the world in largely binary terms, as a contest of universal values of democracy against autocracy. In his stances toward China, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran, he avoids discussion of military force and relies on a combination of sanctions, technological innovation in the U.S., and multilateral diplomacy to tackle the threats each country poses to the U.S. But elements of Cold War thinking are reflected in his urgings to prevent China from “legitimizing authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to the democratic capitalism embraced by the United States.” Buttigieg still sees defense against threats to ideas, to values—not simply states—as the basis of a world order.

Such a moral view has skewed Democratic presidents’ notions of “good” and “necessary” wars before. “I guess we’ve got no choice, but it scares the death out of me,” Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked, on first sending the Marines into Danang on March 6, 1965. Marines remained there long after Johnson had left office.

Forty-three years later, in a foreign policy speech that began—like Buttigieg’s—by extolling the Marshall Plan and American values, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama declared that he would divert resources away from the “careless” Iraq War in order to redouble U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. “I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be,” he said. “This is a war that we have to win.” President Obama, too, was outlasted by his good war.

Should he become president, Buttigieg will look an awful lot like these liberal internationalists who have preceded him, men who see threats to American ideals everywhere and have the hammer of American military supremacy at their disposal. To such men, no matter how well-intending, many problems will eventually look like nails.