President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. military forces out of Syria took center stage at Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Ohio, drawing widespread criticism but also unclear solutions from the candidates.
Several blasted the move, which critics charge opened a path for Turkish military forces to assault Kurdish fighters allied with American forces in the fight against the Islamic State group, as a betrayal of American values and national security priorities.
“It has been the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history, in terms of foreign policy,” said former Vice President Joe Biden. “Our commanders across the board, former and present, are ashamed of what's happening here.”
When Syria’s Kurdish fighters, America’s longtime battlefield allies against the Islamic State, announced over the weekend that they were switching sides and joining up with Damascus and Moscow, it seemed like a moment of geopolitical whiplash.
Biden said he would not have withdrawn U.S. troops from Syria or nearby Iraq, and pressed for American air power to provide protection to those allies (and remaining U.S. troops) immediately.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren similarly blasted Trump’s move but stopped short of demanding a full reversal. She said as commander in chief she would rely more heavily on advice from military commanders before making such a move, referencing news reports that some senior leaders in the Pentagon were surprised by the withdrawal.
“Look, 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. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.”
Two veterans on the stage — South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — briefly sparred with each other over the move after Gabbard accused the media and Democratic Party leaders of supporting “endless wars” by criticizing the Syria pullback.
“Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand, but so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media,” said Gabbard, who has taken criticism in the past for her defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Buttigieg called her take “dead wrong.”
“The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence,” he said. “It's a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.
“And when I was deployed, I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word. And our allies knew it and our enemies knew it.”
Gabbard accused him of pushing “to have our country involved in a war that has undermined our national security.” Buttigieg replied that “you can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump's policy, as you're doing.”
None of the 12 candidates on stage offered a clear path forward in the region. Several mentioned sanctions on Turkey. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said the first step in fixing the region “is we got to boot Donald Trump out of the Oval Office so that people will trust us again.”
U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces said American troops began pulling back Monday from positions along the border in northeast Syria ahead of an expected Turkish invasion that the Syrian Kurds say will overturn five years of achievements in the battle against the Islamic State group.
New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker invoked former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during the debate, saying the Syria moves have undermined Mattis’ past comments that foreign powers can have “no better friend than the United States and no greater enemy.”
“This president has turned that upside down and now is doing things to undermine our critical alliances and partner with Russia,” he said. “This is an American president that even right now is lying to the American public and saying he's bringing our troops home, at the same time he's increasing troop presence with the Saudis, while they're involved in an unjust war that is killing tens of thousands of children in Yemen.”
The 12-person field was the largest of the primary season thus far. Foreign policy and military issues took up about 20 minutes of the three-hour event, with more of the questions focused on the economy, health care and the House impeachment proceedings against Trump.