Ingnatius: Democrats ceding chance to lead on foreign policy

In racing Trump to Afghanistan’s exit door, they ignore the dangers that put us there after Sept. 11.

By David Ignatius

The Washington Post

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.

Khalilzad is trying to trade U.S. troop withdrawal for the Taliban’s promises that the territory it controls won’t be a platform for terrorist attacks, as happened so disastrously on Sept. 11, 2001. He concluded a draft of that framework last month in Qatar, and then spent nine days in Afghanistan trying to reach an agreement with Ghani’s government and other non-Taliban factions on a plan for intra-Afghan dialogue that will follow the initial peace deal.

Khalilzad insists that his troop-withdrawal pact with the Taliban won’t take effect unless the insurgents negotiate a roadmap for transition with the Afghan government; and also agree to a comprehensive, nationwide cease-fire.

The scary part — and one that any Democrat who wants to be president should consider carefully — is how the U.S. can stop terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State from operating in territory that neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government controls.

“We need to ensure our ability to help our partners prevent a sanctuary from being established as it was before 9/11,” cautions retired Gen. David Petraeus, who was one of the long line of U.S. commanders in Afghanistan during the 18 years of American military operations there. At stake, too, are the future rights of Afghanistan’s women, which America fought so hard to enhance.

Do Democrats care? Afghanistan involves delicate national-security issues that could be a selling point for a Democrat against a policy-by-Twitter Trump who seems allergic to commitments overseas. Instead, the Democrats are competing with Trump over how fast they can withdraw troops and ditch free-trade agreements.

“We can’t isolate ourselves from the world. We have to engage,” warned Rep. John Delaney Tuesday night. Hey, Democrats, he’s right. If you want to beat Trump, get serious about foreign policy.

Follow David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.

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