Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Air Foreign Policy Differences Over Syria Withdrawal

The 4th Democratic Debate Yielded Some of the Most Substantive Exchange on Foreign Policy in the Race to Date

Over the past two weeks, a foreign policy debate has re-emerged within the Democratic party, stemming from President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg have begun to articulate a more forceful defense of American leadership, while Senator Elizabeth Warren and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard have made the case for reducing American commitments abroad.

When President Trump announced on October 6 that U.S. troops would be departing Syria ahead of an imminent Turkish invasion, many analysts noted opposition to his decision was uncharacteristically strong among Republican members of Congress, normally deferential to a President of their own party. Equally noteworthy, however, was the near uniform opposition it elicited among Democratic congressional leaders.

Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, condemned the withdrawal as “a betrayal of our partners. It was a gift to Russia, a gift to Iran, a gift to ISIS and a gift to Assad.” Engel introduced a resolution condemning the President’s decision, which passed the House overwhelmingly 354 votes to 60.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer were equally scathing. In a joint statement, they condemned “the chaos and insecurity unleashed in Syria by President Trump’s disastrous decision to precipitously withdraw from northern Syria” and called on the administration “to support Kurdish communities, to work to ensure that the Turkish military acts with restraint, and to present a clear strategy to defeat ISIS.”

This marks a historic shift from the Bush-era consensus within the Democratic party, which held that American foreign policy towards the Middle East was overly militarized, and that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq in order to force regional allies to “make tough choices”.


The contest for the presidential nomination within the Democratic primary is meanwhile beginning to intensify. On October 15, the party held its fourth debate between rival candidates, yielding some of the most substantive exchange on foreign policy in the race to date.

Senator Warren of Massachusetts, seen as effectively tied with Biden in the early voting state of Iowa, criticized President Trump’s withdrawal from Syria with a caveat: “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way … We need to get out, but we need to do this through a negotiated solution.”

The following day at a campaign address in Iowa, Joe Biden offered a sharp critique of Warren. He declared himself “surprised” by her position and countered that “we can be strong and smart at the same time … You don't get do-overs when it comes to national security.”

In a similar vein, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both Army veterans, traded pointed criticisms over foreign policy. Gabbard demanded an end to what she referred to as the “regime change war” in Syria, and denounced American support to the Syrian opposition as “support [for] terrorists like al-Qaeda in Syria.” In response, Buttigieg declared Gabbard’s position “dead wrong” and that “the slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence.  It's a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values."