By Paul Waldman

The Washington Post

If a Democrat were president right now and the events of the last week in the Middle East had taken place, what would he or she be doing?

For his part, President Donald Trump can’t seem to decide what to do. He started with some tough talk about Iran, but after an embarrassing tweet in which he seemed to imply that he would be taking orders from Saudi Arabia on how America should respond to an attack on Saudi oil facilities, he has stepped back from the bellicosity. But his bottomless affection for the Saudis doesn’t seem to have changed; perhaps it has to do with the fact that they gave him a gold medal and let him touch their orb.

As Democrats propose sweeping change in domestic policy, their foreign policy ideas have gotten much less discussion. Foreign policy has been touched on only briefly in the debates so far, and the candidates are spending relatively little time on the subject as they stump for votes.

And while they tend to talk in general terms about rebuilding the alliances Trump has shredded so America can act with partners on things like climate change, Saudi Arabia is one area where at least some of them are proposing something very different than even what Democrats used to believe. The idea that the Saudis are an indispensable ally is no longer a matter of bipartisan consensus.

Bernie Sanders has for some time rejected that longtime feature of American foreign policy (“They are not an ally of the United States,” he said two years ago), and the Saudi war in Yemen, along with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, seems to have moved much of the party in his direction. When asked by the Council on Foreign Relations, nearly every candidate suggested that we should not only end our assistance for the Saudi war in Yemen but also that we should rethink the Saudi-American alliance itself.

After all, Saudi Arabia is an oppressive dictatorship that has supported terrorism and foments violence and instability in the region, which are precisely the grounds on which we say that Iran is our enemy.

That is one way Democrats would differ from Trump: They would reassert American values as a guiding force in foreign policy. But Trump has something in common with Democrats. He doesn’t have any desire to start a new war in the Middle East, even if so many in his party are eager to start bombing Iran.

There is another point of commonality: As an article in The New York Times points out, what Democrats say they want to do about Afghanistan isn’t all that different from what Trump wants to do. Most of them advocate largely for ending our presence there, perhaps with some small residual force that could go after terrorist enclaves should they be established, which is pretty much what Trump supports.

This is met by some with the question of why we would abandon Afghanistan after so long and risk it falling back under the complete control of the Taliban. The trouble is that although that would be awful in many ways, it wouldn’t necessarily have a direct impact on the security of the United States. While it is possible that the Taliban could provide a place for al-Qaida or some other terrorist group to plot attacks on the U.S., it is not as though what is preventing another 9/11 is the lack of sufficient real estate for al-Qaida to put its headquarters.

If Democrats and Trump seem less than eager to make Afghanistan a campaign issue, it might be because one can’t paint a vision of a bright future there. Everyone knows there will be no victory, not after the 18 years we have been there, and not after 28 or 38 if we decided to stay that long. And whenever we leave, the results might be very bad for the Afghans.

These are just a couple of points that highlight a key truth: What Democrats object to most in Trump’s foreign policy often comes down to things like the rhetoric he uses, the obsequiousness with which he treats dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, or how rude he is to American allies. That would change if a Democrat were elected, and there are a few areas where they would like to essentially reset policy back to what it was during the Obama years (reentering the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, for instance).

Overall, however, the changes Democrats want to bring to American foreign policy aren’t radical. And because the contrast with Trump isn’t as stark as it is on domestic policy, neither he nor they are likely to talk about foreign policy as much as the campaign continues.


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