POLITICS

Many 2020 Democrats Silent On Trump's Afghanistan, Syria Withdrawals

HuffPost contacted a dozen likely presidential candidates to ask where they stand.

One month after President Donald Trump abruptly ordered thousands of troops to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan, only a handful of the Democratic Party’s likely 2020 presidential candidates have taken a stance on one of the most important U.S. foreign policy decisions in years.

The drawdown in Afghanistan and total withdrawal from Syria is expected to significantly alter the fight against the Islamic State militant group and potentially leave American-allied militias vulnerable as the U.S. begins to extricate its forces. The decision has also triggered backlash from the U.S. security establishment, including the resignation of top officials like former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Whether to withdraw from the conflicts and how to do so without creating more chaos is also likely to come up repeatedly in Democratic primary debates and be a key element of candidates’ foreign policy platforms. But since only three of the declared or potential 2020 candidates — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — have publicly commented on Trump’s decision to withdraw, HuffPost contacted a dozen potential candidates to clarify their foreign policy approaches toward Afghanistan and Syria and ask whether they support pulling U.S. forces out.

Here are their responses:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): Troops should withdraw, but not the way Trump is doing it.

“U.S. troops should be withdrawn from [Syria] and Afghanistan, but in a planned and coordinated way,” Sanders told HuffPost in an email. “This must be combined with a serious diplomatic and political strategy which helps deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid.”

Trump’s sudden decision to pull out of Syria and the resulting confusion among allies was more evidence of his administration’s “erratic and reckless approach,” according to Sanders.

Although Sanders holds that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad must not remain in power and has perpetrated crimes against humanity, the senator said he wants a diplomatic approach with Russia and Iran to resolve the conflict. (He did not explain how he would convince Assad’s two biggest guarantors to give up their support for the dictator.) 

U.S. troops should be withdrawn from [Syria] and Afghanistan, but in a planned and coordinated way. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

On Afghanistan, Sanders called for an orderly end to the intervention and noted U.S. troops have been in the country for nearly 18 years. But he also rejected fully walking away from U.S. commitments abroad.

“In both Afghanistan and Syria, withdrawing troops does not mean withdrawing all involvement, and we should stay politically engaged in these countries and do whatever we can to help them build governments and economies that are responsible to their people,” Sanders said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.): Trump’s withdrawal is reckless, but no comment on whether U.S. forces should leave.

“Senator Booker believes that President Trump’s immediate and unplanned withdrawal of troops from Syria is reckless and dangerous. Unfortunately, the withdrawal is part of Trump’s larger chaotic and directionless foreign policy approach to Syria that includes freezing – and ultimately withdrawing – much-needed stabilization funding,” a spokesperson for Booker said in an email.

“This fly-by-night foreign policy approach has blindsided the President’s own national security team, stoked fear and confusion among our allies, and risks seriously harming our efforts to achieve an enduring defeat of ISIS.”

The spokesperson for Booker did not respond when asked to clarify the senator’s own position on whether he would support a withdrawal of forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.): Diplomacy cannot be through tweets.

In a statement Monday to reporters at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Harris, who announced her intention to join the 2020 presidential race earlier in the day, rebuked the White House on its foreign policy strategy regarding the Syria withdrawal.

“My concern is that we cannot conduct foreign policy through tweets,” Harris said. “My concern is that when we make decisions about what we will do in terms of our military presence, much less our diplomatic priorities, that we do that in a way that will involve consultation with our military leaders, in a way that will involve some kind consultation or at least outreach to our allies, and that when we make those decisions, the American public can have a better sense of confidence that it is the right decision. So, as much as anything, I’m concerned by the process by which the president has gone about doing what he has done in Syria.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio): Troops should withdraw, but not the way Trump is doing it.

“I support an organized withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan that is coordinated with our allies and well planned with the input of both the State Department and the Department of Defense,” Brown told HuffPost in an email.

“I do not support President Trump using our troops for his own political gain by making announcements without talking to his own cabinet officials, let alone our partners on the ground.”

Brown criticized Trump as unwilling to stand up to Russia in both the Middle East and Ukraine, and said the deaths of four U.S. servicemen in an ISIS attack in Syria this week “underscores the need for a broader conversation about our presence in the region.”

I support an organized withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan that is coordinated with our allies and well planned. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): Troops should withdraw, but not the way Trump is doing it.

Warren was one of the few likely Democratic candidates to publicly speak at length about the pullouts in Syria and Afghanistan following Trump’s withdrawal announcement. In an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow earlier this month, Warren said she supported withdrawing troops from both Syria and Afghanistan.

“I think that everybody who keeps saying, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that,’ in the defense establishment needs to explain what they think winning in those wars [looks] like and where the metrics are,” Warren said.

But Warren criticized Trump for tweeting the withdrawal order and not coordinating with allies on how to pull back troops in a way that would ensure safety and stability. Warren also gave a speech before the announcement in late November at American University, calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and called for re-evaluating current U.S. military deployments.

When HuffPost contacted Warren for comment on her policies toward Syria and Afghanistan, as well as if she supported a total troop withdrawal, a spokesperson referenced Warren’s university speech and MSNBC interview.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): Trump’s withdrawal is too sudden and poorly executed.

In an interview with Fox News shortly after Trump’s Syria announcement, Klobuchar criticized the president for not listening to the advice of the military and called the chaotic nature of the withdrawal a disaster for allies.

“I just don’t think you pull out suddenly and do this to your allies, and especially to the Kurds who we trained to fight for us and who are going to be sitting ducks there,” Klobuchar told Fox News. She added, “there’s got to be a better way to do this.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii): Trump is right to leave Syria; no comment on Afghanistan withdrawal

Gabbard also did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment, but following Trump’s withdrawal order, she tweeted, “We need to get out of Syria ASAP in a responsible manner (it shouldn’t take long).” In her tweets, Gabbard also said there was a “hysterical reaction” to the withdrawal and claimed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was pushing for war and regime change in Iran and Syria.

Gabbard is a longtime apologist for Bashar Assad, even meeting with him in 2017, and has been heavily critical of U.S. intelligence linking him to crimes such as deadly chemical attacks in Syria.   

We need to get out of Syria ASAP in a responsible manner (it shouldn’t take long). Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): Withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq

Gillibrand did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. Five days after HuffPost initially reached out to her, however, Gillibrand told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that she supported withdrawing troops. 

“I think we should be drawing down our troops, not only in Afghanistan but the remainder in Iraq and in Syria,” Gillibrand said. “Then give Congress the opportunity that if they believe we should be in combat missions in any of these countries that we actually file a new authorization for the military use of force.”

Gillibrand also criticized Trump’s actions as capitulating to Russia and isolating traditional allies. 

The following Democrats have made no public statements on the withdrawals, and did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment:

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.)

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro 

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)

This article has been updated to include a section with Gillibrand’s public remarks.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that Sen. Klobuchar had not responded to a request for comment. Due to a communication error, her team did not receive the request. This story also previously mischaracterized Sen. Kamala Harris’ statement; she did specifically mention Trump’s position on Syria.

CONVERSATIONS