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The 9/11 Generation Served. Now It Wants to Lead.

Three Democrats running for the White House fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and they came back with very different ideas.

Pete Buttigieg reacts as he sees an overflow crowd waiting for him at a meet-and-greet at Madhouse Coffee on April 8, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Pete Buttigieg reacts as he sees an overflow crowd waiting for him at a meet-and-greet at Madhouse Coffee on April 8, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Now that Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton has announced that he is running for president, the Democrats can claim three veterans of the post-9/11 wars among their candidates: Moulton; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. This is extraordinary in itself. Veterans of previous wars, whether Vietnam or World War II, have typically run for president a generation after those wars had ended; yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to this day.

None of the three candidates has more than a very outside chance of winning the nomination. But they may help Americans, and especially Democrats, come to grips with the vast, grim enterprise that has in so many ways defined the last two decades. What should we conclude from this experience about the use of force, or about our capacity to shape better outcomes in weak or chaotic states?

One thing we can say with confidence: A record of military service is now a serious resumé booster. While returning Vietnam vets made Americans uneasy, especially on the left, today Americans honor their service—at ballgames, on airplanes, maybe even at the grocery checkout line. Buttigieg is young, inexperienced, and gay, but the fact that he spent seven months as a counterterrorism intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2014 helps lay to rest any questions of his fitness for the presidency.

Military service does not, of course, dictate a worldview. In fact, even the nature of the war in which candidates serve has a very weak relationship to outlook. Al Gore and John Kerry served in Vietnam, a war that both came to oppose, the latter very publicly; but both came to occupy the activist wing of the Democratic Party during the interventions of the 1990s. Neither had his idealism permanently dented by his experience of a very bad war.

Gabbard and Moulton both came to regard the Iraq War as deeply misconceived, but they have drawn radically different conclusions from their experiences. Gabbard, who deployed in an Army National Guard medical unit to Iraq in 2004 and Kuwait in 2008, became convinced that the United States fights wars for all the wrong reasons. In the speech announcing her campaign, the Hawaii legislator sounded like a full-blown isolationist of the left, decrying “neolibs and neocons dragging us from one regime change war to the next, exacerbating the new Cold War, and pushing us to the brink of a nuclear war.”

By also vowing to “bring a soldier’s principles to the White House”—an ethos of sacrifice rather than a warrior code—Gabbard showed her mastery of a moment when liberals honor your service even as they deplore the cause in which you served. This gambit will probably not take her very far, since Gabbard appears to be less a confirmed anti-militarist than a crackpot. After visiting Bashar al-Assad in 2017, she adamantly refused to describe the Syrian butcher either as a war criminal or a U.S. adversary because she regards him as a stalwart ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism, a cause for which she is prepared to shed a great deal of blood.

Many Americans, and not only on the left, share Gabbard’s view that the post-9/11 wars demonstrate the futility of all U.S. efforts to shape a better Middle East, certainly through force and perhaps even through diplomacy. But Moulton, the only one of the three to serve as an active-duty soldier, derived an entirely different moral from the experience. Moulton is the up-armored version of Buttigieg—a broad-shouldered Harvard University graduate who enlisted in the Marines two months before 9/11 and served four tours in Iraq. Moulton plays a feature role in No End in Sight, a 2007 documentary that details the George W. Bush administration’s staggering nonchalance as postwar Iraq collapsed. Far from regarding postwar state-building as a folly, Moulton says on camera, “Personally, I feel that the war would be going differently if you had leadership that really understood, number one, what it’s like to be on the ground … and, number two, really had a good managerial grasp of making this thing work.”

In an earlier column, I wrote that Joe Biden might become the only Democratic candidate whose worldview was based on actual knowledge rather than projections from domestic affairs. That has proved to be premature, for Moulton has devoted his congressional tenure to the almost archaic fields of weapons procurement, veterans affairs, and national security. He is a China hawk of a serious type. In a speech at the Brookings Institution this year, Moulton observed that the United States was “investing 16 times more” in aircraft carriers than in cyberwarfare, thus locking itself into a 20th-century response to China, its chief 21st-century rival. He proposed a “NATO in the Pacific” while acknowledging that America does not have the same ties to its Asian allies that it has (or had) to its European ones.

And what of Mayor Pete, the one candidate of the three who has a more than infinitesimal chance of winning the nomination? We cannot say what lessons he has drawn from the battlefield because he has not chosen to tell us. In an editorial in the local paper written after returning from his stint in Afghanistan, he sagely observed that Afghan children, “though orphaned by the conflict, were no different than children at home in South Bend.”

Buttigieg has taken a few very cautious steps into the deep waters of security policy. He has criticized the conduct of “endless war” without Congressional authorization. But unlike the signatories of a petition pledging to end the “forever wars” of the post-9/11 period, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg argues that the United States should not withdraw all troops from Afghanistan absent a peace plan and assurances that the country will not descend into anarchy. He has warned against the reckless use of force in places like Venezuela, though that is not a stand that constitutes a profile in courage.

As a thoughtful person who speaks a great many languages–including, significantly Arabic–Buttigieg surely has given some thought to global affairs, but mayors of small Midwestern cities don’t have much reason to express themselves on the subject. Those seven months in Afghanistan may have had a less formative effect on Buttigieg’s thinking than his seven years as mayor or even his three years as a consultant at McKinsey.

Strictly as a political matter, both Gabbard’s anti-militarism and Buttigieg’s studied vagueness are likely to appeal to Democratic primary voters more than Moulton’s tempered faith in U.S. power. Gabbard and Moulton both want to talk about foreign policy and national security—albeit from opposite directions—and an electorate consumed with domestic affairs, and with hatred of Donald Trump, is likely to tune out both of them. Like most other candidates, Buttigieg rarely even discusses the world beyond the country’s borders. That probably speaks well for his instincts.

But a presidential campaign offers a moment to air the big questions—and not just about health care and student loans. If Democrats dismiss Barack Obama’s as well as Bush’s response to terrorism and civil strife in the Middle East as “the forever wars,” self-evidently misconceived and never to be repeated, what instruments do they propose to deploy in the face of collapsing states and ruthless dictators? International law? Can power, including military power, ever be a force for good? At least, or so one hopes, Biden and Moulton can force that conversation.

Remarkably, Moulton is given the very last words on the state of Iraq, circa 2007, in No End in Sight. Looking straight at the camera with a fervent glint in his brown eyes, he says, “Are you telling me that’s the best America can do? No. Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don’t tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that that’s the best America can do. That makes me angry.”

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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