Election 2020

Meet Pete Buttigieg’s Foreign-Policy Mentor

Former Pentagon official and campaign veteran Doug Wilson is helping the U.S. presidential candidate stand out from the pack on foreign policy.

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson, then-assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, speaks during a briefing on the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" at the Pentagon on July 22, 2011. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Doug Wilson, then-assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, speaks during a briefing on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” at the Pentagon on July 22, 2011. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

This is the first in a series of profiles of the people advising the 2020 Democratic field on foreign policy.

Doug Wilson was directing John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Arizona in 2004 when an energetic young campaign staffer caught his attention. Wilson, impressed by the staffer, recruited him to be an assistant for a venture back in Washington organizing conferences for emerging leaders.

Sixteen years later, that campaign worker, Pete Buttigieg, is in the midst of a long-shot presidential bid that has propelled him close to the front of the pack in the Democratic primaries. And Wilson, Buttigieg’s former supervisor—a veteran of the State Department, Defense Department, and eight Democratic campaigns—now serves as one of his top advisors on foreign policy.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Wilson recalled picking Buttigieg out of a sheaf of resumes to work on the 2004 Kerry campaign for Arizona and quickly becoming impressed with his work. “The qualities that attracted me to him, that made me respect him, that made me think that this was a match [for the Kerry campaign job] are the same qualities that he’s bringing to the campaign,” he said. “He impressed everybody with the fact that he was a team player.”

Wilson now leads a team of experts, many of whom served in the Obama administration but yearn for a fresh face to run U.S. foreign policy rather than just a return to the Obama years. For example, the Buttigieg campaign stands for a more aggressive approach to tackling climate change and vows to replace the 2001-era war powers authorities that both the Obama and Trump administrations used to deploy forces at will in the Middle East without additional congressional approval.

Wilson shares another unique bond with Buttigieg as a trailblazer for LGBT issues: As the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Pentagon official, Wilson helped repeal the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military. It came two years after his protege joined the Navy Reserves, and three years before Buttigieg was called up to active duty service for a seven-month tour in Afghanistan.

As the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Pentagon official, Wilson helped repeal the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

It was only later, after Wilson met and befriended Buttigieg, that he learned the former mayor—the first openly gay candidate to mount a major presidential campaign—“had been on the same personal journey I had been on years before,” he recalled

Foreign policy often plays a peripheral issue in elections, particularly primaries, where issues closer to home, such as health care and the economy, drive the campaigns. At a Democratic debate on Wednesday night, Buttigieg locked horns with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another presidential hopeful fighting for the center-left vote. But outside of a bitter exchange between the two over Klobuchar failing to remember the name of the president of Mexico, foreign-policy issues received virtually no attention.

As the election date in November approaches, however, top candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are already solidifying teams of foreign-policy advisors to help craft their campaign platforms and respond to major foreign-policy developments as they arise.

Election day is far off, but the candidates’ teams of expert volunteers give insights into their foreign-policy priorities. They also offer a glimpse into what a candidate’s administration would look like if they were elected. Oftentimes, it is the campaign advisors and volunteers who secure influential positions in the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and other federal agencies in the early days of an administration. 

Andrew Albertson, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Foreign Policy for America, said not to discount the importance of foreign policy in the 2020 election cycle. “Americans are so weary of conflict and the next war we might purposefully or inadvertently find ourselves in,” he said. “I think people underestimate the degree to which this really could turn out to be a foreign policy election.”

Wilson’s journey to becoming one of Buttigieg’s most influential advisors comes from decades of experience in both foreign-policy making and campaigning for Democratic candidates. Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and an Afghanistan War veteran, lacks some of the foreign-policy credentials of other Democratic presidential contenders, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have each served in the Senate on committees that oversee key aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

But in Wilson, Buttigieg has both a foreign-policy expert and a seasoned campaign veteran helping coordinate his foreign-policy platform. Wilson leads a team of some 450 foreign-policy experts volunteering for Buttigieg, hoping to vault the former mayor, veteran, and Rhodes scholar to the most powerful public office in the world. 

In Wilson, Buttigieg has both a foreign-policy expert and a seasoned campaign veteran helping coordinate the mayor’s foreign-policy platform.

Wilson, who works on a volunteer basis, leads Buttigieg’s team of foreign-policy advisors along with Tarek Ghani, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. While his Democratic rival Biden boasts a large cadre of former senior officials in Democratic administrations, Buttigieg’s team in many ways represents the next generation of foreign-policy experts, among them: Ned Price, a former CIA official and National Security Council staffer; Amanda Sloat, an expert on European issues and former State Department official; Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former senior Pentagon official and scholar on Latin America; Eric Fanning, a former secretary of the army; and Robert Holleyman, a former deputy trade representative under President Barack Obama.

An Arizona native, Wilson cut his teeth in the world of foreign policy after joining the U.S. foreign service, serving stints in Rome, Naples, and London. While in London, he served as the embassy spokesperson during the Iran hostage crisis that began amid the country’s revolution in 1979, where 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens were held hostage for over 14 months before being released after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed. Wilson was friends with four of those detained.

He has worked on eight Democratic campaigns, from former Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential bid in 1988, to Kerry’s in 2004, to Martin O’Malley’s primary bid in 2016, which the former Maryland governor lost to Hillary Clinton. During the Obama administration, Wilson served as the Pentagon’s top public affairs official from early 2010 to 2012, advising on issues spanning public communications, China, and Afghanistan. He was one of the dissenting Pentagon officials who advocated against labeling the Obama administration’s renewed focus on China as a “pivot” to Asia, lest it appear the United States was retreating from its commitments elsewhere in the world.

It was while he was at the Pentagon that Wilson helped the administration repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011. He recalls it as a defining moment in his career. “It was something that made me feel very proud, because it meant that so many people could be whole people again and they could serve their country with distinction and not have to worry that their lives would be bifurcated,” he told Foreign Policy

“It meant that so many people could be whole people again and they could serve their country with distinction and not have to worry that their lives would be bifurcated.”

Before he came out, Wilson struggled with balancing his professional and personal life, “one publicly striving to advance in a career in foreign policy and communications; another hidden, struggling to accept my sexual orientation, and wondering whether I would ever find love and acceptance for who I am,” he later wrote when he began campaigning for Buttigieg. He wrote that he learned to find his place through an LGBT swimming team in the 1990s, when acceptance of LGBT rights was much less widespread in the United States than it is today. (As Buttigieg has written, the struggle for full equality is “not over.”)

After leaving the Pentagon, Wilson was nominated to serve on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, but his confirmation to the part-time post languished in Senate amid political squabbles and the sclerotic background investigations that has dogged nominees in all recent administrations.

Wilson said one of the bright spots in his long career is mentoring future leaders, including Buttigieg. “I’m proud to have been part of Pete’s life. I’m hugely proud to be working for him now. And he’s certainly one of the people that I saw early on as someone who could make a real difference as he brought his talents to public service,” he said. 

Wilson and Ghani have organized the cadre of volunteers on the foreign-policy team into 25 working groups, each with a focus on different regions or subjects. Ned Price, one of the advisors, said Wilson kept “the trains running on time” with all the advisors despite the frenetic pace of the campaign season.

About half of the working groups are led by women, and one of the working groups focuses specifically on diversity and inclusion. Still, Buttigieg himself has struggled to gain traction with blocs of minority voters that Democratic candidates are hoping to energize in the 2020 elections to oust President Donald Trump from office. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Feb. 10 found that only 4 percent of black voters would support Buttigieg if the primary were held that day, compared to 27 percent for Biden.

Buttigieg, positioning himself as a centrist in a race with fierce competition on the far left from Warren and Sanders, has also faced criticism from the left flank for accepting money from major deep-pocketed political donors. Biden has the backing of 60 billionaires and Buttigieg has the backing of 56, according to Forbes magazine, compared to zero for Sanders. Warren and Sanders have painted Buttigieg as a favored candidate of wealthy donors and corporations as part of their bid to overtake him in the primaries. Warren has set herself apart by pledging to bar wealthy donors from becoming ambassadors, a practice carried out by Trump and past Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

In an interview with CNN last month, Buttigieg did not rule out appointing donors as ambassadors if they had the right qualifications. “If I’m trying to figure out who ought to be a senior envoy to deal with, let’s say, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and somebody emerges as the right person for that job with the best qualifications, are they going to turn out to be disqualified because they came to a house party for my campaign years earlier?” he said. 

Still, foreign policy appears to be one of Buttigieg’s strengths in the eyes of voters, despite his relative lack of experience compared with other candidates.

Still, foreign policy appears to be one of Buttigieg’s strengths in the eyes of voters. An exit poll of voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which Buttigieg only narrowly lost to Sanders, found that Buttigieg won the most votes among voters that rated foreign policy as their most important issue. 

Buttigieg was one of the first Democratic candidates to give a speech on foreign policy, in June 2019, which several advisors say Wilson played a key role in orchestrating. In the speech, Buttigieg gave tangible policy recommendations that largely aligned with the views of other candidates in the Democratic field: returning to the Iran nuclear deal, rejoining the Paris climate accords, and withholding some U.S. funding to Israel if it annexed part of the West Bank. But he also distinguished himself from the Obama administration’s foreign policy by vowing to repeal and replace the 2001 congressional authority that successive U.S. administrations still use to justify military force in the Middle East—the center of an ongoing heated debate on Capitol Hill.

His push to replace the so-called Authorization for Use of Military Force was born in large part from his seven-month tour in Afghanistan in 2014, where he fretted over what purpose U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was serving and how the war could ever end, as he recounts in his 2019 memoir, Shortest Way Home. Several advisors who spoke to Foreign Policy said Wilson played a key role in encouraging Buttigieg to pursue a career path in the U.S. military.

Wilson conceded foreign policy wasn’t dominating primary season, but he said candidates need to communicate their approaches on foreign policy to voters ahead of the general election. Among the issues he and his team are working on currently for the mayor’s campaign: whether sanctions are the only default nonmilitary way to respond to foreign-policy crises, how to rethink and restore U.S. alliances after Trump leaves office, and how to revive the State Department and other federal agencies with a new generation of talent. “Our view is, how do we recruit and retain more Chris Stevenses?” he said, referring to the veteran U.S. ambassador killed by militants in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. 

Buttigieg is the greenest candidate on the campaign trail, which some of his advisors say gives them more opportunities to help him inject fresh thinking into the stale foreign policy debates in Washington. It’s one of the ways that Wilson has been able to amass such a large and diverse group of foreign policy experts despite Buttigieg lagging behind other candidates in the national polls.

“It’s definitely the case that not every position has been litigated in the interagency 15 times already,” said one. “There was more ability to shape and develop policies than [with] other candidates.”

“I think people would probably look at me and say the Biden [campaign] would have been the better fit,” said Chavez, the former Pentagon official advising Buttigieg. She praised Biden’s record as vice president and described him as a strong candidate, but “with Pete, the vision is broader, and bigger, and more inclusive, which is one of the reasons why I made the decision [to join Buttigieg’s team],” she said. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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