WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Elizabeth Warren has jumped to the front of the race to take on Donald Trump in 2020 by promising far-reaching domestic reforms that highlight the Democratic senator’s wide differences with the Republican president.
When it comes to foreign policy and national security, however, Warren sounds a bit like Trump.
At a debate in Ohio on Tuesday night, the Massachusetts senator joined other Democratic presidential candidates in criticizing Trump’s pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria, but also said she thought the United States “ought to get out of the Middle East.”
Warren was voicing a long-held skepticism about U.S. military intervention, in which she has vowed to reduce defense spending and withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, a position that on the surface seems to echo Trump’s “America First” approach to the world.
But Tuesday’s statement left an opening for critics at a sensitive time when Republicans and Democrats are accusing Trump of betraying Kurdish fighters who fought with Washington against the Islamic State and empowering adversaries Russia and Syria.
Former vice president Joe Biden, who highlights his foreign policy bona fides and long experience on international conflicts on the campaign trail, did not hesitate to take the opportunity to take a jab at his closest rival.
“I have never heard anyone say with any serious background in foreign policy, ‘Pull all troops out of the Middle East’,” Biden told reporters in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday.
“If she meant pulling our fleet out of the eastern Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf, I think it will be an absolute disaster for American security and American foreign policy ... I hope she didn’t mean in a literal sense.”
Later in the day, Biden brought the subject up again, saying in a speech in Iowa that the United States would need strong alliances.
“We need a leader who can, on Day 1, pick up the phone to call our NATO allies and there won’t be any question of whether or not the United States will meet our treaty obligations or stand up for democracy and freedom.”
After Tuesday’s debate, Warren’s campaign said the senator was referring to combat troops and not advocating a complete withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from the region.
Trump has defended his reversal of longstanding U.S. policy in Syria as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars.
At Tuesday’s debate, Warren criticized that decision as “impulsive”, but did not explain how her position was different.
Warren’s campaign spokeswoman Alexis Krieg said the senator would pursue a more multinational approach than Trump’s go-it-alone style.
“That means working to responsibly remove U.S. troops from combat in the Middle East, and using diplomacy to work with allies and partners to end conflicts and suffering in the region,” she said.
Melissa Dalton, a former Department of Defense advisor and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Warren’s emphasis on diplomacy reflected Americans’ fatigue with foreign military interventions after the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A survey this year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank, found that only 27% believed military interventions contribute to U.S. safety, although more than two-thirds supported maintaining U.S. military superiority and some military presence overseas.
But in terms of addressing the foreign policy challenges posed by China, Russia and the Middle East, Dalton said Warren “has not yet fully articulated what her vision is.”
Up to now, Warren’s foreign policy proposals have tended to focus on securing better trade terms for American workers, rather than on national security matters.
Since Biden announced his candidacy in April he has posted at least 39 Twitter messages that include variations of the words “Syria,” “Turkey,” “Russia”, “China”, “Iran” and “middle east,” against at least 23 for Warren, according to a Reuters review of more than 3,500 Twitter posts by the two candidates.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow on national security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, said Warren’s statement on Syria left a lot of unanswered questions: “And how does that distinguish her from how Trump has moved forward on those fronts?”
The emergence of national security as an election issue in light of the Syria crisis, and with less than four months to go until the first contest on Feb. 3 in Iowa, puts pressure on Warren to answer those questions, and fast.
Reporting by Simon Lewis, Joseph Ax, Additional reporting by Jason Lange and Trevor Hunnicut, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall