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ELECTION 2020 – The Democratic debate revealed the candidates’ differences on Middle East policy

By Ron Kampeas

WESTERVILLE, Ohio (JTA) — The fourth Democratic presidential debate revealed fissures among the candidates on whether to keep U.S. troops in the Middle East.

The 12 hopefuls on the stage Tuesday night, Oct. 15 at Otterbein University in this Columbus suburb were unanimous in describing President Donald Trump’s pullout of American troops from Syria as catastrophic for the Kurds, U.S. allies in the war against the Islamic State who are now at the mercy of Turkish forces who invaded northern Syria following the American departure. But they differed over whether U.S. forces should remain in the region.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a veteran who in the past has sounded conciliatory toward the Syrian regime, blamed the carnage on “the regime-change war that we’ve been waging in Syria” and said the United States had backed terrorists in the country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is emerging as a front-runner in the race, agreed with Gabbard “that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.”

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is also a veteran, lashed out at Gabbard.

“The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence,” he said. “It’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.”

Gabbard shot back: “So, really, what you’re saying, Mayor Pete, is that you would continue to support having U.S. troops in Syria for an indefinite period of time to continue this regime-change war that has caused so many refugees to flee Syria.”

“You can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy, as you’re doing,” Buttgieg countered.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar gestures as she speaks at the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, Oct. 15, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Also upholding the U.S. troop presence in northern Syria were former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, along with former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.

“The crisis here, as I think Joe said and Pete said, is when you begin to betray people, in terms of the Kurds, 11,000 of them died fighting ISIS, 30,000 were wounded, and the United States said, ‘We’re with you, we’re standing with you,’” said Sanders, I-Vt., who before Warren’s surge was the flag-bearer for progressives and a critic of U.S. involvement in foreign wars.

“And then suddenly, one day after a phone call with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, announced by tweet, Trump reverses that policy. Now you tell me what country in the world will trust the word of the president of the United States?”

Klobuchar, of Minnesota, was the only candidate to note the impact on Israel of the rupture of the U.S. alliance with the Kurds.

“Think about our other allies, Israel,” she said. “How do they feel right now? Donald Trump is not true to his word when they are a beacon of democracy in the Mideast.”

Klobuchar and Castro also faulted Trump for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, saying it diminished U.S. influence abroad. The deal, which traded sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, was stridently opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump wants to negotiate a more stringent deal with Iran and has reimposed tough sanctions on the country.

Toward the end of the debate, news broke that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congresswoman from New York who has become a leading progressive voice, was set to endorse Sanders for president the following day. Ocasio-Cortez worked as an organizer for Sanders’ 2016 run. She is one of four freshmen members of Congress known as “The Squad,” a grouping of progressive Democratic freshmen who have stirred excitement as well as controversy within their party with their ideas and their remarks.

Also endorsing Sanders were two other members of “The Squad” of freshman Democrats: Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Some Democrats and Republicans also have accused Omar and Tlaib of crossing the line into antisemitism. 

In her announcement, Omar hinted that Sanders’ tough criticism of Israel drew her to his candidacy. Sanders “truly prioritizes human rights in our foreign policy – no matter who violates them,” she said.

Omar and Tlaib both back the boycott Israel movement and have been faulted for remarks seen as crossing the line into antisemitism. Sanders does not support a boycott of Israel, but upholds the right of other Americans to do so.

The fourth member of The Squad, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, is the closest of the four to the pro-Israel community and has not yet endorsed Sanders.

As in the previous debates, candidates charged that Trump’s blunt nationalism was fueling bigotry and right-wing violence. Harris, of California, lashed out at Warren for not endorsing her call for Twitter to suspend the president’s account.

“I would urge you to join me,” Harris said to Warren. “We saw in El Paso that that shooter in his manifesto was informed by how Donald Trump uses that platform, and this is a matter of corporate responsibility. Twitter should be held accountable and shut down that site.”

Warren avoided taking up the challenge, saying she preferred to use antitrust laws to break up tech monopolies.

Main Photo: A record 12 Democratic presidential candidates stand before the start of their debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, Oct. 15, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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