In the two months since South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg formally announced his candidacy for president, he has become something of a media sensation, and it would seem that the enthusiasm that Northeastern media elites have greeted his candidacy is—if the latest poll out of Iowa is anything to go by—beginning to be felt among Midwestern primary voters.
This enthusiasm was clearly on display at Indiana University on Tuesday when the young mayor, a former Army intelligence officer who also served as an aide to John Kerry and former defense secretary William Cohen, was greeted with a reception usually accorded to rock royalty.
We are clearly in the midst of a Buttigieg boomlet; yet, unlike other flavor-of-the-month candidacies—think Michael Avenatti and Beto O’Rourke—Mayor Pete’s may have some staying power given that he is neither an obvious con man like the former nor a glib narcissist like the latter. No: Mayor Pete is a serious candidate, and seriousness is something he, only 37, has an undeniable talent for conveying.
The topic of his speech at Indiana was serious: America and the World: National Security for a New Era. His choice to introduce him, very serious: former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, a 34-year veteran of the House and co-chair of both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.
The choice of Hamilton was also exceedingly savvy. The hometown crowd greeted the 88-year-old with a standing ovation, and Hamilton, who fell short of giving an outright endorsement, lent the proceedings an imprimatur of gravitas. For his part, Buttigieg was quick to try to place himself as heir to the legacy of Hamilton and the late Senator Richard Lugar, Indiana’s own foreign-policy heavyweights. This would be, one has to admit, presumptuous for your average sitting member of Congress to do, but Mayor Pete has his sights set on bigger things. Yet one can’t help but get the sense that there is something of an inverse relationship between the mayor’s credentials and his vast (and obvious) ambition.
“This,” said a middle-aged man seated in front of me, “is the opposite of a Trump rally.”
And so it was. In terms of comportment, intellect, and substance, Mayor Pete and President Trump are about as far apart as you can get. America’s purposes abroad, said Buttigieg, must be “rooted in our aspirations at home.” Buttigieg told the crowd that he would “only use force when left with no alternative” and promised that “an exceedingly high bar” would be set for the use of military force. He would “put an end to endless war and focus on future threats” which, according to Buttigieg, include a rising tide of authoritarian governments (Russia, China) and climate change.
His critique of the Trump administration’s reckless posture toward Iran and Venezuela is hard to argue against; though, significantly, he mocked the current president’s clumsy diplomatic efforts to engage North Korea. Nevertheless, Buttigieg promised to make nuclear nonproliferation a centerpiece of his foreign policy and pledged to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iranian nuclear deal.
Still more promising, Buttigieg took aim at Congress for abdicating its responsibility for matters of war and peace, promising to “repeal and replace” the now 18-year-old post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has been used by successive administrations as a legal fig leaf for endless (and, it hardly needs saying, reckless and counterproductive) military interventions in the Greater Middle East. Buttigieg also accused Congress of being “asleep at the switch” and demanded that it exercise its oversight authority on national-security matters. Yet, worryingly, the mayor did not mention efforts by leading progressives in the House and Senate (among them, his rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders) to invoke the War Powers Act and end American support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.
Buttigieg also seems committed to not rethinking the sometimes negative role that NATO has played in Eastern Europe, while clearly signaling his intent to fight the new Cold War by increasing funding for the intelligence community and supporting what he described as a public-private information-warfare campaign presumably designed to counter Russian disinformation. Yet, all in all, the mayor laid out a comprehensive foreign-policy vision that makes clear where he stands on many of the most contentious and, yes, serious, foreign-policy issues facing the country today.