As expected, Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate revolved primarily around domestic issues. But there were a few exchanges – such as those on Syria, Libya and Iraq – that helped clarify where the candidates stand on key foreign policy issues.
As expected, Hillary Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone in Syria drew sharp criticism from Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. But possibly the most interesting statement on Syria may have come from Sanders, who essentially endorsed the Obama administration’s current approach, stating that “‘I support air strikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do.”
When he wasn’t complaining that he wasn’t getting enough time, Jim Webb managed to launch a criticism of the U.S. intervention in Libya, arguing that it didn’t met basic criteria that might have justified military action:
“We had no treaties at risk. We had no Americans at risk. There was no threat of attack or imminent attack.”
Hillary Clinton largely shied away from discussing the war in Iraq, which she voted for when she was in the Senate, a vote she has since called a mistake. Lincoln Chafee repeatedly implied that anyone who voted for the war in Iraq in the first place didn’t have the judgment needed to serve as commander-in-chief, and the other candidates made their vehement opposition to the war clear. Given its immense human and economic costs, Martin O’Malley called it “one of the worst blunders in modern American history.”
But perhaps as important as what was addressed on Tuesday was what was left out. While climate change was mentioned regularly, there was almost no reference to the other great threat to life on the planet – nuclear weapons. And there was no discussion of the massive waste at the Pentagon.
The only time the issue of nuclear weapons was raised was in Hillary Clinton’s answer to Anderson Cooper’s round robin question about what constituted the greatest threat to the United States. To her credit, she cited the danger of nuclear weapons or bomb-building materials getting into the hands of terrorists as the greatest threat to U.S. security. Unfortunately the format didn’t allow her to elaborate on that point, or on the larger danger posed by the existence of nearly 20,000 nuclear bombs worldwide. No one else brought the nuclear weapons issue up, except in the context of talking about the Iran nuclear deal.
Hopefully the Democratic candidates will address the nuclear issue later in the campaign, even if the rifts between the U.S. and Russia on Ukraine, Syria, and other key issues blunt the prospects for immediate progress. This short-term obstacle should not be allowed to get in the way of things that can be done, from educating the public on the humanitarian and security consequences of nuclear weapons, to cutting back on the costly and unnecessary plan to modernize the nuclear warhead complex, to defending existing arms control agreements from Republican attacks. The dangers posed by nuclear weapons will not go away just because political leaders stop talking about them.
As noted above the Democratic candidates for president also failed to highlight the issue of the Pentagon’s misguided spending priorities, from buying weapons we don’t need at prices we can’t afford to the billions in waste caused by its inability to pass an audit.The candidates need to prepare themselves to address the Pentagon spending question in the general election, if for no other reason than to avoid getting into a bidding war over who can throw more money at the department.
Perhaps most importantly, the tone and substance of the Democratic discussion was more thoughtful than the chest thumping, tougher than thou approach that dominated the first two Republican debates. Four of the five Democratic candidates expressed strong support for the Iran nuclear deal, with Jim Webb as the outlier. By contrast, opposition to the deal has become a virtual article of faith on the Republican side, despite the fact that none of the Republican candidates can articulate a realistic alternative that will curb the Iranian nuclear program without resorting to force.
With the exception of Rand Paul, the Republican candidates are also in lockstep on the need to spend more on the Pentagon and more inclined to call for the U.S. to intervene more aggressively in foreign conflicts. Notable in this regard is Carly Fiorina, who has adopted a Heritage Foundation proposal for pumping up Pentagon spending that would cost at least an additional $500 billion over the next ten years, on top of the over $5 trillion the department is already slated to receive. Republican candidates are split on whether to send in U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS, but both Donald Trump and Jeb Bush have endorsed the idea. The only Republican to put a number on that position is Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has called for sending 20,000 troops to the region; but his position is less relevant given his marginal standing in the polls.
Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that all of the Democratic candidates have pledged to address climate change, while the stock Republican position is that climate change doesn’t even exist.
Given the contrasts between the Democratic and Republican positions on security matters, there is at least the prospect of a genuine debate on these critical issues in 2016. It will be more likely to occur if candidates in both parties get public pressure to more fully articulate their stands and plans to address the full range of security issues facing the country.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.