Hopefully Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate will cast a spotlight on the differences among the candidates and delve into substantive issues that have not been adequately addressed in the campaign to date. So far much of the discussion on the Democratic side has centered on crucial domestic issues like how to reduce inequality or how to make college more affordable. There has been much less attention paid to life-and-death issues of foreign policy and national security. That needs to change.
Whether it happens Tuesday night or not, the Democratic candidates eventually have to go beyond reassuring rhetoric to engage in a detailed discussion of their strategy for protecting the country — and how they would pay for it.
Do they have a plan to further reduce the world’s massive stockpile of nuclear weapons? Will they vigorously defend and faithfully implement the Iran nuclear deal in the face of ongoing opposition?
What are their proposals for dealing with climate change, which is as much a security issue as it is an environmental one?
How will they balance human rights concerns with the effort to arm and train a coalition to fight ISIS? And on that point, how will they approach the issue of U.S. support for the vicious Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen?
Will they pledge to root out the tens of billions of wasteful spending at the Pentagon before throwing more money at the department?
These are just a few of the questions that should be addressed by anyone who aspires to be commander-in-chief. The moderators of the debate should ask these questions and more, and press for more than just boilerplate answers.
There are some hints, from speeches, interviews and campaign web sites, of where the Democratic hopefuls stand on the issues.
Under the heading of “issues,” Hillary Clinton’s web site lists 22 domestic issues and just two national security issues, including one heading on national security and another on energy and climate change. Her foreign policy prescriptions are more like themes than concrete plans. She will “hold China accountable” if it doesn’t pursue responsible policies on “cyberspace, human rights, trade, territorial disputes, and climate change.” But she gives no indication of how she will do so – tariffs, economic sanctions, stern rhetoric? The voters deserve to know.
On Russia, Clinton promises to go “toe-to-toe” with Vladimir Putin, contain his territorial aggression, and help Europe reduce its dependency on Russian oil and gas. The thrust of her policy is a little clearer here. It seems that she would extend the Obama policy of economic sanctions combined with increased U.S. troop deployments to Europe and the provision of additional arms to the U.S.’s NATO allies.
The most positive elements of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy vision include her acknowledgment that economic strength at home is the foundation of U.S. diplomatic and military strength; her designation of climate change as “the national security issue of our time”; and her endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal. More concerning, but certainly worthy of thorough debate, is her recent support for a no-fly zone in Syria. After questions about how such a plan would deal with the Russian presence in Syrian air space, Clinton seemed to backtrack when she acknowledged that any effective no-fly zone would have to proceed with Russian support.
On the stump, Bernie Sanders has said even less on foreign policy than Clinton, preferring to stick to his primary issue of how to improve the economic prospects of ordinary Americans at the expense of the “billionaire class.”
But Sanders has spoken out on foreign policy and Pentagon spending issues on occasion. While in the Senate, Sanders decried waste at the Pentagon and pressed for reforms such as requiring a report on Pentagon contractors that had engaged in fraud.
Like Clinton, Sanders has endorsed the Iran nuclear deal. He has said that he would not support a “unilateral” no-fly zone in Syria, and has called on allies like Saudi Arabia to step up their role in the fight against ISIS. His twelve-point campaign plan refers in passing to investing money in pressing needs at home rather than in questionable wars abroad, but there is no indication of what specifically he would cut from the more than $600 billion dollars slated to go to the Pentagon next year.
Sanders’ platform does suggest that he is aware of the problem of misguided Pentagon spending driven by the needs of the arms lobby, not national security priorities:
“It is imperative that we take a hard look at the Pentagon’s budget and the priorities it has established. The U.S. military must be equipped to fight today’s battles, not those of the last war, much less the Cold War. Our defense budget must represent our national security interests and the needs of our military, not the reelection of members of Congress or the profits of defense contractors. The warning that President Dwight David Eisenhower gave us about the influence of the Military-Industrial Complex in 1961 is truer today than it was then.”
Sanders’ description of his foreign policy views in the “war and peace” section of his web site gives a sense of his overall approach to the issue of military intervention. The first section of the description is entitled “Strength Through Diplomacy,” where he asserts that “we must seek military solutions before resorting to military force” and calls his vote against the Iraq war “one of the most important he has cast.” But Sanders is no pacifist. He voted for U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s as well as the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. On Afghanistan he says he viewed the vote as giving authority to “hunt for terrorists,” not engage in a lengthy, large-scale counterinsurgency effort. To his credit, he voted against the Patriot Act.
In addition to highlighting any contrasts in the foreign policy positions of the two Democratic frontrunners, the question of Sanders’ limited foreign policy experience will no doubt come up. One way of addressing this would be to give an indication of which experts he would turn to for advice on foreign policy.
The remaining candidates on the Democratic side — former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chaffee, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb — will have an opportunity on Tuesday night to contrast themselves with Sanders and Clinton on key foreign policy issues, from nuclear weapons policy to what an appropriate level of Pentagon spending should be. One issue that O’Malley is likely to raise is what he sees as Hillary Clinton’s penchant for military intervention. In announcing his opposition to Clinton’s endorsement of a no-fly zone, O’Malley asserted that “Secretary Clinton is always quick for military intervention.” Hopefully he and the other candidates that currently rank lower in the polls will raise other key foreign policy questions as well, for the good of the country and ultimately for the good of their party.
It is important that forward-looking foreign policy positions have a place in the Democratic debate, and Tuesday night would be a good time to start. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the general election will degenerate into a “tougher than thou” contest of escalating rhetoric. What should happen instead is a debate over a policy that emphasizes creative diplomacy of the kind that secured the Iran nuclear deal and opened the door to normal relations with Cuba versus the “military first” approach of the sort that has cost the country so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stay tuned.