The Democratic debate last night included some discussion of foreign policy, and the two candidates repeated their standard arguments against each other. As he often has before, Sanders keeps bringing up Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq war:
But experience is not the only point, judgment is. And once again, back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way and one of us didn’t.
Sanders tends to use the original Iraq war debate as a crutch when answering any foreign policy question. That reflects the fact that their records on the Iraq war are what most clearly distinguish them, and it also reflects Sanders’ overall lack of interest in the subject. Foreign policy has generally received much less attention in the contest for the Democratic nomination. It isn’t a high priority for most Democratic voters, and both Clinton and Sanders have obliged by saying as little about these issues as they absolutely have to. In Clinton’s case, she has tried to downplay her record of hawkishness in recognition that she is out of step with most Democrats, while Sanders much prefers to focus on the domestic issues that have been his primary concern in Congress.
Clinton leaned heavily last night on the appeal to experience and the support she’s receiving from many former diplomats and national security officials. Clinton wants to present herself as the candidate with the necessary knowledge and preparation to conduct foreign policy, while Sanders is left pointing out how poor Clinton’s judgment has been in the past and how much better his own judgment has been. The foreign policy debate between them follows the larger split in the nomination contest: Clinton professes to be the candidate with the know-how to “get things done” while Sanders argues that he is the one who can be trusted not to compromise or betray Democrats’ values. Just as Obama did in 2007-08, Sanders acknowledges his relative lack of foreign policy experience, and tries to turn it around on Clinton in the same way. The trouble for Sanders is that the Iraq war is not nearly as salient for Democratic voters as it was when Bush was still in office, and it has been long enough since the original debate over the war that Clinton’s bad judgment in supporting the invasion doesn’t generate quite the same resistance to her candidacy.
The differences between the candidates on contemporary issues are frankly much smaller, and there isn’t as much of a sharp contrast on policy that Sanders can use to his advantage. While Clinton and Sanders used to disagree on the TPP and other similar trade deals, Clinton has muddied the waters by feigning opposition to the Pacific trade agreement. Both support the nuclear deal with Iran and normalization with Cuba, and both more or less support administration policy with respect to the war on ISIS. Clinton has argued for even more aggressive measures in Syria, but here the disagreement is over how to intervene in Syria and not whether the U.S. should be fighting there.
The biggest current disagreement between Clinton and Sanders is over eventually pursuing normal relations with Iran. This is to a very large extent a manufactured issue that Clinton has been trying to exploit because she thinks it works to her advantage by making her seem “tougher” and Sanders “weaker” on Iran. At best, they are debating a hypothetical, since neither of them favors normalization with Iran in the near future. One would think it would be unremarkable that Sanders thinks that the U.S. should eventually improve relations with Iran, but Clinton displayed her typical wariness of diplomatic engagement by seeing it as an opening for attack. As Sanders said again last night, he isn’t in favor of immediate or near-term normalization with Iran, but that “we should move forward as quickly as we can.” He then used normalization with Cuba as proof that longstanding enmity and disputes with another state don’t have to rule out restoring diplomatic ties.
Sanders has been faulted recently for not having an established team of foreign policy advisers, and his critics inside the Democratic Party see him as simply not knowing and/or caring enough about foreign policy to be a plausible nominee. These complaints have some merit, but they miss that Clinton remains significantly out of step with most people in her party on these issues and that Sanders is much closer to them. Her instinct to side with her party’s hawks in almost every debate is a serious flaw that has led her to take one bad position after another, and the fact that she seems incapable of learning from those previous mistakes is a major problem. Clinton can speak more fluently about foreign policy details, but it’s not at all obvious that she ever thinks through the consequences of the hawkish policies she reliably supports. Insofar as Sanders is inclined to be more cautious and less eager to entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts, he is not only more representative of most Democrats’ views, but he is also less likely to make costly errors of commission. Clinton may be able to give a more fleshed-out debate answer, but we also know that she is more likely to get the U.S. involved in unnecessary wars than her rival.