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Foreign Policy in the Fifth Democratic Debate

Joe Biden,. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris on last night's Democratic debate in Miami. (MSNBC/You Tube screenshot)

There was more discussion of foreign policy at tonight’s Democratic presidential debate than there has been all year. Both the war on Yemen and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia came up in a number of candidate responses, and there was more attention given to those issues than we have seen in all of the previous debates combined. The debate tonight shows that the Democratic field does have something substantive to say about foreign policy, and several of the candidates landed effective blows on Trump’s record.

Cory Booker started the exchange on Yemen and Saudi Arabia with a surprisingly forceful condemnation of the Saudi role and U.S. support for them. That is not something that Booker has emphasized thus far in his campaign, and it was welcome to hear criticism of the war from yet another candidate. Even Biden managed to make some anti-Saudi noises, but it is hard to square his newfound criticism with the record of the Obama administration. Biden said, “I would make it very clear, we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them,” so what does he have to say for the huge arms sales that the Obama administration made to the Saudis for all that time when he was vice president?

Bernie Sanders made several important points in his comments about U.S. policies in the Middle East. He called out the Saudis for their crimes as he has often done before, but he went further to suggest that the U.S.-Saudi relationship would be downgraded and that he would not indulge them in their regional rivalries. His proposal to open up dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia remains a bit vague, but it points in the right direction of seeking to reduce regional tensions rather than look for excuses to make them worse. He made sure to mention that the U.S. should treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity, which is something that rarely even gets lip service in these debates or in our foreign policy discussions more generally. The theme of Sanders’ remarks in this section of the debate was emphasizing the value of U.S. diplomacy where the U.S. doesn’t back one side in a dispute to the hilt, but tries to find some modus vivendi between the two sides. Sanders was also asked a question about Afghanistan that seemed intended as a trap, but he handled it very well and made the case for withdrawing U.S. forces from that country.

Amy Klobuchar deserves credit for challenging the Trump administration’s irresponsible wrecking of arms control agreements. She faulted Trump for withdrawing from the INF Treaty, urged negotiations with Russia on arms control, and specifically mentioned preserving New START. Few candidates want to take the position of supporting diplomatic engagement in Russia, but on arms control this is the responsible and correct position to take. This is an issue that would have otherwise been completely ignored in the debate, so it was valuable to have someone bring it up.

One issue that at least a couple of the Democratic candidates fumbled badly was North Korea. Biden was the worst of the bunch, but he wasn’t the only candidate who bought into the lazy hawkish framing that Trump has been too accommodating and friendly with Kim Jong-un. At one point, Biden declared that Trump had given Kim everything he wanted, but that is clearly false. Far from giving Kim everything, Trump has begrudged him any sanctions relief. That is why negotiations have gone nowhere and why North Korea’s patience is almost gone. Between Biden and Harris, the attacks on Trump’s North Korea policy were very hawkish and they suggest that these candidates’ approach to North Korea would be even more rigid and unreasonable. There is a strong case that Trump has mishandled North Korea by being too inflexible and fixated on forcing disarmament, but Biden can’t make it because his policy would be almost identical.

Foreign policy is always neglected in presidential debates, but tonight there was at least some serious consideration of some of the issues that have been overlooked all year. For all of his claims to be the most experienced on foreign policy, Biden did not distinguish himself. Sanders, Klobuchar, and Booker did well for themselves. Trump’s foreign policy record is full of easy targets, and at least some of the Democratic candidates understand how to exploit that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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