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Neglecting Foreign Policy in the Presidential Debates

The second night of the first Democratic 2020 presidential debate had even less discussion of foreign policy than the first. Were it not for a few of the candidates themselves choosing to bring up some of these issues, the audience would have heard almost nothing about foreign policy. There was one important moment when Biden was forced to address his 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and he gave a remarkably bad answer that was consistent with his overall poor performance. It was striking how the former Vice President still had no answer for why voters should trust his judgment.

Biden’s answer was scattershot, and most of what he said wasn’t related to the Iraq war:

Because once we — once Bush abused that power, what happened was, we got elected after that. I made sure — the president turned to me and said, Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq. I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq, and my son was one of them.

I also think we should not have combat troops in Afghanistan. It’s long overdue. It should end.

And, thirdly, I believe that you’re not going to find anybody who has pulled together more of our alliances to deal with what is the real stateless threat out there. We cannot go it alone in terms of dealing with terrorism.

So I would eliminate the act that allowed us to go into war, and not — the AUMF, and make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists, but never do it alone. That’s why we have to repair our alliances. We put together 65 countries to make sure we dealt with ISIS in Iraq and other places. That’s what I would do. That’s what I have done. And I know how to do it.

Biden’s response to being asked how Americans could trust his judgment after the Iraq war was to change the subject as quickly as possible. Some of what Biden said here was good to hear. He sort of endorsed ending the war in Afghanistan (the phrase combat troops was telling), and he called for repealing the 2001 AUMF, but there was nothing in this answer that would tell a skeptical voter that Biden had learned from the error of supporting the invasion. He talks about Bush abusing the authority that Biden voted to give him, but he doesn’t really take responsibility for the poor judgment that led him to give Bush that authority. The answer is particularly damaging because Biden must have known he was going to be asked about this, but he clearly hadn’t given it much thought. Biden’s remark that “we got elected after that” makes it sound as if he had nothing to do with the original Iraq war debate. He makes it sound as if he hadn’t been in the Senate for decades by the time he cast that vote. That answer wouldn’t have worked in 2008, and it definitely won’t fly now.

Sen. Sanders was up next, and he took full advantage of Biden’s vulnerability:

One of the differences — one of the differences that Joe and I have in our record is Joe voted for that war, I helped lead the opposition to that war, which was a total disaster.

Second of all, I helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act to get the United States out of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.

And thirdly, let me be very clear. I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran, which would be far worse than disastrous war with Iraq.

It was encouraging to hear Sanders bring up Yemen and his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Saudi coalition’s war, because there was no chance that the moderators were ever going to ask about it. Sanders has demonstrated on Yemen once again that he has both the understanding and the political courage to oppose a horrible and unnecessary foreign war, and he was one of the leaders and architects of the effort to end U.S. involvement in that war. Which of the other candidates can say the same? It was also important that Sanders used the debate platform to call attention to Yemen, which has long been the most neglected and ignored major crisis in the world.

It would have been useful to hear from Biden about Yemen, since he was vice president when Obama signed off on providing support for the Saudi coalition but now agrees with Sanders that U.S. should stop supporting the war. What does Biden have to say for himself and Obama about this horrible policy that began under the previous administration? We won’t find out anytime soon, but if his answer on Yemen is anything like the one he gave on Iraq Biden should probably just quit now.

One of the very few questions that the moderators did ask was not a very good one: “How would you stand up to China?” The question was vague and open-ended enough that it didn’t require any of the candidates to make any specific commitments or proposals. When it was Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s turn, he spent half of his answer on anti-Russian pandering and then said only that “we should mobilize the entire rest of the world” to oppose Chinese mercantilism. Andrew Yang also paid lip service to pretending that Russia is the greatest threat, and he did give a somewhat more substantive answer that explained his opposition to Trump’s trade war, but he didn’t really answer the question, either. Marianne Williamson attempted to bring up the role of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America as a factor in creating the conditions driving people to seek asylum in the U.S., but the moderators weren’t interested in talking about that and it never came up again.

Kirsten Gillibrand used her closing remarks to take an unexpectedly strong position against war and in favor of engagement with Iran:

President Trump is hellbent on starting a war with Iran. My first act will be to engage Iran to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted, never-ending war.

Along with Sanders and Gabbard the night before, Gillibrand is one of just a handful of candidates to come out strongly against war with Iran. If she and Sanders hadn’t made a point of bringing it up, we would never have heard about the possibility of war with Iran at all last night.

Foreign policy is frequently neglected in presidential debates, both during the primaries and in the general election, and for some reason that neglect tends to be worse on average in Democratic debates. To some extent that neglect is unavoidable because most voters are interested in other issues, but it means that the process for selecting the president usually puts the candidates’ ideas about the U.S. role in the world, the use of force, and a whole range of other issues under very little scrutiny. The failure to ask presidential candidates more questions about foreign policy may help to account for why one administration after another makes so many terrible errors.

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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