As far as it concerned foreign policy issues, the first debate among the Democratic presidential candidates was a dispiriting affair. Hillary Clinton sailed through the evening virtually unscathed while her opponents struggled in vain to challenge her on anything. O’Malley’s criticism of the Libyan war remained vague and anemic, Sanders’ statements on Syria were dull and lacking in specifics, Chafee was generally hopeless, and Webb went out of his way to emphasize his biggest weakness by repeatedly touting his opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran. This allowed Clinton to shrug off criticisms of her support for the Libyan war, mute her differences with the rest of the field on Syria, and present herself as the most polished and prepared candidate of the group. The opportunity to attack Clinton on her foreign policy vulnerabilities was completely squandered, and none of the other candidates rose to the challenge last night.
Some of Webb’s answers may have been the most discouraging, because they came from someone with generally sound foreign policy judgment and yet they made so little sense. For instance, Webb diverted from answering a question about Libya to comment on Syria. He started strong by pointing out the destabilizing and destructive effects of the Iraq war, but lost anyone that might have conceivably been interested in supporting him by the end. This statement in particular was baffling:
And the third [failing] was the recent deal allowing Iran to move forward and eventually acquire a nuclear weapon, which sent bad signals, bad body language into the region about whether we are acquiescing in Iran becoming a stronger piece of the formula in that part of the world.
Whenever someone is reduced to talking about “signals” in foreign policy, it’s a good indication that there isn’t much support for his argument. Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government were a given before the nuclear deal, and they were guaranteed to continue after the deal. The deal has nothing to do with the current situation in Syria or Russian involvement there. One need only think about a scenario in which no nuclear deal exists to appreciate this. Russia and Iran would still be backing their client/ally in order to shore up the Syrian government. In the absence of a deal, Iran’s nuclear program would be under fewer constraints, but everything else would be much the same as it is now.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Webb came back and repeated this argument when he was contradicted by Chafee, who made a halting but basically correct defense of the nuclear deal. Webb said:
I believe that the signal that we sent to the region when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded was that we are accepting Iran’s greater position on this very important balance of power, among our greatest ally Israel, and the Sunnis represented by the Saudi regime, and Iran. It was a position of weakness and I think it encouraged the acts that we’ve seen in the past several weeks.
It’s simply not the case that the nuclear deal put the U.S. in a “position of weakness” relative to Iran. Iran is the one making all of the major concessions in this deal, and it is the one that is being compelled to acquiesce to demands by outside governments.
Clinton’s support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria ought to have been one of the biggest openings for her opponents, but none of them had the slightest clue what to do with it. That was the story of the entire evening: a front-runner with glaring, obvious weaknesses and no one able to exploit them or use them against her. As a result, Clinton will coast on to the nomination with minimal resistance, and her horrible foreign policy judgment will largely go unexamined.