Shadow Government

The National Security Answers Missing from the Democratic Debate

The one thing that was clear about the democratic candidate's answers on the hard questions of foreign policy is that they didn't want to talk about them.


There were few surprises in the Democratic debate. Hillary Clinton was by far the most polished speaker, though whether she said much of substance was an entirely different matter. Her major message, oft repeated through the evening, was “vote for me because I am a woman.” Bernie Sanders blamed it all on the plutocrats. Martin O’Malley was fixated on a green clean America. Jim Webb stood apart as the only non-progressive (read: left-wing liberal) on the stage, as Hillary Clinton bobbed and weaved to convey the impression that she too tilted far left. As for Lincoln Chafee, one wondered how he was elected to multiple offices; his responses were weak, his platitudes uninspiring.

What was clear is that other than bashing the Bush administration for the Iraq War, and promising to get out of Afghanistan, the candidates preferred to avoid the hard details of foreign policy unless directly confronted by the moderators. Hillary Clinton did her best to sidestep anything related to emails or to Benghazi. She made a virtue of getting China to reach an agreement on climate change, but had little to say about the South China Sea. That was an issue that only Jim Webb was prepared to raise. She promised “leadership” in standing up to Putin on Syria, without defining what leadership meant. She also promised to bring Arabs and others into a coalition to defeat the Islamic State, as if there were no coalition attempting to do so today, with, however, minimal success. How exactly she would get the Arab states to do more than they are already doing to oppose Assad was a matter she left to the viewers’ imaginations. She had little to say about the Iran deal, other than voicing her support. In general, she was far more eager to discuss her various “plans” on a host of domestic policy issues rather than have her record as secretary of state examined in any great detail.

At least Bernie Sanders was straightforward about his priorities: namely, to soak the rich. His performance amply demonstrated that foreign and national security policy was not his forte. The others, apart from Webb, were no better. They answered the moderators’ questions in a way that they, like Clinton, preferred to move on to other subjects.

No one was ready to discuss the current state of the military. No one was ready to address how to remedy the collapse of American credibility around the world. No one touched detailed budget issues, other than dealing with the cost of social security; Sanders’ solution was, of course, to go after wealthier Americans to cover potential trust fund shortfalls.

While Clinton talked about nuclear proliferation, she did not mention North Korea. Nor did she, or anyone else, talk about India except in the context of climate change. Indeed, O’Malley, Chafee, and Clinton all focused on climate change as a major national security issue and, apart from Clinton, saw it as the major national security issue.

Interestingly, it was only Jim Webb, clearly the conservative in the group, who mentioned Israel. The survival of the Jewish state, once an important issue for Democrats as well as Republicans, no longer is a bipartisan matter. Support for Israel does not have the support of many, perhaps most, Democrats. That issue is now a Republican preserve.

At the end of the day, the debate offered few surprises. No doubt Clinton will remain leader of the pack, while Sanders will continue to be the darling of the far left. O’Malley held his own, but has little chance against the front runners. Webb’s campaign will go nowhere, given the composition of the Democratic party base. And Chafee … well, someone has to finish last.

It is too bad that Vice President Joe Biden did not participate in the debate. Whatever one might think of his views, he is a veteran foreign policy hand. His presence might have focused the debate on pressing issues that seemed to carry little weight with those on stage, including the former secretary of state. Whether he will enter the race in light of the candidates’, especially Clinton’s, performance, remains an open question. But for the American public, the debate demonstrated that the choice between Republicans concerned about national security and Democrats who prefer to elide the subject could not be more clear.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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