Election 2020

In the Latest Democratic Debate, Finally, Some Foreign Policy 

With a trimmed-down field, Democratic hopefuls sparred over Iraq, Iran, military deployments, and the threat from climate change.

The six leading Democratic candidates at the presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14.
The six leading Democratic candidates at the presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14. Scott Olson/Getty Images

For a moment on Tuesday evening, the Democratic presidential race appeared frozen in 2002, the year that then-Sen. Joe Biden and more than two dozen other Democrats joined Republicans and voted to authorize President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, starting a war that has become synonymous with U.S. military overreach, mendacity, and the notion of endless wars.

At the opening of Tuesday’s debate in Iowa, the party’s oldest candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78, tore into former Vice President Biden, 77, for gullibly abetting one of America’s “two great foreign-policy disasters of our lifetimes”—the other being the Vietnam War.

“Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying,” Sanders said. “Joe saw it differently.”

Biden acknowledged it was a “mistake” to cast his vote in favor of the Iraq War, saying he was led to believe the Bush administration would use the war authorization bill to pressure Iraq to permit greater access to U.N. weapons inspectors, not to actually go to war. But he said he strove to do all he could under President Barack Obama to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.

The detour through history underscored the enduring trauma that the Iraq War still inflicts on the American psyche, particularly at a time of rising military tensions with Iran. But it also highlighted the challenges that the Democratic Party faces in moving beyond the past and coalescing around a platform that can return it to the White House next year.

When it came to foreign policy, the debate produced some signs of an emerging party platform, despite the onstage tension. Candidates vowed to repair tattered diplomatic relations with allies, restore the role of diplomacy, invigorate international efforts to fight climate change, write protections for workers and the climate into trade agreements, and impose constraints on U.S. military spending.

“The American people are sick and tired of endless wars, which have cost us trillions of dollars,” Sanders said. “Our job is to rebuild the United Nations, rebuild the State Department, make sure that we have the capability of bringing the world together to resolve international conflict diplomatically, and stop the endless wars that we have experienced.”

The debate featured a slimmed-down slate of six candidates, fostering a more substantive back-and-forth. Joining Biden and Sanders on the debate stage were Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; and the billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.

While virtually all the candidates called for U.S. combat troops to come home from the Middle East, there were still some important differences. Sanders and Warren did not say whether they favored an ongoing role for the U.S. military in combating the region’s terrorist groups. Biden made a strong case for continuing the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State, as known as ISIS, and other terrorist organizations, relying on small teams of special operations forces, backed by a coalition of foreign powers.

“I would leave troops in the Middle East in terms of patrolling the Gulf,” Biden said. “I think it’s a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS.”

Klobuchar echoed the notion of limited military deployments for training and counterterrorism, arguing for the need to “leave some troops” in Afghanistan, where they have been deployed already for more than 18 years. She also said she opposed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw 150 troops from Syria last year, providing a green light for Turkey’s invasion and subsequent slaughter of the United States’ Kurdish partners. She also said she’d leave troops in Iraq, despite Baghdad’s request that Washington begin recalling its forces.

“When it comes to Iraq, right now I would leave our troops there despite the mess that has been created by Donald Trump.”

Klobuchar joined other Democratic candidates in calling for renewed engagement with Iran and other nations that supported the Iran nuclear deal, even while some Democrats vowed to keep nuclear weapons out of Tehran’s hands. Klobuchar praised European powers for trying to hold the Iran nuclear deal together in spite of Trump’s efforts to kill it. “I would start negotiations again,” she said. “Because of the actions of Donald Trump, we are in a situation where … Iran is starting to enrich uranium again in violation of the original agreement.”

Unlike Trump, Democrats seemed far less willing to engage directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—at least without an upfront commitment to dismantle his nuclear weapons. “Absent preconditions,” Biden said, “I would not meet with the ‘supreme leader,’ who said, ‘Joe Biden is a rabid dog. He should be beaten to death with a stick.’”

“Other than that, you like him?” Sanders quipped.

Trump’s recent military actions in the Middle East prompted calls for greater congressional constraints on the use of military force, with Buttigieg proposing the need for a new authorization bill for future military interventions. Warren said that, while she would authorize military action without congressional approval in response to an “imminent threat,” in general Congress needed to authorize the military’s use of force “before we take this nation into combat.”

Buttigieg, who was still a teenager when the United States came under attack on 9/11, sought to parlay his lack of national political experience into an asset, arguing that the next president will be confronted by new threats, such as “cybersecurity challenges, climate security challenges, [and] foreign interference in our elections.”

Indeed, climate change emerged as a key topic in the debate, with Steyer citing it as “my No. 1 priority.” Steyer said that while he would “undo” Trump’s trade tariffs on his first day as president, he would not approve any future trade deals that did not include a provision protecting the climate.

Steyer was asked how to square the fact that he had profited handsomely from oil and gas investments with his commitment to battle climate change. He said he reached a realization in the past decade that something had to be done and divested his fossil fuel investments.

As president, he said, “I would declare a state of emergency on day one on climate.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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