What the Democratic debate was missing on foreign policy

To the surprise of few, foreign policy wasn’t a central feature in last night’s Democratic debate. The CNN moderators Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, and Juan Carlos Lopez focused on the two issues that Democratic voters regularly rank as the most important in the 2016 election: the economy (jobs) and healthcare. That emphasis was clear in Hillary Clinton’s treatment of an early question about her shifting views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a question about jobs, not foreign policy: “I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘this will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not.”

Cooper did press the candidates on the thorny issue of Russia and its role in Syria, as well as the use of force. Hillary Clinton stressed that “[w]e have to stand up to [Putin’s] bullying,” and advocated that the United States should impose a no-fly zone (a point contested by Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley). Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, pledged to put together an Arab coalition rather than “repeat Iraq,” and accused Clinton of being too quick to use military force overseas. 

However, the candidates did manage to sneak in some teasers about their positions on a few key foreign policy issues that may matter in the general election and should come up in future democratic debates. These include: China, nuclear proliferation, the Iran deal, and Israel. 

  1. When asked whether then-Secretary of State Clinton should have seen the 2012 Benghazi attack coming, Webb quickly shifted to China. He emphasized that “the greatest strategic threat that we have right now is resolving our relationship with China” and advocated sending a direct message to the leadership in Beijing: “You do not own the South China Sea. You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of American citizens.” Later in the debate, he added: “Our greatest long-term strategic challenge is our relation with China. Our greatest day-to-day threat is cyber warfare against this country.” Webb was the only candidate to bring up China in the context of geopolitics, rather than climate change. In the next debate, the moderators should use Webb’s forceful view on China to explore the other candidates views. We need to know whether the candidates believe that China poses a threat to the United States, and in what arenas do they believe the threat is misconstrued
  2. On the question of who or what is the greatest national security threat to the United States, Clinton gave a surprising answer: loose nukes. Clinton hasn’t discussed this issue very much in the campaign. It has been a focus of President Obama’s, who said in 2010 that he viewed the possibility of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands as “the number one security threat in the world.” Moderators should press Clinton and the other candidates on this choice in the next debate: What would you do, as president, to secure the United States from this threat?
  3. Lincoln Chafee, punting for a moment on the question of what constitutes America’s biggest national security threat, used the opportunity to demonstrate his support for the Iran deal. It’s hard to blame the moderators for avoiding that issue: Unlike the Republican candidates, who to seem to trip over each other in the race to undo the agreement, the top-polling Democrats are (yawn) in general agreement over the issue. But the Iran deal is only part of the Iran problem. Democratic and general election voters will want to understand the candidates answers to a question that has bedeviled many liberals: whether they would prefer a nuclear Iran over a war with Iran.
  4. The word “Israel” was uttered only once in this debate (by Webb, and in the usual manner of expressing support for our closest Middle Eastern ally), in contrast with the near obsession with Israel in the Republican debates. This is hardly an indicator that the candidates don’t have positions on Israel, however. Next time, the moderators should ask the question posed by Brookings Middle East fellow Natan Sachs: “Do you have a plan B for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Recent U.S. policy has focused on full conflict resolution, avoiding any major interim steps that fall short of full peace. After the failure of the Kerry peace initiative, and given widespread skepticism that a final status agreement can be reached in the near future, do you have a backup plan? Would you, as president, shift U.S. policy toward conflict management rather than conflict resolution, or would you try again to broker a full peace agreement?”

Look, even us foreign policy wonks get that the democratic primary is not about foreign policy. We understand that democratic voters are more interested in job security and the squeeze on the middle class. But as the Republican debates and various polls have shown, Republicans voters and independents are interested in foreign policy. There is a feeling of insecurity in the world and the United States which reflects a discomfort with Obama’s foreign policy among segments of the population. It will be an important theme in the general election and we need the debates to help us understand where the Democratic candidates really stand and what they really know.