Last night's Democratic presidential debate on CNN featured a good deal of foreign policy chatter, for a change—one of the only semi-reassuring parts of the two-hour televised show. Comments from the 2020 candidates about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility of war with Iran highlighted just how far the center of gravity has shifted on American military adventurism and regime-change wars in the Middle East.
"We need to get our combat troops out" and "stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.).
In the Middle East, President Donald Trump "is going from crisis to crisis, from escalation to escalation," said Tom Steyer. "But if you look further over the last 20 years, including in the war in Afghanistan, we know from The Washington Post that, in fact, there was no strategy. There was just a series of tactical decisions that made no sense."
And Iraq? That was "the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.).
Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.)—in many ways the most conservative of the Democratic presidential candidates on last night's stage—touted her early opposition to the Iraq War. She also pushed the current Senate resolution to tell the Trump administration "you must have an authorization of military force if you're going to go to war with Iran."
The debate featured just six Democratic candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (of South Bend, Indiana), Klobuchar, Sanders, Steyer, and Warren. Moderator Wolf Blitzer kicked things off by pointing out that the U.S. and Iran had recently been "on the brink of war" and this had "reignited the debate over America's role in the world." He asked the candidates, with that in mind, "why are you…the best prepared person on this stage to be commander in chief?"
Sanders stressed his long-time opposition to the Iraq War and (in contrast to Biden) his ability to see through the Bush administration's misdirection on that front. "Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying," said Sanders. "I didn't believe them for a moment. I took to the floor. I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently."
Sanders also warned people not to get fooled again, as the Trump administration tries to lie us into a war with Iran.
Biden's defense of his vote for the Iraq War wasn't much of one: he had voted for it, it was a mistake, "but the man who also argued against that war, Barack Obama, picked me to be his vice president," said Biden. OK then.
Ultimately, Biden showed few signs of real change on U.S. policy in the Middle East. He said we should send U.S. troops whenever "the overwhelming vital interests of the United States are at stake," which is worryingly vague standard. He said he would "leave troops in the Middle East in terms of patrolling the [Persian] Gulf" and that it would be "a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now."
When challenged by others on stage, he caricatured their argument (saying they thought the U.S. could "walk away and not have any troops anywhere" in the world) before appealing to threats of terrorism and then making the perverse argument that we must police the world in order to not police the world.
"You have to be able to form coalitions to be able to defeat [terrorists] or contain them. If you don't, we end up being the world's policeman again," said Biden.
But Biden was arguably the most hawkish person on stage, which is saying something.
It's heartening to hear how far the center of gravity on this topic has moved toward the doves. Which is not to say that this is a universally dovish group, or that I trust all of them to actually pull policy in that direction. But it shows where the winds are blowing.
— Jesse Walker (@notjessewalker) January 15, 2020
Warren especially pushed back on Biden's foreign policy claims. "We've turned the corner so many times, we're going in circles in these regions. This has got to stop," she said. "It's not enough to say someday we're going to get out. No one on the ground, none of our military can describe what the conditions are for getting out. It's time to get our combat troops home."
Buttigieg was on the same page. "We can continue to remain engaged without having an endless commitment of ground troops," he said. He also pushed for greater congressional oversight of military actions:
When we lost troops in Niger, there were members of Congress who admitted they didn't even know we had troops there. And it was all pursuant to an authorization that was passed to deal with Al Qaeda and 9/11. And often, Congress has been all too happy to leave aside its role. Now, thanks to Democrats in Congress, that's changing. But the reality is, year after year, Congress didn't want to touch this, either, because it was so politically difficult.[…]
Fundamental truth is, if our troops can summon the courage to go overseas into harm's way, often on deployment after deployment, then we've got to make sure that Congress has the courage to take tough up-or-down votes on whether they ought to be there. And when I am president, anytime—which I hope will never happen—but anytime I am compelled to use force and seek that authorization, we will have a three-year sunset…
Klobuchar said she would get most troops out of Afghanistan but would have left them in Syria and would leave them in Iraq, albeit "not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now."
You can find a full transcript of last night's debate here.
All in all, the efforts to distance themselves from pro-Iraq and Afghanistan War votes, denounce the ongoing presence of U.S. troops there, and push for greater congressional oversight of military action was a very good sign.
But as the discussion turned more specifically to Iran, responses from the Democratic candidates weren't quite as reassuring. While eager to condemn whatever Trump's strategy with Iran has been, they were less clear on how their own approaches would differ. What we were left with was promises to accomplish Trump (and Obama) administration goals with regard to Iran—such as thwarting the country's development of nuclear capabilities—while somehow avoiding anything that has already been tried.
Given that it's unlikely Iran will just do whatever we say without getting anything in return, this probably won't get us far. And few of the candidates on stage seemed sufficiently committed to keeping us out of war with Iran should even some slight provocation or shift in public opinion occur.
Iran is going to get nuclear weapons sometime in the next 20 years. If politicians treated voters like adults, the debate would be "can we delay that long enough that when it happens, it presents the least possible threat?"
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) January 15, 2020
More debate coverage from Reason:
- Did We Just Hear Three Democratic Candidates Talk About Reducing Deficit and Debt?
- Joe Biden's Debate Answer About His Support for the Iraq War Leaves Out Some Important Details
- CNN Implicitly Took Elizabeth Warren's Side in the Unproven Sexism Accusation Against Bernie Sanders
- Meanwhile, in Trump world:
Steve Doocy: "If re-elected, Donald Trump will allow you to take a shower in seven seconds."
Ainsley Earhardt: "Full shower flow, and bring back the lightbulb!"
Brian Kilmeade: "Do you think that resonates?"
Steve: "Everybody showers, everybody complains about the lightbulbs." pic.twitter.com/37fjiSzefa
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) January 15, 2020
- And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) announced that she's picked the seven people who will serve as "impeachment managers" in the Senate. Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) will lead things, assisted by fellow Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Jason Crow (Colo.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Val Demings (Fla.), and Sylvia Garcia (Texas).
- "Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?" asks Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.).
- How Tom Steyer keeps getting on the Democratic debate stage.
- The woke primary is over and everyone lost, writes Matt Welch.
- Positive momentum on occupational licensing reform in Iowa:
"One quarter of Iowa's workforce requires some kind of professional license. If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is. It's the second highest in the nation, which puts our state and its people at a competitive disadvantage."
— @IAGovernor @KimReynoldsIA
— Shoshana Weissmann, Sloth Committee Chair ???? (@senatorshoshana) January 14, 2020
- More from Reason staffers on last night's Democratic presidential debate on CNN:
These horse race punditry questions ("Will having to be in DC to vote for impeachment hurt your chances in Iowa?"/"Does calling yourself a socialist make it less likely you'll win?") have no place in a debate. Let the talking heads discuss that nonsense bullshit.
— Eric Boehm (@EricBoehm87) January 15, 2020
I barely avoided an actual IRL spit take when Elizabeth Warren mentioned reducing the national debt in the middle of calling for free college.
— Scott Shackford [Blue Checkmark] (@SShackford) January 15, 2020
A full 30 minutes on how to finance Medicare for All is WHAT WE CAME FOR.
— Peter Suderman (@petersuderman) January 15, 2020
I have just one question for Mr. Steyer: Will you leave the stage so that Yang or Tulsi can be up here?
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) January 15, 2020
— Elizabeth Nolan Brown (@ENBrown) January 15, 2020
That question to Warren, which stated as an unqualified fact her side in an unsubstantiated he said/she said dispute with Sanders, was journalistic effing malpractice.
— (Stephanie) Slade (@sladesr) January 15, 2020