WASHINGTON — Coming on the heels of two Republican debates in which candidates found common ground criticizing the Iran nuclear deal and emphasizing their support for Israel, the first debate between Democratic challengers for the presidency was highlighted by candidates who pushed against each other on Iraq and other foreign policy issues.
In fact, Israel was barely an afterthought as opponents hammered front-runner Hillary Clinton over her foreign policy record onstage at a Las Vegas resort.
Speaking about foreign policy in a debate strongly dominated by domestic issues, underdog and former US senator Lincoln Chafee said Clinton should have been disqualified from running because she voted in favor of the Iraq War. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley also weighed in, saying that “leading us into Iraq under false pretenses and telling us as a people that there were weapons of mass destruction there was one of the worst blunders in American history.” O’Malley emphasized that he wouldn’t resort to military action as quickly as Clinton if he were elected president.
Undaunted by critique of her more interventionist stances, Clinton asserted that the US needed to “stand up to [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] bullying… specifically in Syria,” adding, “I think it’s important that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos.”
Clinton’s campaign doubled down on her foreign policy credentials, releasing a list of achievements that included breaking a cabinet deadlock on whether to order the mission that culminated with the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and highlighting that she “personally negotiated a stop to Hamas rockets raining down on Israel with a ceasefire in Gaza ‘right at the moment hope seemed dead for a rapid end to the violence.'”
At the same time, the campaign stressed, “Clinton “has made it clear that she views her vote to authorize the Iraq War as a mistake,” but added that “there is a significant difference between a Senator voting to give authority to a president, and being that president making the call in the first place.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s closest rival in the polls, took an aggressively less interventionist position, promising that he would “do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq.” Sanders hammered Clinton on her support for a no-fly zone in Syria, saying that it would lead to a “very dangerous situation,” and accusing her of leveraging arguments similar to those of Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in his advocacy for US intervention in Iraq.
O’Malley jumped on the same bandwagon, arguing that such a no-fly zone “especially with the Russian Air Force in the air… could lead to an escalation.”
The debate participants seemed, in a rare moment, to agree that none of them supported the deployment of US ground troops in Syria. But divides opened up again over the Iran deal. In the Republican debates, candidates vied over who would more resoundingly criticize the nuclear agreement reached over the summer, but it was hard to find such criticism among the five Democrats on the stage.
Only former Virginia senator Jim Webb was openly critical of the agreement, arguing that the invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring and the Iran deal were responsible for destabilization in the Middle East. Webb, who complained throughout the debate that he was receiving less airtime than his rivals, also warned that “the greatest strategic threat we have right now is resolving our relationship with China.”
In contrast, Clinton’s campaign described the deal as an achievement, including it in the list of foreign policy accomplishments that was released during the debate. “Clinton led the effort to build a crippling international sanctions regime against Iran, and sent senior aides to engage in back-channel diplomacy with Iran, ultimately bring them to the negotiating table for a deal that will block them from obtaining nuclear weapons,” her campaign reminded audiences.
Webb also stood alone as the only one of the five candidates who mentioned Israel at all, expressing alarm that the deal with Iran had endangered America’s “greatest ally.” None of the candidates referred to the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestinians or to the prospect, suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier in the day, of restarting peace talks.
Webb’s military record – the former secretary of the Navy served as a Marine in Vietnam – served as a jumping-off point for discussing candidates’ willingness to apply military force. The question seemed particularly acute for Sanders, who declared himself a conscientious objector to the draft during the Vietnam War.
Sanders emphasized that he opposed the policies, not the soldiers involved in the war. Looking forward, he emphasized that if elected, he would not shy away from all military action, but that he does not “support the United States getting involved in unilateral action.”
“I am not a pacifist,” he stressed. “I supported the war in Afghanistan,” he reminded viewers, but warned that “war should be the last resort.”