Liberals may have snickered at the recent Twitter battle between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush over George W. Bush’s national-security record, a debate CNBC said was “so dumb it’s genius.” But as childish as it seemed, at least they were debating national security, something on which the Democrats have made few firm proposals. This was most evident in the Democratic debate, where the word “Israel” was mentioned just once and where candidates harped on their records more than concrete ideas.
It’s not like there’s nothing to talk about. The same week as the debate, Obama announced his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through next year—meaning the next president will likely be the third commander in chief of a war that has proven to be as indefinite as it is costly.
Obama’s move has received bipartisan support, with many of the Republican candidates and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporting his decision. If progressives remain quiet, we’ll start seeing soldiers fighting in a war that started before they were born.
And just last week, a major leak detailing the administration’s secretive drone program raised serious questions about the U.S.’s missions in undeclared war zones. The Democratic candidates may now face questions on other overseas interventions, most of which involve no boots on the ground.
On October 15, The Intercept, a website run by Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden in his massive data leak two years ago, published a series of leaked documents and reports, provided by a “second Snowden,” detailing the administration’s drone program. “The Drone Papers” provided one of the most revealing glimpses into the secretive program.
Fraught by unreliable intelligence signals and deceptive foreign partners, drone strikes have been less precise than officials liked to claim. One leaked slide revealed that 90 percent of those killed in drone attacks over one five-month period in 2012 were not the intended targets.
While the moral question of drone strikes has been divisive, the tactical question—Do drones work?—becomes much more important in light of The Intercept’s reporting, and the two leading Democratic candidates’ thoughts on the issue should be made clear, and brought up in the next debate.
Among the Democratic contenders, Clinton’s foreign policy record speaks the loudest, from her vote for the Iraq war to her support of NATO intervention in Libya (which has become an unmitigated disaster today). In last week’s Democratic debate, Clinton stood by the administration’s NATO-backed intervention, calling it “smart power at its best.” Similarly, in a speech at Brookings in September, Clinton outlined a much more hawkish Middle East agenda than either her Democratic rivals or the current administration. In particular, Clinton called for increasing military aid to Israel, sustaining a “robust” military presence in the Gulf, and keeping military intervention on the table should Iran violate the nuclear deal. At the same time, Clinton has been less clear about her positions on drone warfare or the War in Afghanistan.
The positions of the other candidates remain murkier still. Lincoln Chafee, who is attempting to set himself apart as the Democratic anti-war candidate, is the only one to have a clear campaign position on drone strikes, stating his commitment to ending the program on his campaign website. The other four do not make mention of drones on their campaign pages, and queries to Sanders’ and Clinton’s campaign offices after the “Drone Papers” release amounted to reflexive referrals to their websites. The candidates have either explicitly stated or implicitly suggested that they would continue the program. Sanders, for instance, on a recent Meet the Press episode, gave his unequivocal support for drone warfare if it isolates an important terrorist, adding, “When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive.”
If the drone program becomes a progressive wedge issue, it is only because it raises larger questions about the Democratic candidates’ foreign policy proposals. If they sound like their hawkish Republican counterparts, it’s because they are, or are dangerously close. Clinton has gone as far as proposing a Syrian no-fly zone. And though Sanders has stated his opposition to that stance, he has given little push-back to others. On the Israel-Palestine debate, for instance, Sanders has largely toed the line during his tenure in Congress.
For now, we haven’t heard many concrete positions beyond general platitudes of “war as a last resort” from Sanders. His opposition to the war in Iraq is not a new policy proposal, and though he told Chuck Todd he was “very concerned” about his Republican colleagues’ “war talk,” it’s difficult to see what this might mean in concrete policy terms.
For now it’s still remarkably difficult to draw clearer distinctions on foreign policy between Clinton, the Republicans, and Sanders.
Last night’s debate was a much-needed respite from the GOP clown car that has taken up too much of our bandwidth and time. Instead of talking about Carly Fiorina’s face or Donald Trump’s tweets, we heard the Democrats debate on foreign policy, social welfare, criminal justice reform, and other issues.
Some did better than others (Lincoln Chafee was “feeling the chafe”). But while Hillary Clinton reasserted her dominance, Bernie Sanders and even Martin O’Malley showed they will continue to share the stage.
Beltway wonkdom has often been accused of disconnect from regular voters. Last night was no different. Focus groups favored Sanders by large margins. He had strong support among younger voters in a Fusion focus group, won handily in another for CNN, and was called “strong” and “smart” by those in a Fox News group.
This is not to say Clinton didn’t perform exceptionally. She handled questions about her flip-flopping and her hawkish foreign-policy record with finesse and cheer. And she got a huge boost (barely containing her glee) when Sanders insisted that the debate move on from Clinton’s “damn emails.” For all the negative coverage of her in recent weeks, this debate certainly was “the best day for Clinton’s campaign,” as Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put it.
But journalists and analysts could perhaps just as easily say Sanders had his best day, too. For example, when asked whether voters would be willing to put a “socialist” in the White House, Sanders, refusing to identify as a capitalist, asserted, “I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” The answer earned generous applause, not the burning at the stake that pundits predicted.
O’Malley, Chafee, and Jim Webb also had their moments. For many voters, last night was probably the first time they had seen or even heard of them. O’Malley spoke crisply and succinctly (and even garnered new followers, if not for his policies, at least for his charm). For those three candidates (one of whom, Chafee, is running his campaign out of his personal sedan) CNN’s Tuesday Night Lights put them on the map.
This of course doesn’t mean those four candidates “won,” either. Chafee and Webb were crowded out of much of the discussion, and Webb was a bad sport about it. Sanders had to go on the defense about his gun-control record, and when asked about Russian intervention in Syria, looked like a deer in headlights. But pundits highlighted Clinton’s defensive moments as strengths. Yglesias claimed Clinton responded to the Glass-Steagall attacks with specific policies while Sanders didn’t, though one could just as easily argue that naming one bank to regulate and hurriedly referring to shadow banking is just as vague as saying we need to break up big banks.
But the media elite had already made up their minds. As Paul Waldman wrote on The Week, our opinions are inevitably shaped from the top down. Focus groups, though hardly scientific, can at least help inform media coverage. Ignoring that information made instant announcements of winners appear premature. Perhaps an entirely different debate aired for the punditocracy, or perhaps they are stuck in a feedback loop that reinforces the idea that Sanders is simply unelectable, no matter how the audience reacted.