Democrats Debate National Security, a Little Bit

January 20, 2016

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Democrats debate the issues — just not national security, really

The Democrats took to the stage for their final debate before Iowa caucus-goers convene and New Hampshire primary voters enter the voting booth. In contrast to previous debates — especially the November debate that took place the day after the Paris terrorist attacks — national security and foreign policy got short shrift. This lack of emphasis also contrasted starkly with last week’s GOP debate. So how bad was it?

As Nick Gass points out in Politico, each of the three Democrats on stage was asked to name their top three priorities, if elected, during their first 100 days in office. Nine opportunities to identify the Islamic State, Syria, homeland security, Russia, cybersecurity, or Iran as a priority — and zero mentions.

And it isn’t like there weren’t timely things worth talking about, writes Jamie Novogrod at “The absence was notable because the debate follows a weekend of dizzying developments on the Iran front, and because the Republican debate on Thursday night featured a lengthy exchange on Iran during the first fifteen minutes.”

While Hillary Clinton certainly has the experience to hold her own, her chief rival seems to have little interest in anything other than his domestic policy agenda. Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen did not mince words when criticizing Bernie Sanders’ position on foreign affairs: “Maybe it’s that every time he answers a question on foreign policy and national security, it’s blindingly apparent that not only does he not understand foreign policy and national security, he simply doesn’t care to know more.”

Okay, okay, they did get there eventually

Although not a single foreign policy issue was brought up in the entire first hour of the debate, they did eventually turn their attention to issues beyond U.S. borders. If you missed it, Lawfare has done us all a service by pulling the highlights of candidates’ responses on Iran, “boots on the ground,” Russia, balancing national security and privacy, and homegrown terrorism.

Talking tech

The candidates tackled the issue of how (and whether) the government and private tech companies should work together to provide “back door” access to circumvent increasingly ubiquitous end-to-end encryption technologies, which essentially render intercepted messages useless to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As Haley Sweetland Edwards writes for TIME, this debate “gets to the heart of our most basic values as Americans.” But the problem, she argues, is that none of the candidates actually addressed the issue. Martin O’Malley offered “a hard-to-follow analogy about front doors and back doors that earned applause from an apparently bewildered audience.” Sanders argued that we shouldn’t worry only about government access to private data, but that of corporations, too. And Clinton basically side-stepped the question of whether the government should or should not force tech companies to offer back door access.

Battleground: Middle East

The one area in which a foreign policy fight between the Democratic candidates does seem possible is the Middle East. None of their policy prescriptions are dramatically different from one another (although the themes each candidate emphasizes when speaking about the region differ somewhat). But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a fight. During the debate, on both U.S.–Iranian relations and counter-ISIL strategy, the theme was essentially the same: Clinton staked out a position, and then Sanders said the same thing but more loudly.

The Clinton team sensed an opportunity to make the case that his relatively forceful articulation of foreign policy ideals masks a shallow understanding of world affairs. Her campaign released a statement signed by 10 former senior diplomats and national security officials that questions Sanders’ readiness for the White House. “These are complex and challenging times, and we need a Commander in Chief who knows how to protect America and our allies and advance our interests and values around the world,” the statement reads. “The stakes are high. And we are concerned that Senator Sanders has not thought through these crucial national security issues that can have profound consequences for our security.”

Meanwhile, Rand Paul has many thoughts about the debate

Rand Paul was very active on Twitter during the debate, live-tweeting his responses throughout. He was particularly forceful on the issues of crime and justice that are central to his campaign message, but when they turned to foreign policy, he went after Clinton hard for her role in fomenting ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, and Libya:

Jeb Bush, still a policy wonk

Jeb Bush gave a speech on foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, renewing his commitment to running a policy-centric campaign. With nuance and detail rarely seen from the more conservative frontrunners for the GOP nomination, he addressed a range of issues, and was publicly thanked by members of the audience for a “rich, substantive conversation.”

He acknowledged that this campaign cycle is not one that rewards such a conversation, though. “Restoring a 21st century vision of America’s leadership in the world is essential, and hopefully the campaign will be a place where this will be discussed from time to time,” he told the crowd. “A girl can dream at least.”

The speech highlights the catch-22 that is his bid for the presidency in this particular election, though. Anything that boosts his chances of becoming the establishment frontrunner — like an event with CFR, about as establishment as you can get — opens him up to attack from his GOP opponents that are playing to a more anti-establishment (and larger, it seems) audience within the party.

The Donald is HUUUGE news in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, if a public petition garners at least 100,000 signatures, it automatically requires parliamentary debate. A petition to ban Donald Trump because of his controversial comments about banning Muslims from entering the United States was signed by more than half a million. So members of parliament duly convened this week to debate the issue.

There’s no real chance that Trump would actually be banned. “As Prime Minister David Cameron said in December that he opposed the ban on Trump, and there was never a plan to put anything to a vote, the MPs gathered in this gloomy little chamber to hold a debate purely so it can be said to have happened,” explains Eleanor Margolis at Foreign Policy. But, she says, the decision not to ban him and the debate itself represent the height of Britishness. Exhibit A from Conservative MP Alex Chalk: “Buffoonery must not be met with the blunt instrument of a ban. It must be met with the classic British response of ridicule.”

The Washington Post has a great run-down of the various ways Trump was described during the three-hour debate (apparently they did not have anything more important to talk about that day). Among many other gems, Conservative MP Marcus Fysh called him “the orange prince of American self-publicity.”

Former SecDef Gates weighs in

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a new book out, and has been making the rounds on TV to promote it. Of course, he’s been asked for his take on the campaign for the White House. On Bloomberg’s With All Due Respect, he nested a not-so-veiled criticism of Ted Cruz inside a wider critique of the lack of detail in candidates’ positions on national security: “One of my concerns about the campaign is that, particularly on national security issues, the candidates, as best as I can tell, have pretty much all sort of come in at the 40,000-foot level and they make grandiose promises or commitments that ‘I’m going to do this’ or ‘I’m going to do that,’ and I haven’t seen any of the sort of, what’s chapter two, how are you going to do that? What are your specific ideas on how you’re going to do that? And when they have put forward some specific ideas, whether it’s carpet-bombing or making the sand glow or something, it’s completely unrealistic.”

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he was even more direct. Asked what goes through his mind when he hears candidates suggest carpet-bombing as a counter-ISIL tactic, he responded: “First of all, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Carpet-bombing would be completely useless. It’s totally contrary to the American way of war.”

Gates was also asked about the best qualities of the past three presidents he served — Obama, Bush 43, and Bush 41. So are there any among the current field of White House aspirants in which he sees those qualities? “I don’t see any.”

Cruz’s international incident

Ted Cruz doesn’t need to wait to be president to provoke an international incident. “You may have noticed that all the Nigerian email scammers have become a lot less active lately,” he joked on the campaign trail. “They all have been hired to run the Obamacare website.” The Nigerian ambassador to the United States has demanded an apology on behalf of the government. No response yet from Cruz.


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Image credit: DonkeyHotey