Iraq and Syria dominate foreign policy issues in Democrats’ first debate
Washington - The first in the series of Democratic Party presidential debates focused primarily on domestic issues but foreign policy received some attention, mostly concerning the 2003 Iraq war and the current crisis in Syria.
Former secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s opponents tried to paint her as a misguided hawk for having voted, when she was a US senator, to allow the Iraq war (which she has since acknowledged was a mistake) and for currently pressing for a no-fly zone in Syria.
Long-shot candidate Lincoln Chafee, a former senator and governor of Rhode Island, touted his vote in the Senate opposing the Iraq war, having been the only Senate Republican to do so (he has since changed parties). He said Clinton showed “poor judgment” and implied that she might make questionable decisions again.
Clinton’s chief rival, US Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, called the Iraq war the “worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country” and emphasised that when he voted against the war resolution in 2002 he predicted correctly that it would lead to Iraq’s destabilisation.
Sanders’s remarks were echoed by former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — another long-shot candidate — who said the Iraq war was undertaken under “false pretences” and that legislators “got railroaded” into voting for it. He added that, at the time, he — then the mayor of Baltimore — felt “the world had gone mad” because many people were saying that it “would only take a couple of years to build democracy in Iraq”.
Clinton responded to these direct and indirect attacks by saying that US President Barack Obama, her opponent for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008, “valued my judgment” in choosing her as secretary of State. She added that she spent “a lot of time” in the White House Situation Room making “very difficult decisions” with the president.
Sanders described the Syria crisis as a “quagmire in a quagmire” and said he sympathised with Obama for “trying to thread a tough needle” by supporting Syrians who are against both Assad and the Islamic State (ISIS) “without getting us on the ground there”.
But Sanders criticised Clinton for supporting a no-fly zone in Syria, which he described as a “very dangerous situation”. When asked what he would do in Syria, Sanders said he supported “putting together a coalition of Arab countries”, not the use of US troops.
Clinton responded said she also opposes putting US troops on the ground in Syria, and supported building an Arab coalition when she was secretary of State.
On the issue of Russian involvement in Syria, Clinton said the United States must stand up to Russia President Vladimir Putin’s “bullying” and tell him it is “not acceptable” to bomb people on behalf of Assad.
She added that the United States must use leverage to convince the Russians to work towards a political solution to the crisis and said her support for a no-fly zone was part of this leverage.
Sanders, by contrast, said Putin would “regret what he is doing in Syria” once the Russians get bogged down and suffered casualties there, and he suggested the Russian people would then send Putin a message to desist and “start working with the United States”.
Former US senator Jim Webb, from Virginia, who has since withdrawn from the Democratic primaries, tried to inject the Iran nuclear issue into the debate by saying that it enhanced Iran’s power in the region and made both Israel and Saudi Arabia question US commitment to its allies. Webb later seemed to contradict himself by saying the United States needs to focus more on Asia because the greatest strategic threat to the United States was aggression and cyberattacks by China.
Although Sanders did well in the debate and generated enthusiasm from his more left-wing base, Clinton had a very good night and showed that she was in command of the issues. She has staked out a more hawkish position than most of her Democratic rivals and appears much less reluctant than Obama to get more involved militarily in the Syrian crisis.
Undoubtedly, Clinton is eyeing the general election against a likely Republican hawk but she will still have to walk a political tightrope because the American people as a whole remain skittish about “military entanglements” in the Middle East.