The fifth Democratic debate last night pitted Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, mano y mano, on MSNBC’s friendly stage in New Hampshire.
The general consensus seems to be that the event lacked a real winner, much like the (basically) 50/50 split of the vote in the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Vox’s Dylan Matthews writes that both candidates won, but identifies three “losers” last night: DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who’s seemingly lost control over the debate schedule; Wall Street, the target of Sanders’ unerring critiques of inequality; and, foreign policy doves.
This last point may not be immediately obvious. Sanders, Matthews writes, keeps mentioning Clinton’s 2002 vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, “but more as a thumb in Clinton’s eye than as a pivot to explaining why a Sanders presidency would be different and less bellicose. That’s largely because it probably wouldn’t be that much less bellicose. Sanders’s plans for ISIS and Afghanistan are basically identical to Clinton’s.”
[Clinton is] still well to the right of the Democratic Party as a whole on these questions. But she also is actually well-versed in them, whereas Sanders’s comments on foreign policy appear limited to a) praising the foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration, and b) hammering Clinton for her vote for the Iraq War.
The latter remains Clinton’s biggest weakness. It’s unclear why she can’t simply say, “It was a huge mistake, I’ve rethought my views on the use of force and learned from my mistake,” but in lieu of that kind of fully honest reckoning, her burn at Sanders — “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS” — was rhetorically effective if not particularly reassuring to more dovish Democrats. It turned the conversation from being about her positions on the issue toward Sanders’s near-total ignorance of it.
Sanders is right to dog Clinton on the war vote. Approving the war in Iraq isn’t something that should ever be forgotten; given the magnitude of that disaster, and given the sense of bipartisan legitimacy that congressional Democrats lent the invasion, that vote should stick to Clinton’s name for the rest of her life.
But there’s another, larger point here. I don’t know that it’s fair to characterize Sanders’ foreign policy as “near-total ignorance”; I do think he fails to articulate much of a position on most international matters. It’s a deficiency made all the more glaring by the clarity of his calls for social and economic justice here at home.
However, I don’t think the problem is with Sanders himself so much as it is with the fact that progressives in a post-Iraq War world simply are deeply uncomfortable with engaging in foreign policy questions. The problem is that there is no real sense of what a progressive foreign policy would look like these days.
Is it strictly anti-war? That’s fine, but if so, what does an essentially pacifist approach to geopolitics look like? (And as Matthews says, Sanders isn’t advocating for such.) Does that mean we ignore any humanitarian atrocity abroad and stick to strict isolationism? The pat answer is something about coalition-building — but that’s just more avoidance of the substantive issues. To build an international coalition capable of action requires a coherent foreign policy philosophy to begin with. And American progressives lack that, in a major way; this is the best we can do.
To be clear, I’m not saying Clinton is any better than Sanders on this issue. Would I rather have a president fundamentally disengaged with foreign policy issues, or one who readily voted to rush into the wholesale catastrophe that was Iraq? I’m not sure. It’s not a great choice. But until progressives learn what they want their 21st century foreign policy to look like, it’s what we’ll get.