Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin covered a range of issues, like women’s rights, healthcare, and Wall Street. But both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) seemed to slip up on their foreign policy.
Here are 5 examples of foreign policy points that missed the mark:
1. Both candidates named controversial figures as their foreign policy inspiration.
Clinton named former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as her foreign policy inspiration, while Sanders named former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Both were really bad answers.
While Kissinger is known for policies like helping to establish today’s U.S.-China relations, he has also been criticized by many experts as a war criminal for policies like supporting the 1973 coup in Chile, as well as his role in three genocides: the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, Indonesia’s massacre in East Timor from 1975 to 1976, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979.
Sanders, who criticized Kissinger as “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country” during the debate, named Winston Churchill as a leader he admires when asked about leaders who would influence his foreign policy. The decision to name Churchill, a prime minister who was responsible for many of the U.K.’s imperialist policies, was especially ironic after Sander’s lengthy criticism of Kissinger. Churchill was also a key figure in the 1953 coup of Iran, led by the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies, which toppled democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh — a coup which Sanders specifically denounced earlier in the debate.
(Clinton and Sanders also mentioned Nelson Mandela and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as other figures they admire in foreign policy, respectively.)
2. Neither candidate had any solutions to the refugee crisis.
The current refugee crisis is the largest since World War II, with almost 60 million refugees in the world today according to the U.N., and neither candidate had any real solutions when asked about it.
Clinton, who described the refugee crisis as “a humanitarian catastrophe,” nonetheless emphasized the importance of secure borders in her answers, rather than the conflict that many are fleeing from. “Well, I was pleased that NATO announced just this week that they’re going to start doing patrols in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean, to try to interdict the smugglers, to try to prevent the kind of tragedies that we have seen all too often, also to try to prevent more refugees from coming to the European Union,” she said, while failing to acknowledge why so many people are fleeing their homes.
Sanders similarly had no answers to what the U.S. could do to tackle the causes of the refugee crisis, or the appalling ways in which many refugees are treated when seeking safety in other countries. After telling a story about visiting a Turkish refugee camp, he simply said that the United States should work with Europe, and claimed that Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia had a responsibility. Sanders did not elaborate on what that responsibility was, or what the United States should be doing with Europe exactly. “The entire world needs to come together to deal with this horrific refugee crisis we’re seeing from Syria and Afghanistan, as well,” he simply said.
3. Both candidates had a long debate about Iran being the main sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, and failed to acknowledge the role of other countries in much of the region’s terrorism.
Sanders and Clinton had a long debate about normalizing relations with Iran — with the former seemingly more in favor of doing so — and a large part of that discussion focused on Iran’s role in fueling terrorism in the region.
While Iran is considered a U.S. state sponsor of terror, primarily due to its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s role in much of the region’s terrorism was ignored throughout the debate. Many experts have noted the relation of extremism in the Middle East, as expressed by militant groups like ISIS, to the conservative Wahabbi doctrine promoted by the Saudi regime. In addition, Saudi Arabia has been a leader of the coalition of Arab countries currently bombing Yemen, which has seen a humanitarian crisis and the death of about 6,000 people.
Both candidates also ignored Israel’s occupation in Palestine.
4. Neither candidate fully grasps the extent of the conflict in Syria.
While the conflict in Syria is certainly difficult to understand, considering the multiple players involved, it isn’t too much to ask a presidential candidate to brush up on the history of the conflict.
Early on in the debate, Sanders boldly announced that the United States “could overthrow Assad tomorrow if we wanted to.” Certainly if that were the case, one can only wonder why the conflict in Syria has continued for almost five years.
Clinton’s answer, on the other hand, suggested she’s unaware of the recent developments in Syria. After criticizing Sanders’ suggestion in the past to use Iranian troops to end the civil war in Syria, Clinton said that “trying to get Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together… is equally a nonstarter.” But Iran and Saudi Arabia have done exactly that in Munich, Germany, where the 17-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG), of which both countries are members, agreed on Thursday to “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin within the next week.
5. Neither candidate really came out against regime change.
Sanders started out the debate by coming out strongly against regime change, saying that the United States could easily overthrow other governments, but “foreign policy is not just to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictators, it’s to understand what happens the day after.” Later in the debate, however, he defended his vote for regime change in Libya in 2011. “Everybody voted for it wanting to see Libya move toward democracy,” he said. “Of course we all wanted to do that.”
Sanders’ defense of democracy ignores that past U.S. regime change — including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he never fails to mention he voted against — was often done in the name of democracy. In February 2003, shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bush specifically mentioned democracy as justification for regime change in Iraq, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” Bush said. “Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state.” Using the same reasoning Bush did to advocate regime change certainly isn’t the best.
Clinton, who has voted for the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2002, and advocated for regime change Libya in 2011, similarly failed to take a strong stance on regime change abroad. In addition, while she specifically called out that Sanders had voted for a 1998 law which she described as a “regime change resolution with respect to Iraq,” she failed to mention that the law, the Iraq Liberation Act, was signed into law by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.