In the aftermath of President Trump’s controversial order to kill Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, foreign policy got a renewed focus Tuesday night in the Democratic presidential primary debate — the last before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
Out of the gate at the start with a question from moderator Wolf Blitzer on why they’d be the best commander-in-chief, candidates were critical not only of Trump, but also their fellow Democrats.
Drawing a contrast between himself and Joseph Biden, Bernie Sanders said he voted “no” on going into conflict in Iraq in 2002 and said “it would lead to unprecedented levels of chaos in the region,” which was not the vote Biden has taken.
“I understood right away, in terms of the war in Iraq, the difference here is that the war in Iraq turned out to be the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “As Joe well knows, we lost 4,500 brave troops. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. We have spent trillions of dollars on that endless war, money which should go into health care and education and infrastructure in this country.”
Following the death of Soleimani, Sanders warned Trump may be leading the United States into a war “even worse than the war in Iraq.”
Biden admitted his vote to authorize the Iraq war was a “mistake,” but pointed out former President Obama chose him to be his running mate in the 2008 election and “turned to me and asked me to end that war.”
“We should not send anyone anywhere unless the overwhelming vital interests of the United States are at stake,” Biden said. “They were not at stake there. They were not at stake in Iraq. And it was a mistaken vote.”
But when the issue of the Afghanistan war, Blitzer pointed out Sanders had voted for the use of military force. Sanders replied there was a “little bit of a difference” because with the Iraq war the Bush administration was lying about the pretext for war, but that wasn’t the case for Afghanistan. Biden pointed out he had opposed during the Obama administration the idea of a surge in Afghanistan.
When the issue came to whether candidates would remove U.S. troops in the Middle East, Amy Klobuchar had an itemized reaction to each of the moves undertaken in the Trump administration.
“I would leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now,” Klobuchar said. “Afghanistan, I have long wanted to bring our troops home. I would do that. Some would remain for counterterrorism and training. In Syria, I would not have removed the 150 troops from the border with Turkey. I think that was a mistake. I think it made our allies and many others much more vulnerable to ISIS. And then when it comes to Iraq, right now, I would leave our troops there, despite the mess that has been created by Donald Trump.”
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an Afghanistan war veteran, took the opportunity to criticize Trump for sending more troops to the Middle East when he campaigned on a promise of stopping endless war.
“And whenever I see that happen, I think about the day we shipped out and the time that was set aside for saying goodbye to family members,” Buttigieg said. “I remember walking with a friend of mine, another lieutenant I trained with, as we walked away, and his one-and-a-half-year-old boy was toddling after him, not understanding why his father wasn’t turning back to scoop him up. And it took all the strength he had not to turn around and look at his boy one more time.”
Things got interesting when the issue of meeting with foreign dictators without preconditions came up. In contrast Trump, who met with Kim Jung Un without preconditions, Biden said he wouldn’t meet with the North Korean leader, marking a departure with Obama, who once said he’d meet with the leader without preconditions.
“Absent preconditions, I would not meet with the, quote, ‘Supreme Leader,’ who said Joe Biden is a rabid dog, he should be beaten to death with a stick,” Biden said.
Much of the debate, especially on the issue of health care, was a rehash of previous debates in which candidates sparred over the differences in their plan. Moderates like Biden and Klobuchar said Medicare for All was unrealistic, but socialists like Warren and Sanders said the plans other proposed didn’t do enough to reduce costs.
On the issue of health care, Tom Steyer aptly described the situation when he said, “We’ve had this conversation on this stage so many times.”
“Everybody on this stage believes that affordable health care is a right for every single American,” Steyer said. “Everybody on this stage knows that Americans are paying twice as much for health care as any other advanced country in the world. And it makes no sense and the government has to step in.”
LGBTQ issues were barely brought up in the debate. Biden mentioned gay people in passing when he said he wanted to assemble “all elements of the party, African-American, brown, black, women, men, gay, straight,” and Warren lamented at the end of the debate no attention was paid to the risk of violence to “trans women, particularly trans women of color.”
Kasey Suffredini, CEO and national campaign director for Freedom for All Americans, criticized the lack of attention paid on stage in Des Moines to the need for LGBTQ non-discrimination protections.
“At tonight’s Democratic debate, moderators and candidates once again failed to discuss the importance of passing nondiscrimination protections for the millions of LGBTQ Americans who will vote in this year’s presidential election,” Suffredini said. “With a looming Supreme Court decision that could decide whether employers have a right to discriminate against LGBTQ people and fire them simply for being who they are, all candidates — regardless of party — must proactively champion the need for non-discrimination protections.”