Democratic Presidential Debate: Where do they stand on Syria and other foreign policy issues?


It was a warm evening as I headed out last night to watch the Democratic presidential debate, where candidates pit their positions and wit against each other. The restaurant in Dupont Circle was full of young couples on a quintessential DC date, groups of work friends and lone politicos. “I’ll take you to a typical DC party” Melanie, working for Care International, had told her colleague Dotti from Gap, who was visiting from San Francisco. I sat at a long table opposite my new friends for the evening, drinking happy hour cabernet while the debate opened to an eager crowd in a party-like atmosphere.

A couple of business cards made their way down to me from the other end of the table. The cards had several ‘bingo’ words penned on them; “You have to drink whenever they mention Benghazi” I was instructed.

I bet Hillary wished she could do the same.

Unsurprisingly, Benghazi was mentioned a few times. Worryingly, there was little substantive debate about the US in Syria, Iraq, or in Afghanistan. So where do the democrat presidential candidates stand on Syria and other foreign policy issues? Here’s a summary of what they mentioned (and didn’t mention) during the debate concerning Syria, US involvement in wars, threats to national security, Afghanistan and global inequalities:


Presidential debate

Hillary stuck to her guns on the no-fly zone. Interestingly, her articulation of the current state of affairs in Syria and her proposed interventions didn’t come across clearly, other than- like the other candidates- she doesn’t want troops on the ground in Syria. She took a bit of a lambasting from the others for her decisions and past statements on Iraq. It wasn’t just poor decision making, said O’Malley, but ‘misguiding into a wrong war’. Fair game. Sanders didn’t show much understanding of Syria. He articulated a un-simplified and frankly unhelpful metaphor, saying Syria was a “quagmire in a quagmire”, telling us very little of his approach, other than that he woudn’t get the US into one of those. O’Malley also supports airstrikes, but called Hillary’s favoring of a no-fly zone a mistake, because of the difficulties with enforcement. Apparent by its absence was the lack of depth of discussion on solutions to Syria. Seems that none of the candidates wanted to stick their necks out on this one.

There was also a stark reminder that the refugee crisis directly impacts the US far less than it does other parts of the world when only Hillary mentioned the huge numbers of those displacement by ongoing conflicts, and only in passing reference to the need to stop ISIS.

US involvement in wars
Webb showed as the most conservative and most hawkish candidate- stating that he would support military force in Libya. Sanders, on the other hand, while rejecting the label of ‘Pacifist’ and defending his decision to raise Conscientious Objection to the Vietnam war as the mistaken position of a young man, repeated his belief that war should be an option of last resort. O’Malley, also seen by some as being hawkish, didn’t give credence to this- his take on Libya was that we needed to pay more attention to what was happening on the ground, and support young leaders at a time when the dictatorship could fall.

Along with the refugee crisis, Afghanistan remains a major issue, but one that the candidates barely mentioned, and only in passing. For example Sanders only referred to Afghanistan to say that he had supported US intervention. One week on from Kunduz, the worst year for civilian deaths since 2008, and the growth of the Taliban and other violent extremist groups and Afghanistan is being swept under the rug again.

National security threats
When asked what they see as the biggest threats to national security, each of the candidates made reference, some more rambling than others, to Putin and to Iran. Hillary also spoke ominously- but with no elaboration- of nuclear weapons finding their way into the hands of terrorists (not sure she if she meant terror groups- which is unlikely, or states that support terror-which is already the case). Webb was, again, the outlier in the group, emphasizing China as the US’s major threat. He may be reading his briefings on the escalating situation in the South China Sea, but it’s not clear that he’s accurately tapping into current public sentiment. Sanders took the opportunity to slide climate change in one more time.

All five candidates talked of (domestic) inequalities, though not all in the same way. Sanders spoke clearly of curbing the excesses of capitalism. Billionaires and millionaires were pointed to. Hillary however was more tempered –she referred to ‘divides’, rather than vilifying big businesses. She did however say that we need to “reign in the excesses of capitalism’. None of the candidates extended the concept of inequality and its consequences globally, nor to the spread of violent extremist groups around the world. A couple of weeks post UNGA and SGDs, global poverty and US aid equally didn’t even warrant a mention.

The party candidate debate is typically the point at which the candidates express a clear and cohesive set of positions that -even if they depart from previous actions or statements- tend to stay the same. With a fast and ever-changing situation in the Middle East, recent antagonistic pronouncements and ballistic missile testing by Iran and growing tensions with China, we may see a change in position, and hopefully a deeper articulation of strategy by the time of the presidential debate.


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