Despite Absurd Debate Questions, Foreign Policy Was in Sharp Focus

November 22, 2019

Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard owned the foreign policy debate Wednesday night, despite facile questions from the MSNBC panel.

Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard owned the foreign policy debate Wednesday night, despite facile questions from the MSNBC panel.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner and it’s good to have you all with us.

We’re going to take a look in this segment at the debate last night. Then we’ll have a debate. And looking at foreign policy questions that came up in that debate, it was interesting that Bolivia never came up once, that the protests across the globe did not come up, that the latest reports that trillions of dollars have been spent and over a half million people killed in unnecessary wars, that didn’t really come up in any major way. And we’re going to talk about what all that means and hear and watch some clips from that debate in that regard.

We’re joined once again by Kim Brown, political commentator. Good to have you back with us, Kim.

TULSI GABBARD: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And Luke Savage and Branko Marcetic. They’re both write for Jacobin, and Branko also is an investigative reporter for In These Times. So let’s jump right into this, folks, with this clip of several of the candidates talking about different foreign policy options, and we’ll jump into what this means.

MODERATOR: Mr. Yang, if you win the 2020 election, what would you say in your first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

ANDREW YANG: Well first I’d say, I’m sorry I beat your guy. Or not sorry. And second, I would say the days of meddling in American elections are over, and we will take any undermining of our democratic processes as an act of hostility and aggression.

BERNIE SANDERS: I think I may have been the first person up here to make it clear that Saudi Arabia not only murdered Khashoggi, but this is a brutal dictatorship which built everything it can to crush democracy, treats women as third class citizens. And when we rethink our American foreign policy, what we have got to know is that Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally. We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a row under American leadership and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.

And by the way, the same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians. It is no longer good enough for us to simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel, but we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve. What is going on in Gaza right now, where youth employment is 70% or 80%, is unsustainable.

MARC STEINER: So some people–John Nichols today in The Nation on their web Nation magazine–said that Bernie Sanders won the foreign policy debate last night. But it’s interesting how that A) I know that’s not something that grabs a lot of U.S. voters, what foreign policy is, unless we’re knee deep in a war and Americans are being killed. But it does push a lot of people in the progressive end of the spectrum and people who really think about these things; and a certain part of our population does care. So why do you think this was not raised, and what do you think about these responses we just heard? Luke?

LUKE SAVAGE: Well, the thing that’s most striking to me about the two clips that you played, I think they speak to something that’s kind of pervaded our whole discussion, which is that one of the big divides in a debate like this–partly because there’s so many on stage but for other reasons as well–is a divide just between substance and fluff. I mean, Andrew Yang actually in some ways has a lot more to contribute that’s novel than many other candidates on stage. But the question posed to him there about foreign policy was just the most kind of vapid red meat for some of them, MSNBC’s audience. There’s nothing really going on there.

And contrast that with the clip of Bernie Sanders after, where he pivoted the question to talk about first, Saudi Arabia, and then the situation in Gaza, which is very unusual to hear in a democratic debate or in mainstream democratic discourse at all. And I would just say I hope that as the field thins, as it inevitably will in the next few weeks and in the coming months, there’s more space for that kind of novelty to come out because that kind of substance is just not something that we usually hear in this kind of debate.

MARC STEINER: I mean, what kind of question would you all have asked, let’s say about Bolivia? The only person who said that Bolivia was a coup in the news recently was Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren was very wishy washy. The rest have said very little, if anything. So A) that’s not a big issue for most Americans, I think. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a big issue. So how would you frame that question, Kim? What would you have said?

KIM BROWN: I’d ask the candidates, do any of them support removing the elected leaders of any other nation for any reason. And that’s a very easy standard question. Now, we all know that president Obama engaged in regime change in Libya and other places as well. It hasn’t turned out very well, actually has destabilized the region more so than it ever was. It has increased the amount of people, refugees, fleeing Northern Africa headed towards Europe, which is creating a different set of issues for our European partners. But the problem is that every single elected official, former and current, that was on that stage last night, they’re all pro imperialist and they don’t make any bones about it.

I think Tulsi Gabbard was the only one who mentioned the trillions of dollars that we have spent on the wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq. And she also made a point about how her fellow service men and women are expending their lives needlessly in certain American conflicts that don’t necessarily result in the spreading of democracy, which is all very valid. And I think part of the tragedy is that we have been involved in some of these quagmires abroad for so long, it’s just standard operating procedure. I think it might’ve been just Tulsi Gabbard actually, who said anything about bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. And it kind of puts the Democrats in a weird spot because this is sort of the same rhetoric that helped elect Donald Trump.

Trump promised to end foreign conflicts, places where our military was engaged needlessly and that is something that helped him. I remember him taking very specific shots at George W. Bush on the Republican debate stage standing next to Jeb Bush–which was quite hilarious, by the way. But nobody on last night’s debate stage said anything about pulling our resources back, pulling back our influence. Nobody said anything about the failed coup that was attempted in Venezuela with American support. And this is just not in the interest of this iteration of the Democratic Party. Even the so-called younger, more progressive voices on stage, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, et cetera. They’re all for American intervention or they have not specifically laid out how we would minimize our military engagements around the world.

MARC STEINER: So before I turn to you, Branko, let’s play this clip here from Tulsi Gabbard last night.

TULSI GABBARD: We’re calling for an end to this ongoing Bush, Clinton, Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars, overthrowing dictators, and other countries, needlessly sending my brothers and sisters in uniform into harm’s way to fight in wars that actually undermine our national security and have cost us thousands of American lives. These are wars that have cost us as American taxpayers trillions of dollars since 9/11 alone, dollars that have come out of our pockets, out of our hospitals, out of our schools, out of our infrastructure needs. As president, I will end this foreign policy and these regime change wars, work to end this new cold war and arms race, and instead invest our hard-earned tax payer dollars actually into serving the needs of the American people.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Congresswoman.

MARC STEINER: So, Branko, let me let you leap in on this one because she was fairly clear in her position in this particular moment.

BRANKO MARCETIC: Yeah, she was. I do wish that there would’ve been a question about, just simply, was what happened in Bolivia a coup because I think you had gotten some very revealing answers. To my knowledge, I don’t really go about as actually saying anything about the situation in Bolivia. She hasn’t said anything either about the situation in Brazil, and that’s, I think, despite the fact that she does have this anti-interventionist philosophy, which was very welcome in the debate, she is somebody who has shown an affinity for some right wing regimes, not only the Hindu far-right in India led by Modi. She has very, very close ties to that movement.

And you’ll notice that when Gabbard was criticized by the more centrist establishment candidates, whether on the stage or outside of it, the criticisms are never about some of these things and never about her ties to the Hindu far right, they’re never about her self description as a hawk who wants to pursue the war on terror in the same way that Obama did. Instead the criticisms of her are about the fact that she met with Assad, or these very dangerous and alarming smears about the fact that she’s a Russian, that she’s a Russian plant, that she’s a Russian asset, which we saw in full force tonight when she criticized, quite justifiably, Buttigieg’s stance on wanting to send troops to Mexico in whatever limited form.

So I think you really saw the foreign policy priorities of the liberal political establishment on stage last night in terms of the questions, Russia, Saudi Arabia obviously, and some of the other stuff that was brought up. And as Kim pointed out, that is dangerous for the election because Trump’s ability to outflank the Democrats and certainly outfight Clinton on foreign policy, even if he was completely disingenuous about it, I think was pretty significant to the fact that he ended up eking out this one.

There was a study that was published in I think 2018, maybe 2017, that looked at Trump’s margin of victory in some of these counties and in those key states, they poached from Democrats. So Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. And it found that in these counties that had gone to him narrowly, there was an above average amount of U.S. soldiers that had been either killed that were from those counties or came back wounded or otherwise, traumatized or whatever. And so that I think points to the fact that there’s a real pain in a lot parts of America over the wars, not just regime change wars, but also even the more “limited” “surgical wars” that that even Gabbard wants to pursue, and that’s a bigger issue beyond just the sort of electoral politics of it. But I think that it’s something that people should think about.

MARC STEINER: And that’s a key point you raise here, before we have to conclude here, Branko, because I think people don’t really get how deep sometimes the feeling against these absurd wars over the last 19 years are opposed in working class communities, be they white, black, Latino, native communities who are doing the fighting in these wars. People are just going, why did my brother die? Why did my son die? Why did my daughter get killed? I mean, I think that’s something that’s very real and you’re right. Gabbard and Sanders are probably the only two on the stage that actually kind of addressed this in a way that hits people viscerally. I think that’s part of that. That’s the foreign policy that people relate to.

BRANKO MARCETIC: Yeah, absolutely. And I was encouraged by hearing Sanders bring up talking about rethinking the war on terror. It was a very brief line [crosstalk 00:00:12:58], we probably missed it, and it reminded me of a speech he gave back in, I believe it was 2017 around September or October, where he did this big foreign policy speech where he talked about the need to rethink the war on terror, how the war on terror had been a failure, which I thought, this is great, this is exactly the kind of thing that people need to be talking about. They should have been talking about it a decade ago.

And they sort of were until Obama adopted Bush’s foreign policy, and then the democratic kind of descent of foreign policy, and the national security state basically just evaporated. And so it was good to hear a candidate say that unfortunately he shelved that talking point or that critique since 2017. I don’t know whether the fact that he very briefly mentioned it in passing in the debate means he’s going to maybe make this more of a focus or talk about it at a greater length in the future. But I would hope that he does because I think that is a key element that separates him from the rest of the field, and I think is also where foreign policy has to go. I mean, I doubt anyone disagrees with me here, but the war on terror has been a complete failure that’s only killed people and ruined lives and driven anti-American resentment that fueled the reasons for the “war” in the first place.

MARC STEINER: So we’re just really about out of time here, but Kim Brown and Luke Savage, if you can, just real quick pithy thoughts on and help us conclude this part of the conversation. Kim?

TULSI GABBARD: Well, I thought it was so important and very noteworthy that Bernie Sanders, a Jewish American Senator, stood up and said that what’s happening in Palestine is an atrocity and that is a very different stance from what has long been the Democrats’ talking point regarding Israel. I mean, they have been in favor I suppose of a two-state solution, but the Democratic Party as an establishment certainly backs Israel and Israeli policies by and large. So for Senator Sanders to come out and say that very assertively, I think is very big. But that’s also again where I just mentioned, a big disconnect from party establishment and I think that is going to be difficult for him to overcome amongst some of the party establishment. I think amongst democratic voters, that is not a huge bridge to cross.

I think a lot of people will come out on his side with that, but in some democratic… Where we are right now in this process, it’s very much like watching NHL or the NBA in November. There’s a lot happening and there’s nothing happening at the same time. You don’t really know who is going to end up shining come next May or next June, but it’s very cumbersome right now with so many people on the stage talking up what we need to do versus here is what I will do. So I think if we had to pick a winner last night, I don’t know if I could pick one. [crosstalk 00:16:09] I think it would probably be between Bernie and Liz Warren, but Kamala Harris did one thing in that clip that you played in the first segment, Marc, where she said that Trump got punked and everyone laughed, okay?

Now, as ridiculous as it is, you’re going to have to play the dozens with Donald Trump when you get on that debate stage with him. He’s going to call you names. He is going to make you think you are on the eighth grade recess field, and it’s going to be that type of thing. But if you’re not ready for it, if you’re not ready to come back at him with other jab zingers, I mean, that stuff is going to play a lot in this election, especially when we come to next November.

MARC STEINER: So you’re really running up against the clock here. But I agree with you. I think she will not be the candidate, but just in a humorous way, Kamala would tear him up. There’s not any question about that. But so Luke, really quickly, closing thought, but we really do have to wind this up.

LUKE SAVAGE: Sure. I think just to conclude, I would say to tie up our discussion on foreign policy, it’s often said that foreign policy doesn’t resonate with voters, and if they didn’t mention the coup in Bolivia or something like that, it’s probably because there’s not a big audience for it, and I’m at least partly sympathetic to that view. But I think people need to remember that in 2008 one of the great sources of Barack Obama’s appeal, and one of the reasons why as a young student, for example, I was very excited about him, was that I thought he was going to end the war on terror in 2008.

MARC STEINER: Right. Right.

LUKE SAVAGE: I thought that this was going to be a decisive break with the Bush-Era foreign policy and with the foreign policy that had preceded it. So I think there’s a lot of ground to be gained for many reasons, which we don’t have time to get into here, by breaking from the orthodoxies of both the liberal and the conservative establishment when it comes to foreign policy.

I think that the fact that often people seem to be searching Tulsi Gabbard’s name, I think they suspect, they don’t really know who she is, but they hear her do these anti-interventionist postures. They like the sound of it. When Sanders does the same thing, I would argue for the reasons I think Branko said, that Sanders is more substantive in his desire to break from the kind of orthodoxies of U.S. foreign policy. But that resonates as well. And I don’t think that he or anyone else should shy away from critiquing U.S. foreign policy as we’ve known it. I think there’s a lot of ground to be gained there and I hope we see more of that in the future.

MARC STEINER: Well, I really do appreciate the time you all have taken with us today. I deeply appreciate it. We just heard Luke Savage who’d been here also with Branko Marcetic, who both write for the Jacobin; and Kim Brown, political commentator. Good to have the three of you with us today. And let us know what you think here about what you heard. I’m Marc Steiner of The Real News Network. Take care.