At Democratic Debate, Candidates Embrace Military Solutions in Foreign Policy

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Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis says the debate showed a difference in tactics but not strategy in the foreign policy platforms of Sanders and Clinton

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network, everyone. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

So this past Saturday, the third Democratic party debate took place and focused a good amount on foreign policy and national security. Before we turn to our guests to talk about it, let’s check out how it looked.

MARTIN O’MALLEY: Where is it written that it’s the job of the United States of America or its secretary of state to determine when dictators have to go? We have a role to play in this world, but it is not the role of traveling the world looking for new monsters to destroy.

HILLARY CLINTON: We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us as well as the region, and we finally have a UN Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria. If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader. There is a vacuum. And we have to lead if we’re going to be successful.

BERNIE SANDERS: The United States must lead, but the United States is not the policeman of the world. The United States must not be involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East. The United States at the same time cannot successfully fight Assad and ISIS. ISIS now is the major priority.

BALL: Joining us once again is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She is also author of many books, including Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror: A Primer. Welcome again back to the Real News, Phyllis Bennis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Always good to be with you, Jared.

BALL: So Phyllis Bennis, much of the debate focused on national security and foreign policy. We heard some of what was said in those clips. What did you think of what was said, and did anybody do better for themselves than any of the others?

BENNIS: You know, Jared, there’s a significant gap between the role that Hillary Clinton has claimed for herself, which is on the far right of the security wing of Democratic party, supporting regime change. She was the cheerleader for the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya. She supported, famously, the war in Iraq. She’s the one calling for a no-fly zone.

So that’s a very clear support for war. On the other hand, Senator Sanders, Bernie Sanders comes to it saying we don’t need perpetual war in the Middle East, which sounds great. The problem is when he starts talking specifics, it’s not all that different than what Hillary Clinton calls for. It’s different in one important respect, which is that he does not call for a no-fly zone, a very dangerous move on Clinton’s part, because among other things it would imply the threat of war against Russia. The idea that we need a no-fly zone to protect people from ISIS. ISIS doesn’t have planes. Al-Qaeda doesn’t have planes. The Syrian regime has some planes, and Russia is flying planes. So when she talks about establishing a no-fly zone, is she saying we’re going to shoot down Russian planes? Does she really want to start talking about World War III here? So that’s very dangerous.

But on the broader question of the war what we’re hearing, unfortunately, from Bernie Sanders is a view that says, yes, we need military force to go after ISIS. Yes, you can have the defeat of terrorism through a conventional war, which I do not believe you can. He says there should be troops on the ground, but they should be Saudi troops, not American troops. Hillary Clinton also wants a relatively small number of U.S. troops, probably about the same number that the joint chiefs of staff have called for, which is about 15,000 troops, not hundreds of thousands. But nonetheless, the fact that Senator Sanders is calling for troops on the ground to challenge ISIS I’m afraid doomed that policy to failure.

What we did hear was some very interesting remarks from Governor O’Malley, who’s clearly not in the same league as the other two in terms of positioning in the, in the polls. He’s polling at almost zero. But he had some really interesting ideas. He said he agreed with the other two, meaning presumably he would accept a military solution to, to ISIS, trying to bomb terrorism and attack terrorism out of existence. But when he talked specifics he had some much more interesting ideas in terms of privileging diplomacy over war. The idea of having the head of the USAID, the assistance and development agency of the U.S., have a specific separate seat in the cabinet. So focusing on that rather than on the warfare.

This was actually, I thought, quite interesting and quite different. What we’re seeing from the candidates right now, candidate Clinton is running in the general election. She’s running with an enormous sense of entitlement, as if she knows she’s going to get the nomination. Something that the polls are not so clear about. And she’s not really feeling the pressure to respond to those to her left, Bernie Sanders and Governor O’Malley.

BALL: Phyllis, that actually leads me to one of the questions I did want to ask. Because yes, the polls may suggest that Hillary is running away with something. Or rather, the polls may suggest Hillary’s running away with something, but there’s also this, the report that came out last month that said more than half of the superdelegates from the Democratic party had already, had already decided to back her. So I’m really wondering, why isn’t Sanders, who even for those on the left are willing to admit isn’t tacking enough progressively on issues of foreign policy, why doesn’t he take more of a stance as you were describing we’re hearing from O’Malley, who was presumably taking that position largely because he’s not seen as a likely victor?

BENNIS: You know, it’s a good question. I think that we do see a significant strong position from Bernie Sanders on some other international issues. On climate change he’s been very, very strong. On trade he’s been very strong about the need for fair trade rather than free trade. Hillary Clinton is the darling of the free traders. And she’s okay on climate, but not great. Nothing to write home about. And certainly on all the domestic issues, the economic issues, inequality issues, the role of Wall Street. You know, this notion that she got such laughter, and she found it hilarious, to answer the question, will Wall Street like a–will Wall Street love a President Clinton? And her answer was, everybody should love a President Clinton. Ha-ha-ha. As if it was enormously amusing.

Bernie Sanders came in right after that and said, they won’t like me. And the hedge fund people and Wall Street are going to like me even less than the CEOs. You know, so he was very clear about that. On the question of war, how to deal with terrorism, that’s where we’re not seeing a significant difference between the candidates. The main difference you could point to is two. One, on the question of a no-fly zone. Two, on the question of sequence. For Hillary Clinton, we should be going after ISIS and the regime change against the Assad regime simultaneously. And we could do that. We can send troops. We could get other troops. We’ll have a coalition. We’ll have drones. We’ll have air strikes. She wants to do it all.

For Bernie Sanders, he wants to do one thing at a time. So he wants to go after ISIS first, that’s the threat. Then, as he put it, then we can go after Assad. So that, to me, is not a very significant difference. It’s a tactical difference rather than a strategic difference. He should be, he needs to be, staking out a clearer strategic difference from Hillary Clinton that goes beyond his statements of principle, which are very different. We should not be the policemen of the world. We should not be looking to overthrow governments around the world. Those are fine principles. But in the case where it matters right now he’s saying yes, we should. We should have regime change, although [he doesn’t] [inaud.] in Syria, until we conquered ISIS using conventional force. Not our troops on the ground, but Saudi troops on the ground. That’s not going to work, either. That’s the problem here.

BALL: Well, Phyllis Bennis, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.

BENNIS: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

BALL: Thank you at home for also watching. And for all involved, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace as long as you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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