from The Water's Edge

Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: Climate Change, the Middle East, and Defense Policy

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential challengers are saying about foreign policy.
Elizabeth Warren speaks at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 7.
Elizabeth Warren speaks at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 7. Jonathan Drake/Reuters

Climate change topped the foreign policy agenda this week. President Donald Trump sent the United Nations official notification on Monday that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord next November. Although Trump told the world back in June 2017 that he wanted out of the deal, under the terms of the agreement he couldn’t begin the formal withdrawal process until this week. The withdrawal goes into effect one year after the notification is submitted, so the United States will now exit the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2020. That’s the day after the U.S. presidential election. 

Democratic presidential candidates immediately criticized Trump’s decision. Elizabeth Warren wrote an op-ed, not for a U.S. newspaper but for a British one, arguing that the United States needs to reclaim global leadership on climate change. She says that:

climate change must be an organizing principle in American diplomacy. That means whether it’s negotiating new trade agreements or addressing security threats, my administration will consider the impacts of climate change as we make foreign policy decisions.

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Joe Biden focused his ire squarely on Trump, tweeting: "A country that ignores the threat to the very survival of this planet isn’t just troubled—it’s morally bankrupt. We must get the climate change denier out of the White House and take urgent action to address the climate emergency."

Bernie Sanders got more personal, tweeting: "Donald Trump is an international embarrassment." Sanders's campaign said the Vermont senator plans to go all-in on climate change in Iowa. The campaign believes that talking more about climate change will help Sanders win the state’s caucuses come February 3. It’s unclear if that’s a good bet. Yes, climate change ranks high as an issue among Democratic voters. But all the Democratic candidates say that climate change is a priority to them, and it’s unlikely that voters understand the differences in the various plans they have put forth to tackle the problem. And if polling shows that talking more about climate change is helping Sanders with Iowans, his rivals will immediately copy his tactics.

Pete Buttigieg used an MSNBC interview to say that Americans should understand that "Paris is a floor, not a ceiling" and that rejoining the agreement provides a chance to help "restore American credibility" with allies, friends, and partners:

I actually see an opportunity in this, as bad as it has gotten ... We must show global leadership, and when we do, when the people of the world and the leaders of the world see America leading on climate change, when global climate diplomacy is something that matters, that is a really important way that we can reestablish our credibility and leadership on an issue where we really are needed.”

Kamala Harris used the president’s notification as an opportunity to remind voters that climate disruption isn’t a problem for the distant future but one that has already arrived. She noted: “As California burns and unprecedented, climate change-driven weather conditions threaten more frequent and more intense wildfires throughout our state, the Trump administration today has opted to further endanger the health of our planet and our fellow Americans."

The Middle East

I mentioned last week that Sanders’s Democratic rivals would likely fire back at his proposal to use U.S. military aid as leverage over Israel. This week Steve Bullock did just that, calling the idea of conditioning aid "just flat wrong.” The Montana governor added:

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I think that commitment to Israel is more important now than probably forever. We can have serious discussions about domestic and foreign policy but not to politicize efforts that would undermine our commitment to Israeli security.

Sanders no doubt would take issue with the claim he is politicizing U.S.-Israel policy. Bullock went on to say that he opposed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to annex parts of the West Bank. But Bullock didn’t say what we would do to prevent Netanyahu, assuming he continues as prime minister, from implementing his annexation plans.

A participant at a town hall in Grinnell, Iowa, told Warren that “right now, the United States is bombing at least seven countries. We support genocides in Palestine and in Yemen. The U.S. military is actually the biggest polluter of any organization in the world” and argued that “United States sanctions on Venezuela caused over 40,000 deaths, and we also have sanctions on many other countries like Iran, North Korea, and you know you can name many more.” He then asked the Massachusetts senator whether she would “stop U.S.-supported murder, whether it’s through sanctions, arms support or boots on the ground?" She didn’t contest any of the questioner’s premises, instead responding:

I like your frame on this. You know, here’s how I see this. [If] we want to be a great nation, lead the world, then we need to live our values every single day. And that means we don’t support, for example, what’s going on in Yemen. The worst man-made humanitarian crisis in generations.

U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen certainly merits criticism. But the United States—and many other countries—have good reason to have imposed sanctions on Iran and North Korea. And Venezuela’s economic disaster is the result of the Maduro government’s mismanagement and corruption, not U.S. sanctions.

Defense Policy

This week, Warren released her plan to pay for Medicare for All. One source of funds would come from eliminating the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. That’s the budget category that covers spending for ongoing U.S. military operations. It has long been controversial because it is money appropriated in addition to the Pentagon’s so-called base budget. One appeal of the OCO is that it allows Congress and the president to get around caps that have been placed on overall defense spending. (That’s why Warren has called it a "slush fund for increased Pentagon spending.") The Warren campaign claims that eliminating the OCO would generate $798 billion in saving over ten years. Whether the savings would be that high is debatable and rests on robust assumptions about how quickly ongoing U.S. military operations can be wound down. Not surprisingly, Warren’s proposal has its critics.

Andrew Yang was a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio. (Warren was as well.) He was asked what his standard would be for sending U.S. military forces into combat. His answer was succinct:

I have a three part test for sending our men and women, the armed forces, into a foreign theater in harm's way. Number one, there has to be a vital American national interest at stake or the potential to avert a clear humanitarian catastrophe. So that needs to be one of those two things. Number two, there needs to be a clearly defined time frame where we can say very honestly, looking at our soldiers in the eyes and say this is how long you're going to be there and this is when you're going to be able to leave. Not one of these open ended commitments, not something amorphous. And the third is we need to have our allies engaged and willing to join us in this. If these three things are in place, then I would consider military intervention.

That answer is one many voters will find appealing. However, it doesn’t offer much guidance. Americans often disagree about what is a vital national interest and when it’s at risk. At the same time, when it comes to major military interventions, timelines aren’t known at the start. After all, the enemy also gets a say in how things go. And if a vital U.S. interest is at stake, it’s not obvious why friends and allies should have an implicit veto over what the United States does.

Campaign Update

Beto O’Rourke abandoned his presidential bid last Friday. Tulsi Gabbard became the tenth candidate to qualify for the November 20 Democratic debate. She scored 3 percent support in the latest Quinnipiac poll of voters in Iowa. The results of that poll enabled Amy Klobuchar to qualify for the December Democratic debate. The Quinnipiac poll also asked Iowa voters what the most important issue was in shaping their vote. Healthcare topped list at 34 percent, while 24 percent flagged climate change, and 8 percent said foreign policy.

There are 87 days until the Iowa caucuses, and 361 days until Election Day.

Margaret Gach helped with the preparation of this post.