from The Water's Edge

Foreign Policy Roundup: The Democratic Foreign Policy Establishment Embraces Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd after filing for the New Hampshire presidential primary on November 8. Mike Segar/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential challengers are saying about foreign policy. This week: endorsements for Joe Biden, U.S. troops, and new candidates.

November 15, 2019

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd after filing for the New Hampshire presidential primary on November 8. Mike Segar/Reuters
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Joe Biden looks to have won the “informal primary” for the support of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. This week, 133 former government foreign policy officials endorsed his bid for the presidency. The notable names on the list included former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, former U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco.

The Biden campaign released a new campaign ad titled “Moment” along with the endorsements. It touts the former vice president’s extensive foreign policy experience.

The videos stresses that "we live in the most dangerous moment in a generation,” making this “a moment for Joe Biden—a president with the experience to lead."

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Will these endorsements give Biden’s candidacy a significant boost? Probably not. As I’ve noted before, foreign policy falls far down the list of concerns for most voters these days. And that’s nothing new. With the exception of George H.W. Bush, every president from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump first came to office with little or no foreign policy experience, and they all defeated opponents with more impressive foreign policy resumes. As for the elder Bush, he lost re-election despite having perhaps the greatest foreign policy success of any president since World War II.

U.S. Troops, the Middle East, and Bolivia

A Grinnell College student asked Biden at a CNN Town Hall in Iowa whether the United States needed to maintain as many troops overseas as it does. The former vice president began by saying that “we don't need large standing—large standing armies abroad. That is not what we need. Particularly in the Middle East.”  He went to say that “we do need special forces in small array of people that we have put together with other 69 countries we've worked with to deal with stateless terrorism and to deal with unstable areas of the world, because we can't do it all by ourselves.” When CNN’s moderator Erin Burnett followed up by asking Biden where he would look first for troops to bring home, he clarified his remarks:

We don't need large numbers of combat troops conducting wars in areas like Afghanistan or Iraq, et cetera. We don't need that. That's not what's necessary. We do need—we do need bases and stationing around the world. We do need people that are stationed in Europe, in NATO. We do need troops that are stationed in the Far East, in Asia, dealing with the concerns that—they act as a—as a sign saying, not here, the United States is here. We are going to dissuade you from doing anything that's irrational.

This clarification is consistent with Biden’s overarching message that he wants to return to a more traditional approach to U.S. foreign policy. For the record, the United States has roughly 200,000 servicemen and women stationed overseas, with as many as 85,000 stationed in the greater Middle East. The United States has roughly 19,000 troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined.

Bernie Sanders has taken a tough line on Israel, at least in comparison with most American politicians. The Vermont senator’s criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu have been unpopular in some quarters. Sanders defended his opposition to Israeli policy toward the West Bank in op-ed that ran this week in Jewish Currents: “Opposing antisemitism is a core value of progressivism. So it’s very troubling to me that we are also seeing accusations of antisemitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives."

Sanders looks to be the only presidential challenger to speak about Bolivian President Evo Morales’s resignation and flight to Mexico this week. Sanders said he is “very concerned about what appears to be a coup in Bolivia, where the military, after weeks of political unrest, intervened to remove President Evo Morales. The U.S. must call for an end to violence and support Bolivia’s democratic institutions." Whether recent developments in Bolivia constitute a coup is a matter of debate. Sanders has been a critic of U.S. policy in Latin America since the early 1980s.

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What the Pundits Are Saying

C.K. Hickey and Shayna Greene looked at which presidential campaigns employees of the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State and members of the U.S. military are donating to. While Biden is winning over foreign policy luminaries, he comes in fourth place on this list. The top three, in order, are Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren. President Donald Trump comes in fourth. These donations aren’t likely to be game changers in a campaign in which candidates spent millions. Sanders’s total contributions? $212,472.

Paul R. Pillar, a longtime CIA officer and currently a nonresident senior fellow at both the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, argued in the National Interest that Democratic candidates should be talking more about foreign policy because that’s where presidents have the most power.

The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman used the latest episode of his podcast to interview Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution about how Sanders and Warren would approach foreign policy. Wright argues that Sanders and Warren have a unique focus on a transnational struggle for the middle class against "kleptocratic, authoritarian forces" and that both talk about strengthening U.S. diplomacy while dodging the question of how they will get diplomatic leverage over countries that won’t be moved by mere words.

The Washington Post asked thirty-two journalists and scholars to write short essays assessing the Democratic Party’s progressive turn. Two of the respondents targeted foreign policy. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation, argued that “Democrats are actually moving both left and right on foreign policy … The majority will want to shore up our alliances and strengthen our diplomatic clout, but when it becomes apparent just how much that clout depends on the credible use of force, they are likely to balk.” Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and once an office mate of mine, wrote: “Like their arch-nemesis, progressive Democrats want to end the nation’s ‘endless’ wars and to avoid future military interventions, especially in the Middle East. Like Trump, they are skeptical of the benefits of free trade and believe that the international economic system has been ‘rigged’ to benefit ‘globalist’ elites. And, like Trump, they want to focus on ‘making America great again’ or, as they might prefer, on ‘nation-building at home.’”

Campaign Update

The field is now set for next Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta. Ten candidates will be on the stage, two fewer than at last month’s debate in Ohio. Biden will hold the center spot, flanked by Sanders and Warren. MSNBC and the Washington Post are hosting the two-hour debate. The four moderators are Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Ashley Parker, and Kristen Welker.

Deval Patrick, the former two-term governor of Massachusetts and currently managing director at the private equity firm Bain Capital, joined the Democratic presidential race on Thursday. (If Bain Capital sounds familiar, that’s because former Republican presidential nominee and current Utah Senator Mitt Romney was its co-founder.) Writing a profile of Patrick’s foreign policy views is now on my list of things to do.

Michael Bloomberg filed for the Alabama presidential primary last Friday. The former New York mayor hasn’t formally entered the race, and he may never do so. That didn’t stop the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin from writing that Bloomberg’s close relationship with Chinese leaders “shows why he can’t be president.” Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter, surveyed Bloomberg’s record and concluded that “on foreign policy and many national security issues” he “remains a blank.”

As new candidates enter the race, Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman, announced he was ending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He was in the race for less than ten weeks. Former Iowa Congressman Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld remain the only two Republican challengers to President Donald Trump

There are 80 days until the Iowa caucuses, and 354 until Election Day.

Margaret Gach helped in the preparation of this post.

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