A recent NBC News poll found that only 11 percent of Democrats consider terrorism the most important issue in the presidential race, and only 5 percent cite foreign policy overall.
Perhaps that’s why Bernie Sanders didn’t seem worried about his fumbling foreign-policy performance when he debated Hillary Clinton just days before the New Hampshire primary. After all, his campaign has soared beyond expectations thanks to his railing against rising inequality and Wall Street.
But given Sanders’ success and the unpredictable nature of this election year, his grasp of foreign policy — or lack thereof — should be of concern to voters. What little of it emerged Thursday night revealed a candidate who seems removed from the realities of the wider world.
This is not surprising since his career as a Vermont congressman and senator has been heavily focused on domestic issues. NBC’s Chuck Todd told him that “nobody knows who your foreign-policy advisers are.” Figuring that out has become something of a parlor game in Washington, where several people cited by Sanders aides say they have had no contact with the senator. Sanders offered no clues.
When Todd noted that the candidate hadn’t given a major foreign-policy speech, Sanders responded that he gave one about democratic socialism and foreign policy at Georgetown. He conceded that it might have been better not to have combined the two in the same speech.
The senator was far more comfortable promoting the domestic themes that have propelled him into a tight race with Clinton. He kept evading the question of how long the United States should leave troops in Afghanistan, and he stumbled when talking about fighting ISIS or dealing with North Korea — referring to the country’s “several dictators” before correcting himself.
Sanders backed off the gaffes of a previous debate, when he suggested that the Saudis and Iranians should join against ISIS. (They are bitter enemies fighting proxy wars.) This time, he noted that the two countries “hate each other.” He also downplayed his previous call for an “aggressive” U.S. pursuit of normalization with Iran.
Yet his weak grasp of the details of the fight against jihadis was painful to witness.
Of course, some will argue that this doesn’t matter because a President Sanders could rally a whole cadre of Democratic policy wonks to advise him. Others will point to Sanders’ signature retort when Clinton accuses him of lacking her level of experience. “Experience is not the only point,” Sanders said. “Judgment is. Back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way, and one of us didn’t.”
Sorry, while that war was misbegotten, and while Republicans still refuse to admit their Iraq mistakes, a no vote is an insufficient basis for a foreign policy. Sanders is rightly worried about “perpetual warfare within the quagmire of Syria and Iraq,” but that can’t be an excuse for failing to confront the growing ISIS threat.
Indeed, Sanders shows signs of the same wishful thinking that has undercut President Obama’s foreign policy. Like Obama, he doesn’t want to be distracted by foreign crises such as ISIS. Like Obama, he wants someone else to solve the Mideast’s problems: He’s suggested the Europeans, Saudis, Iranians, and Russians — yes, the Russians.
At the debate, he stated that “the key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be no, we cannot continue to do it alone; we need to work in coalition.”
That was Obama’s hope, too. He subcontracted the Saudis to train the Syrian opposition, and they armed Islamists. He hoped the Russians would rescue him in Syria. Instead, Vladimir Putin has backed his proxy Bashar al-Assad to the hilt and is on the verge of destroying the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition while failing to attack ISIS. Putin’s policies have also blown up talks aimed at producing a cease-fire — talks on which Obama pinned his hopes, and which Sanders praises.
Sanders’ goals are not bad. No one wants another “quagmire,” nor does Clinton advocate sending ground troops to the region (as opposed to U.S. military trainers, special forces, and air support, which Sanders also endorses). But what the senator misses is that a U.S. leader can’t wish a coalition into existence. He can’t ignore reality when such a coalition can’t function.
Sometimes Washington has to take the lead because there is no other option. And sometimes, to convince friends and foes that America is serious, Washington has to have skin in the game.
Nor can a U.S. leader turn his attention away from threats such as ISIS that endanger the homeland in order to focus on domestic issues. He can’t afford to “pivot” from the Mideast when it remains so problematic.
Obama did that, and it helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. The country can’t afford another president who makes such mistakes.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.