Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and rival candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speak simultaneously at the NBC News - YouTube Democratic presidential candidates debate, Jan. 17, 2016. 
Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters

Sanders wrestles with Clinton on foreign policy


During the second hour of the NBC News-YouTube Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, candidates covered a wide range of foreign policy issues – from the nuclear deal with Iran, to the future of Syria, to relations with Russia.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders lauded the weekend implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, though each said that Iran would have to continue to prove itself before the U.S. should normalize relations. Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley each said they oppose committing significant numbers of American ground troops in Syria. And Clinton, recalling her time as secretary of state under President Obama, called Russia President Vladimir Putin a bully.

On all of these questions, Clinton either invoked her service under Obama or commended the administration’s work. Yet, despite her proximity to the key world events of the last seven years, the Democratic front-runner stopped short of offering simple answers.

Sanders, meanwhile, appeared ready to offer more.

“Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should,” Sanders said, regarding American relations with Iran.

Clinton was more measured. After first claiming credit for helping to arrange sanctions that the administration says pressured Iran into the deal, she said the U.S. needs to “carefully watch” the country. ”We’ve had one good day over 36 years,” Clinton said.

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Clinton and Sanders also agreed on the question of whether they would support a significant number of U.S. ground troops to Syria.

“Absolutely not,” Clinton said, before running through a plan for Syria first unveiled during a November talk at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But again Sanders said it louder, calling the notion of U.S. troops in Syria a nightmare. “What the nightmare is, which many of my Republican colleagues appear to want, is not to have learned the lesson of Iraq,” Sanders said, “to get American young men and women involved in perpetual warfare in the quagmire of Syria and the Middle East.”

On the question of how to resolve the war in Syria, Clinton offered detail and context that Sanders could not, proposing direct U.S. partnerships with each of the three prominent ethnic groups fighting inside Iraq.

Sanders, as he’s done in prior debates, appealed vaguely to the example of Jordan, a neighboring state that has committed fighter jets to the war effort and added that other states in the region have to pull their weight.

“They have got to start putting in some skin in the game and not just ask the United States to do it!” Sanders said of oil-rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia.

O’Malley was similarly short on specifics, proposing that the U.S. needs to form “new alliances” in the war against ISIS and terrorist groups, but did not elaborate. O’Malley also bemoaned the lack of human intelligence coming out of the region, though he also did not say how U.S. intelligence agencies could produce more information from inside a group that has made its reputation beheading foreign prisoners and spies.

Sanders offered his strongest points yet on foreign policy Sunday, but it may not be enough to propel him to victory in the upcoming primary contests. Still, it’s a sign of what Clinton will be faced with – and potentially harmed by – in a general election if she doesn’t ramp up her explanations of Obama’s policies. 

Asked Sunday whether Syrian dicator Bashar al-Assad should have been allowed to remain in power after U.S. officials determined he had used chemical weapons – crossing what Obama had earlier called a red-line – Clinton defended Obama’s decision to let the Russians broker a deal with Syria, which promised to get rid of the country’s chemical weapons.

“I think as commander in chief you have got to be constantly evaluating the decisions you have to make,” Clinton said.