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O'Malley lays out foreign policy vision

O'Malley first declared Democratic presidential candidate to give a traditional speech exclusively on foreign policy.

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley laid out his foreign policy vision in his most extensive remarks on international affairs to date at the Truman Project, a progressive national security group in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

As a former governor of Maryland, O’Malley has arguably less direct foreign policy experience than his Democratic rivals. Front-runner Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state, while the rest of the field served in the Senate, which has a constitutional role in making and approving foreign policy. 

But O'Malley was the first declared Democratic presidential candidate to give a traditional speech exclusively on foreign policy, and he used the remarks Friday to bolster his credentials and to subtly distinguish himself from Clinton. 

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The former governor called for a more holistic approach to national security — which he argues should go beyond typical military threats to include dangers like climate change, infectious pandemics, droughts, and cybersecurity. And traditionally economic issues like immigration and energy policy should also be viewed as key national security concerns, he added.

After years of war, “it’s understandable that many Americans would like to disengage from the world around us. That’s understandable, but it’s not responsible,” he said. He detailed a range of threats to the U.S., including the so-called Islamic State, which he called “a gang of murderous thugs who have perverted one of the world’s great religions."

The U.S. national security structure, which was created after World War II, was organized in a way that did not account for these modern-day threats. O’Malley called for a “new National Security Act,” the Truman-era law that made sweeping reorganizations of the basic structure of the military in 1947.

“Development, defense, diplomacy; they all stand together as equal parts of our national security – or at least they should,” he said.

O'Malley drew on his experience as governor where possible, discussing his work on combating various threats and calling for training National Guard troops to take a lead on cybersecurity in the U.S. homeland. "Critical infrastructure remains extremely vulnerable to hackers,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that he had more learning to do. "This time is not exclusively for questions! If you have answers, we would really like to hear your answers,” he quipped at the start of a question-and-answer session, which was open only to participants and not the press.

While he never mentioned her name, O’Malley drew some apparent contrasts between himself and Clinton.

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The Iraq War, which Clinton voted to approve in the Senate, “will be remembered as one of the most tragic, deceitful, and costly blunders in U.S. history,” he said. The former governor added that the war would not have been possible without the “appalling silence of the good,” quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

He even invoked the Benghazi terror attack, which occurred under Clinton's watch, but retreated from the issue quickly. "There are real lessons to be learned from the tragedy,” he said.

O’Malley’s campaign denied that his comments were a veiled rebuke of the Clinton. “This was not a speech about Hillary Clinton and the State Department,” O’Malley’s senior foreign policy adviser Doug Wilson told reporters afterwards.

Wilson is also the chairman of the board of advisers for the Truman Project.

“This governor has traveled. He has met with foreign leaders. He has met with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Wilson said, of O’Malley’s foreign policy credentials. “So I think he feels that he has qualifications in this area. He may not be a Bookings Institution policy wonk, but he is somebody who has a sense of the realities of the world.”

Proving foreign policy chops is a challenge familiar to every governor who runs for president. But American nonetheless tend to nominate and elect governors for the presidency more often than senators or candidates from other jobs. 

The Truman Project, which trains many young progressive foreign policy operatives, invited all Democratic presidential candidates to speak. Top Clinton policy aide Jake Sullivan will speak Friday, but not on behalf of the campaign. Vice President Biden, who is still considering a presidential run, spoke Thursday evening.