PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire -- Facing scrutiny for his lack of foreign policy experience, Bernie Sanders fired back at critics Sunday afternoon with the one issue he has used to vouch for his national security judgment again and again.
“Lately, I’ve been getting lectured on foreign policy," Sanders said during a campaign rally where 1,220 people turned out. "The most important foreign policy issue in modern history was the war on Iraq. I was right on that issue; Hillary Clinton was wrong,”
Clinton and her campaign have stepped up their criticism of Sanders on foreign policy in recent days after he resisted naming the people advising him on foreign policy and seemed to struggle with some foreign policy questions in last week’s Democratic debate on MSNBC.
“There really isn’t any kind of foreign policy network that is supporting and advising Sen. Sander,” Clinton said on NBC’s “Meet the Press" earlier in the day.
Later, Clinton’s campaign held a conference call with reporters to slam what the campaign charged was Sanders’ lack of interest in foreign policy. “I think we need a commander in chief who understands the world's challenges,” said New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who is supporting Clinton and serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services committees.
Appearing separately on "Meet the Press," Sanders said it was too soon to get into specifics about whom he would appoint to top foreign policy posts as president. "I think it's a little bit premature to talk about who your secretary of defense is going to be,” he said, adding that he’s been “meeting a whole lot of people." Some of the names he did mention, including former Ronald Reagan administration appointee Larry Korb, have said they’ve barely spoken with Sanders.
But Sanders’ message is essentially that experience is less important than judgment, and when it came to the most important decision on foreign policy – the Iraq War – he got it right and Clinton did not.
At his rally, supporters acknowledged some discomfort with his lack of foreign policy experience, but otherwise shrugged it off, saying they trusted him to surround himself with smart, experienced people. And all of them said domestic issues were more important to them than foreign policy, anyway.
“I’m not going to say that I’m unconcerned,” said Trevor Carmichael, a 24-year-old student at Southern New Hampshire University, on Sanders’ foreign policy chops. “But her using it against him kind of shows her weakness on other issues that are resonating more.”
Tom Morin of Hopkington, a retired air traffic controller, said he wasn’t worried because Sanders understands government and knows enough to bring in the right people around him. “There’s also the ability to bring in people like Hillary,” he said, noting her superior experience.
Marc Potvin of Brentwood, New Hampshire, was reluctant to acknowledge that Clinton’s attacks on Sanders' foreign policy inexperience could cause damage, but said he still had more faith in Sanders than Clinton. “I just trust him more,” he said.
Denise Johnson, a 65-year-old who drove across the border from Maine, which has an early March caucus that Sanders aides are targeting, supported Clinton in 2008 and wanted to vote for a woman this time. “I’m trying to make my brain work for Hillary, and it’s just not getting there,” she said.
“I’m still a little bit wary of his foreign policy and international experience, but I’m going to trust that he’s an intelligent man who will get advisors to help him out,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island State Sen. James Sheehan, who is supporting Sanders, echoed the candidate in saying experience isn’t worth very much on its own. “How much foreign policy experience did Hillary Clinton have when she was made secretary of state? He’s now been in the Senate as long as she was,” Sheehan, adding that aside from Clinton, no candidate has more experience than being in the Senate.