The foreign policy of US Democrats ahead of election primaries

At the moment, only four of the six candidates have a shot at winning the democratic nomination

WHO WILL lead the Democrats? (photo credit: REUTERS)
WHO WILL lead the Democrats?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is now primary season for Democrats in the run-up to the US presidential elections, and the party’s focus has predictably been on domestic rather than foreign affairs. This pattern is now changing in the wake of the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani and President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian “Deal of the Century.” In the seventh and last television debate before the Iowa primary, the six remaining candidates finally debated major foreign policy issues.
So far, none of the candidates has offered a detailed coherent foreign policy platform. The television debate did, however, reveal a few common elements, as did interviews the candidates have given and public statements they have made. Despite their differences, they largely agree about what the US should do after the elections: the opposite of everything President Trump has been attempting to accomplish.
At the moment, only four of the six candidates have a shot at winning the democratic nomination: former president Barack Obama’s VP Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The following analysis is based on statements made by these candidates.
The four can be divided into two ideological groups: Biden and Buttigieg are “moderate restorationists,” meaning they want to restore the US role and functions in foreign affairs to what they were before Trump.
Sanders and Warren are “radical renovators,” meaning they believe the present US government system is totally broken and must be replaced with a “progressive” system. In foreign affairs, this means fundamental transformation of the American role in the world. The candidates’ foreign policy positions are derived from these respective ideologies.
All four candidates severely criticize Trump for his handling of foreign affairs – both his global outlook and his specific decisions on issues and regions. They all believe the US must repair relations with allies, especially European countries; restore the role of diplomacy; work with international organizations, primarily the UN and its agencies; reduce spending for the military; limit presidential authority to use force; reduce or completely withdraw US forces from the Middle East; and restore the nuclear deal with Iran.
Sanders said, “Our job is to rebuild the UN, rebuild the State Department, make sure that we have the capability of bringing the world together to resolve international conflict diplomatically, and stop the endless wars that we have experienced.”
Warren agreed. Biden and Buttigieg used more moderate and realistic language to make essentially the same point. None of them, however, has explained how they intend to accomplish these goals, especially when dealing with hostile states like Iran and North Korea and aggressive powers like Russia and China.
“Bringing the world together” is a naïve idea that belongs to the immediate post-WWII era, and the UN and many of its agencies are highly politicized, corrupt and ineffective.
While all the candidates call for the withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East, they differ on scope, timing and places. All support the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Warren wanted to bring back all US troops from the Middle East immediately because “we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”
BIDEN DISTINGUISHED between combat troops and Special Forces, and between states and terrorists. He criticized Trump for pulling out forces from the Syria-Turkish border area and said he would leave Special Forces in the region to fight ISIS and other terrorist organizations as well as small naval forces to patrol the Gulf. Buttigieg supported the deployment of forces but “without having an endless commitment of ground troops.” Diplomacy not supported by credible force, however, can’t help solve serious international conflicts.
Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
All the candidates criticize Trump’s targeted killing of Soleimani, claiming he should have first consulted with Congress, and that his action brought the US and Iran closer to war. The first argument is controversial, and the second turned out to be highly exaggerated. All agree that Iran shouldn’t be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and believe the nuclear deal negotiated by Obama was good and effective.
Biden criticized Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and renewal of sanctions, and said that after the elections the US should restore the alliance that negotiated the deal and “insist that Iran go back into the agreement.”
Sanders echoed the same ideas: “I would re-enter the agreement on day one of my presidency and then work with the P5+1 and Iran to build upon it with additional measures to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.”
Given these commitments, it is no wonder that the extreme Islamic regime in Tehran is yearning for a Democratic win in the 2020 elections.
All the candidates strongly criticized Trump’s peace plan. Biden said, “This is a political stunt that could spark unilateral moves to annex territory and set back peace even more.”
Sanders stated that Trump’s so-called “peace deal” will only perpetuate the conflict and “is unacceptable.”
Warren added, “Trump’s ‘peace plan’ is a rubber stamp for annexation and offers no chance for a real Palestinian state. I will oppose unilateral annexation in any form – and reverse any policy that supports it.”
Buttigieg also censured the plan as “undermining a workable solution to the conflict.” One would think that Democratic presidents did offer “workable solutions.”
Sanders and Warren said they would use American aid to Israel to pressure Jerusalem into changing its policy. They specifically cited annexation of West Bank territory as a cause to suspend or reduce aid. Biden, however, opposes all these ideas and calls them “absolutely outrageous.” Buttigieg also opposes this measure.
If Biden or Buttigieg win the Democratic nomination, they are likely to adopt a foreign policy similar to that of Obama. If Sanders or Warren win, they will adopt a radical approach involving major changes in foreign policy.
A hybrid ticket in which the presidential and VP nominees are divided between “moderate restorationists” and “radical renovators” could expose the president, should the Democrats ultimately win the election, to substantial influence from the other ideological camp. No matter who the nominee turns out to be, a Democratic win in the general election could radically change US policy toward Israel and the Middle East. No matter who wins the election in Israel, the new Israeli government should prepare well for this possible outcome.
The writer is an expert on American politics and foreign policy and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. A longer version of this article was published in the Perspectives Papers of the BESA Center.