War Stories

Worldly and Wise

When it came to foreign policy, Hillary Clinton won the night.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, 2015. 

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

One impression from Tuesday night’s Democratic debate: Vice President Joe Biden has no rationale to step into the race. If he’s been waiting until after this first prime-time test to see if Hillary Clinton collapsed, he must have seen for himself that she crushed it.

When the debate turned to foreign and military policy, she had no peers on the stage. The few times she waffled or equivocated, her rivals were no more forceful in their answers or didn’t know enough about the issues to challenge her.

Her first answer was her weakest of the night. Asked how she would respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military actions in Syria, she said, “We need to stand up to his bullying” and “make it very clear” that “it’s unacceptable for him to be inside Syria, creating more chaos.” She also applauded the Obama administration’s attempts to talk with Russia so it can be “part of the solution” and “provide safe zones.” Finally, she said, “We have to take more of a leadership position.”

In other words, she said nothing. But she paid no cost for her uncharacteristic incoherence. Sen. Bernie Sanders called Syria “a quagmire in a quagmire” (an apt description), passionately opposed sending U.S. ground troops to the area (a position no one had taken), but also said he supported Obama’s airstrikes. So he said nothing either.

Lincoln Chafee, the most bumbling player of the night, said he couldn’t trust Clinton as a leader because she’d voted to authorize the war in Iraq, which he called “the worst decision in American history.” (Worse than the decision to go to Vietnam?) Clinton recalled that, in the 2008 race, she’d debated this issue against fellow candidate Barack Obama—and after she lost, he “asked me to be his secretary of state, he valued my judgment.” When former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley chimed in with Chafee, Clinton noted that he didn’t seem to have a problem with her when he endorsed her for president in 2008. (Game, set.)

Sanders was asked under what circumstances he would use military force. He noted that he’d voted for President Bill Clinton’s airstrikes to protect Kosovo and for the invasion of Afghanistan. In general, though, he would use force “when our country is threatened or our allies are threatened,” though even then, only in coalitions, adding, “I do not support taking unilateral military action.” It wasn’t completely clear, but he seemed to be saying he wouldn’t take unilateral action against threats to “our country”—not a winning, or acceptable, view for a commander-in-chief.

Former Sen. James Webb seemed to be gambling on the proposition that a superhawk might have a chance in the Democratic Party. He not only opposed the Iran nuclear deal but also blamed it in part for the recent intensification of the Syrian crisis. (He has a point that, with the end of sanctions, the deal might open up avenues of Iran’s expansion in the region, but the sanctions are still in place, and Iran’s stake in Syria is hardly new.) Then he pivoted to the threat from China, bellowing to those watching in Beijing, “You do not run the South China Sea!”

Clinton handled the inevitable Benghazi question well. First, she explained the roots of U.S. involvement in Libya: NATO and Arab allies begged us to get involved, the Libyan people faced an imminent threat of massacre, and NATO allies promised they would take the lead in rebuilding the country after the shooting stopped. She even called Obama’s decision to act “smart power at its best.” (The allies’ promise to rebuild didn’t work out.) On Benghazi directly, she said bad things happen, “unless you think that the United States shouldn’t send diplomats to dangerous areas”—and she said this without sounding heartless or flip.

She also rightly denounced the House committee investigating her emails as “an arm of the Republican National Committee.” She received an assist from Sanders, who said, “Hillary Clinton is right. The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” (Someone tweeted that Sanders just clinched Clinton’s appointment as ambassador to Cuba.)

All in all, it wasn’t the most sophisticated debate on foreign policy in the history of American elections, but it wasn’t bad, and it ranked on the level of a college seminar compared with the grade-school antics of the Republican candidates’ chest-puffing festivals.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic primary debate.