The new Pacific trade deal? China? The massive Syrian refugee crisis? Cyber warfare? These are just a few of the emerging national security topics that barely got a mention, much less any substantive discussion, by the five Democratic candidates in their debate Tuesday night.
While foreign policy and defense are at the heart of a president serving as commander-in-chief, the relative lack of discussion on these topics underscored the small role they are currently playing in the Democratic primary.
When the debate did turn to foreign policy issues, it mostly focused on areas that have been heavily debated. That includes Hillary Clinton’s 2002 decision to vote for the Iraq war, the long-running debate over the 2012 Benghazi attacks and Clinton’s role in the controversy and whether to support more engagement and a no-fly zone in Syria, which Clinton supports but the other candidates, along with President Obama, do not.
The debate provided little insight into how the candidates would handle emerging foreign policy issues, such as economic and security threats from Asia, Russian expansionism in Europe, the tide of refugees fleeing war zones where the United States is involved and bolstering the country’s cyber defenses.
CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper tried to steer the conversation toward those topics occasionally, such as when he asked Clinton if her decision to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership after earlier supporting the pact meant she would “say anything to get elected.” But it was just one example of several he included in his question, and Clinton was able to address it with a simple note that she didn’t think it would help increase wages for U.S. workers.
There was little talk of China even though its economic heft, aggressive moves in the South China Sea and support for hackers are causing consternation in Washington, which has led the White House to consider imposing cyber-related sanctions on the country. This stands in contrast to the second GOP debate where the challenges posed by China were more thoroughly vetted.
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb did try a few times to steer the attention toward China, even naming it as the greatest long-term threat to the United States.
“I would say this to the unelected, authoritarian government of China: You do not own the South China Sea. You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of American citizens. And in a Webb administration, we will do something about that,” he said.
Other Democrats on stage did not follow Webb’s lead, so a focus on China fell to the wayside.
Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, was also the only Democrat to attempt to talk about cyber-anything. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees got zero mentions. Those topics didn’t get a very thorough airing at the Republican debates, but they did come up as areas in which some Republicans were asked to take and defend their stance.
There also wasn’t much talk about what the Democrats would do to reshape the U.S. military – just whether or not they would use it in certain situations. There was no discussion over what kind of battles the U.S. military should be preparing to defend against — an issue that is part of a bitter budget battle between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Republicans, meanwhile, have talked a lot about their competing visions for troop levels, naval and ground-war readiness and other military priorities.