Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress presidential forum in Washington on Monday. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Columnist

The upcoming Democratic Party presidential debates will be a test not only for the candidates but also for the moderators. Will the hosts rely on “gotcha” questions that might create big ratings and viral clips? Or, will they probe the substantive policy and strategy differences that might help voters get a clearer sense of where the candidates stand? When it comes to foreign policy issues, it seems there’s little reason to hope.

One central question, for example, is what Fareed Zakaria calls the “self-destruction of American power.” In summary, how did the U.S. blow its end of history, “unipolar,” “indispensable nation” moment at the end of the Cold War and instead bumble into one folly after another, leaving us mired in endless wars without victory, headed into a new arms race against both Russia and China, and chasing terrorists across the world, all while lavishing hundreds of billions on a military that seems unable to win a war? An accounting is called for, as well as a clear inquiry of what the candidates would change going forward.

Yet to date, the mainstream media has been remarkably impervious to this reality. Instead, the candidates who have indicted the past failures — particularly Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — have been strafed. Meanwhile, those calamities’ champions — former vice president Joe Biden, among many other contenders — have largely been given a pass.

For example, the New York Times featured an interview with Sanders that grilled him about his opposition to Ronald Reagan’s contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Post reported on a 1988 official delegation that Sanders, as mayor of Burlington, Vt., took to the Soviet Union to establish a “sister city” with Yaroslavl in that country, suggesting that the trip was a “formative time for Sanders, foreshadowing much of what animates his presidential bid.”

What neither article notes is that Sanders got it right: Reagan’s illegal covert war against the elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua was a brutal disgrace, one eventually shut down by Congress. Burlington was one of hundreds of American cities that created sister-city relations with cities in the Soviet Union, citizen diplomacy linked to the nuclear freeze movement that opposed Reagan’s nuclear-arms buildup and his bellicose posturing against the Soviet Union.

As one of the front-runners in the Democratic race, Sanders’s views and history are of course fair game. Largely missing, however, is recognition that, for decades, Sanders has been a prescient opponent of what turned out to be ruinous, largely bipartisan follies. He voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement, opposed admitting China into the World Trade Organization without conditions and scorned the celebration of trade policies made by, for and with the global corporations and banks. He correctly warned that expanding NATO toward the Russian border would cause a fierce reaction. He opposed Reagan’s wasteful military buildup. He voted against the invasion of Iraq, surely the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. He co-led the bipartisan effort to end U.S. complicity in Saudi Arabia’s ravaging of Yemen. These views — often at odds with the foreign policy establishment of both parties — would have saved the U.S. thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Aside from Sanders, Gabbard has centered her presidential bid on challenging the failures of the past and the present. Having deployed to the Middle East twice with the Army National Guard, she is a forceful opponent of regime change and U.S. intervention. She sensibly argued that the Islamic State posed a real threat, suggesting that the United States cooperate with Russia and Syria and Iran in fighting it, rather than arming al-Qaeda-linked forces in the effort to bring about regime change in Syria. She has warned against the “ever-escalating tensions” that leave the United States on “the brink of nuclear war” and called for averting the descent into a new cold war with Russia. Yet her courage in questioning the establishment’s follies was met with articles alleging that Gabbard had the backing of “Russia’s propaganda machine.”

Contrast all this to the treatment accorded Biden. Biden is generally hailed for his extensive experience in foreign policy as vice president and as a senator, including more than a decade as the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Yet his record is full of mistakes about almost every big foreign policy question. He favored NAFTA, China in the WTO and to this day prides himself as a “free trader.” He voted for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. As vice president, though he correctly opposed intervention in Libya, he supported Saudi Arabia’s savaging of Yemen and backed airstrikes on Syria without congressional authorization.

Now, once again, Sanders, Gabbard and others disagree with Biden and the establishment. Sanders and Gabbard favor pulling the troops from Afghanistan and Syria and strongly oppose the Trump administration’s efforts at regime change in Venezuela and President Trump’s impulsive bumbling toward war with Iran. Biden hasn’t commented in some time on Afghanistan or Syria, while seemingly backing regime change in Venezuela.

Rather than keep his campaign promise to end “stupid wars,” Trump has left troops in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, and he seems intent on regime change in Venezuela and potentially in Iran, as well. He perversely denies the clear and present threat posed by catastrophic climate change. Every Democratic candidate offers a preferable alternative. Yet, it is hard to think of a candidate less able to credibly challenge Trump’s escalations than Biden.

Biden, of course, now labels his vote on Iraq as a “mistake.” He has slowly adjusted his views on globalization. He has sensibly learned to be less credulous about intervention. Much of the mainstream media — which echoed the establishment’s support for these follies — is happy to write off the errors, while continuing to dismiss those outside the consensus who got it right. Let’s hope that debate moderators buck that trend and focus on these substantive differences both about the past and the present.

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