Potential Democratic Presidential Candidates Begin Work On Foreign Policy

Dec 17, 2018
Originally published on December 17, 2018 7:12 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, before long, a whole lot of Democrats are going to be running for president. Of course foreign policy takes up a big part of every president's job. So with campaigns on the horizon, many of the Democratic contenders have been working to beef up their foreign policy resumes. Here's more from NPR's Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Last week, the Senate issued a major rebuke to both the Trump White House and Saudi Arabia. It voted to demand an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Leading the push - Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

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BERNIE SANDERS: That the constitutional responsibility for making war rests with the United States Congress, not the White House. Let us pass this resolution.

DETROW: When Sanders ran for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton's campaign regularly dinged him for seemingly avoiding all foreign policy. But since then, Sanders has made a point of spending a lot more time on it. Last year, he gave a big speech in Missouri laying out his approach to foreign policy. Notably, Sanders brought it back to the heart of his agenda - income inequality.

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SANDERS: Foreign policy must take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exist globally and in our own country.

DETROW: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren did the same thing a few weeks ago when she gave her big-picture foreign policy speech.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: And we need to end the fiction that our domestic and our foreign policies are somehow separate from each other and recognize that policies that undermine working families in this country also erode America's strength in the world.

DETROW: Warren called for a full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, a policy of never using nuclear weapons first and slashing the military's budget.

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WARREN: If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.

BEN RHODES: As with other elements of the Democratic Party, the more progressive wing of the party is beginning to frame the terms of the debate.

DETROW: Ben Rhodes worked as one of President Obama's top foreign policy advisers beginning in the 2008 campaign. In a recent memoir, Rhodes writes about how it often seemed like he was one of just a handful of people on the campaign even thinking about foreign policy. In most contests, it's important but a bit of a back-burner issue.

RHODES: You know, a candidate will essentially try to clear a bar, do enough to show that they have either the ideas or the qualifications or the experience to be commander in chief, to not made mistakes in debates, to potentially draw some contrast with the other candidates but not really devote a lot of time.

DETROW: A lot of that so-called bar-clearing happens on Senate committees. That's why the right assignments are so important for lawmakers eyeing the White House. From his perch on the Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has spent a lot of time advocating for human rights. He needled Mike Pompeo on the freedom of the press during the secretary of state's confirmation hearing, asking whether Pompeo would regularly meet with reporters.

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MIKE POMPEO: Yes.

CORY BOOKER: Great. And then when it comes to your posture towards the press as you travel internationally, you're going to become in many ways, like the American that you are, sort of an apostle of the idea of the free press.

POMPEO: Yes.

BOOKER: Yeah, thank you very much.

DETROW: There's no top-tier foreign policy divide within the party right now like there was on the Iraq War in 2004 and 2008, so Michele Flournoy says the bigger, more important contrast will be how the eventual nominee takes on President Trump. The longtime Pentagon official widely viewed as a possible future Democratic secretary of defense wants to see the Democratic nominee argue something like this.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: America's interests and values are not well-served when they try to go it alone or impose our will to threats and intimidation. Our strength is when we build coalitions and alliances of like-minded states.

DETROW: Trump's "America First" approach energized his supporters in 2016. And they see success as Trump has walked away from international agreement after international agreement. Ben Rhodes, who helped put many of those deals together, says it's all alienated key allies.

RHODES: But I think the rest of the world has looked at this and not just reacted to Trump being president. They've reacted to the fact that our country elected Trump, right? And the stability that people could count on the United States is suddenly gone.

DETROW: He says that all presents a major challenge to any Democrat if they're able to beat Trump. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

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