What does the Democratic presidential debate tell us about where the Democratic Party stands on national security policy?

It sure isn’t where Jim Webb is. Most of the evening, he sounded as if he would have been more comfortable in the Republican debate. A classic Jacksonian, Webb opposes humanitarian interventions such as the one in Libya or interventions such as the one in Iraq, which he does not believe are firmly grounded in an interest in American self-defense, narrowly defined. But he is a ferocious opponent of America’s enemies. One of the best lines of the night came when he was asked which enemies he was most proud of (a question to which the hapless Lincoln Chaffee answered “I guess the coal lobby”). Said Webb:  “I’d have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around right now to talk to.” Webb was underlining the fact that he’s the only presidential candidate in either party who has actually killed a man or even served in combat.

Webb was more withering than some of his GOP counterparts in denouncing “the recent deal allowing Iran to move forward and eventually acquire a nuclear weapon, which sent bad signals, bad body language into the region about whether we are acquiescing in Iran becoming a stronger piece of the formula in that part of the world.” He also went out of his way — and rightly so — to denounce “the unelected, authoritarian government of China,” telling Beijing: “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.”

Webb also embraced an energy policy utterly at odds with what most Democrats think. He did not walk away from his advocacy of offshore oil drilling, and he put in a plug for nuclear power. Then he pointed out that the U.S. cannot solve global warming by itself: “If you look at China and India, they’re the greatest polluters in the world. Fifteen out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in one of those two countries.”

Such sentiments would have put Webb in the mainstream of the Democratic Party in the days of FDR, Truman, and JFK — but no longer. The Democrats have moved left, just as the Republicans have moved right.

The views of most grassroots Democrats were voiced by Bernie Sanders who often sounded — not only for what he said but how he said it, in a nasally accent — as if he were running for president not of the United States but of the borough of Brooklyn. Asked to name the greatest national security threat to the U.S., Sanders predictably cited “the global crisis of climate change.” (Twenty years ago, he probably would have cited hunger or poverty.) He came out against a no-fly zone in Syria, “which I think is a very dangerous situation. Could lead to real problems.” He supported the president’s deal with Iran and the president’s toothless policy in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, claiming, without a shred of evidence, that Putin “is already regretting what he did in Crimea and what he is doing in the Ukraine.” He even praised the traitor Edward Snowden, who shared some of our most sensitive national security secrets with our enemies: “I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.”

And of course, Sanders reiterated his undying opposition to the invasion of Iraq, an issue on which Hillary Clinton is perceived to be vulnerable because of her support for the invasion. “I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country,” Sanders said with his typical understatement. Really? Iraq was a worse blunder than the Vietnam War, which killed thirteen times as many American troops?

Sanders did make clear that he is not a pacifist — and he actually put himself to the right of Republican candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump, to the extent that they have any intelligible position, by saying that he supported military interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. But he undermined any impression that he is remotely hawkish by saying,  “I do not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action,” a position far more radical than the one that President Obama took during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns when he admitted that unilateral action might be necessary if the U.S. were attacked.

And where did Hillary Clinton come down? In the best traditions of the Clinton clan, she was triangulating madly between Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders — or, put another way, she was trying to outflank Obama (and by implication his vice president, Joe Biden, should he run) on both the left and the right.

She was not pressed hard on any of the issues where she was vulnerable such as the email scandal or her lack of tangible achievements as secretary of state. But when forced to defend the disastrous Libya intervention, which she strongly supported, she came out with a jaw-dropping boast, claiming that it “was smart power at its best.” By this, she apparently meant that the U.S. was not taking the lead; it was “leading from behind.” But can anyone looking at Libya today — an utterly lawless land torn apart by incessant militia fighting — really claim that this is what “smart power” should look like? Jim Webb summed it up beautifully when he said: “If people think it was a wise thing to do, try to get to the Tripoli airport today. You can’t do it.”

Clinton naturally genuflected toward the issue of climate change, recounting with some hyperbole how in Copenhagen in 2009 “literally, President Obama and I were hunting for the Chinese” to get them to sign a climate-change agreement that has turned out to be predictably toothless. (“Literally… hunting… Chinese”?) But at least Clinton did not give into the temptation to describe climate change as our No. 1 national security issue as Sanders did and as National Security Adviser Susan Rice recently did. More persuasively, she said, “I think it has to be continued threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands.”

Unlike Sanders, Clinton also forthrightly condemned Snowden: “He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that… In addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.”

Clinton showed that she has gotten to the left of President Obama by opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which she advocated as secretary of state, and no doubt would advocate again as president) and the Keystone pipeline (“I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone” — a classic rhetorical fudge to disguise her incessant flip-flopping).  But she also got to Obama’s right on Syria and Russia. She said, “We have to stand up to his bullying,” in reference to Putin’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria — a nice bit of toughness even if she never said how she would do it. “I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table,” she also said, a consideration that, it seems, has utterly eluded the incumbent president.

Clinton reiterated her call for “safe zones” and no-fly zones in Syria, which Obama recently called a “half-baked idea” that Hillary was pursuing for political reasons. In fact, it’s hard to see any political benefit to Clinton in the Democratic primary from taking this tough stance — there are as few Jim Webb Democrats left today as there are Rockefeller Republicans — so her position is admirable and, unlike so many of her other stances, not cynically calculated.

Beyond what was said I was struck by what was missing in the debate: No discussion of whether troops should remain in Afghanistan after 2016, no discussion of whether the defense budget should continue to be cut, no discussion of whether we are doing enough to fight ISIS. Perhaps that’s the fault of the moderator, Anderson Cooper, who otherwise did a fine job. But maybe it’s also a reflection of the fact that these issues don’t loom very large for most Democrats. I was also struck by all the mentions of the 2003 Iraq invasion — a way for Democrats to denounce Clinton, Bush et al. — without any mention of the 2007 surge, which Clinton (like Biden and all the declared candidates) opposed. That opposition is all the more inexcusable from someone who supported the invasion in the first place. It suggests a leader who will blow with the winds of public sentiment when challenged by tough enemies.

In sum, Hillary Clinton did not emerge as very hawkish and certainly not as hawkish as Jim Webb, but she did position herself as being more centrist and moderate than the other Democratic candidates and (probably) the majority of Democratic primary voters. Those are assets that will serve her well in a general election, along with the skill she demonstrated in mastering a brief and sticking to her message. If she wins the nomination (as still seems likely), she is not going to be the pushover that some Republicans imagine. She is going to be a formidable competitor, and the Republicans had better nominate their best candidate to tangle with her. That isn’t Ben Carson or Donald Trump, neither of whom would be able to keep up with Clinton’s ability to rattle off facts and arguments.


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