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The 7 weirdest foreign policy moments from the 2015 Democratic debate

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Tuesday night's CNN Democratic debate focused pretty heavily on domestic policy. That makes sense: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the others disagree the most on issues on like guns and the future of American capitalism, and they had interesting and productive debates there.

The foreign policy section of the debate, by contrast, was often bizarre. Many of the candidates gave outright incoherent answers, including one especially bizarre rant about China (cough cough Jim Webb). To make matters stranger, the candidates shied away from challenging frontrunner Hillary Clinton on her hawkish foreign policy instincts — the very issue Barack Obama beat her on in the 2008 primary.

This weirdness reveals a lot about the state of the Democratic debate. These candidates can't really figure out a good way to attack Clinton on issues like Syria. That's partly because they're hardly the best competition the party has to offer. The best of them, Sanders, is running to force a debate on economic inequality; he doesn't really care as much about foreign affairs.

To show you what I mean, here are seven of the weirdest and most telling foreign policy moments from last night:

1) When Hillary Clinton defended her support for the 2003 Iraq invasion by referencing her time in the Obama administration — and no one called her on it

Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue [Iraq]. After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.

2) When Jim Webb got in a fight with Anderson Cooper over his right to ignore the debate rules and give an angry, off-topic lecture to China's leaders

WEBB: If you want a place where we need to be in terms of our national strategy, a focus, the greatest strategic threat that we have right now is resolving our relationship with China. And we need to do this because of their aggression in the region. We need to do it because of the way they treat their own people.

COOPER: Senator...

WEBB: And I would say this. I've been waiting for 10 minutes. I will say this.

COOPER: You're over your time as of now.

WEBB: I will — well, you've let a lot of people go over their time. I would say this...

COOPER: You agreed to these debate rules.

WEBB: ... 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.

3) When Clinton gave a blatantly incoherent answer on her Trans-Pacific Partnership flip-flop — and, again, no one called her out

COOPER: You supported [TPP] dozens of times. You even called it the "gold standard". Now, suddenly, last week, you're against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

CLINTON: Well, actually, I have been very consistent...You know, take the trade deal. I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn't meet my standards. My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans.

And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, "this will help raise your wages." And I concluded I could not.

4) When Lincoln Chafee promised to "end the wars" without explaining which wars or how

lincoln chafee

Lincoln Chafee. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

COOPER: Name the one thing — the one way that your administration would not be a third term of President Obama.

CHAFEE: Certainly, ending the wars. We've got to stop these wars. You have to have a new dynamic, a new paradigm. We just spent a half-billion dollars arming and training soldiers, the rebel soldiers in Syria. They quickly join the other side. We bombed the...

COOPER: President Obama's generals right now are suggesting keeping troops in Afghanistan after the time he wanted them pulled out. Would you keep them there?

CHAFEE: I'd like to finish my question — my answer.

And also we just bombed a hospital. We've had drone strikes that hit civilian weddings. So I would change how we — our approach to the Middle East. We need a new paradigm in the Middle East.

5) When Webb blamed "bad body language" and "destabilized ethnic elements" for Russia's intervention in Syria

Look, let's start — I've been trying to get in this conversation for about 10 minutes — let's start with why Russia is in Syria right now. There are three strategic failings that have allowed this to occur. The first was the invasion of Iraq, which destabilized ethnic elements in Iraq and empowered Iran. The second was the Arab Spring, which created huge vacuums in Libya and in Syria that allowed terrorist movements to move in there.

And the third was 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.

6) When Bernie Sanders defined his foreign policy approach as pretty much identical to Obama's

I am not a pacifist, Anderson. I supported the war in Afghanistan. I supported President Clinton's effort to deal with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I support air strikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do.

Yes, I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that war should be the last resort; that we have got to exercise diplomacy. But yes, I am prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary.

7) When Martin O'Malley said that "Assad's invasion of Syria" would prove to be a mistake

o'malley FISH THIS BIG Joe Raedle/Getty

"I caught a fish THIS BIG." (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

COOPER: Does she — does she [Clinton] want to use military force too rapidly?

O'MALLEY: I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake. You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think Assad's invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.