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Hillary Clinton's odd new Sanders attack shows the Democrats are a mess on foreign policy

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Hillary Clinton's campaign is going on the attack against Bernie Sanders, and somewhat oddly has chosen to hit him 1) from the right, even though this is the Democratic primary, and 2) on Iran policy, which is a pretty minor issue for Democratic voters.

Clinton's attack line also turns out to be false.

If all that seems bizarre and politically unsound to you, I had the same reaction. You would think this would all seem remarkably familiar to Clinton herself: In the 2008 Democratic primary, she tried to attack Barack Obama from the right on his Iran policy, using much the same argument. It didn't work then, either.

But more than just being a tactical campaign blunder, in my view, this reflects a broader problem for Clinton, and a problem Sanders also happens to share: Neither of them has any idea how to talk about foreign policy issues, either in the primary or, more problematically, in the general election, where they will be much more important.

Clinton's accusation is broadly false

The Clinton campaign's basic allegation is this: Sanders wants to normalize relations with Iran as soon as possible, and this shows his dangerously irresponsible foreign policy as well as his fundamental inability to win the general election.

Sanders "breaks with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that’s been working for the United States," Jake Sullivan, a senior Clinton policy adviser, said on Thursday. The Clinton campaign also released a statement signed by several former foreign policy officials condemning Sanders along the same lines.

Their evidence for this is a single line from Sanders during Sunday's Democratic debate: "I think what we've got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran."

Sounds damning! But when you look at his answer in context, it's clear that he's actually arguing against normalizing relations with Iran as it exists today, and rather saying that only once Iran ends its hostile and dangerous activities could the US pursue a Cuba-style thaw:

Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don't think we should. But I think the goal has go to be as we've done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.

My colleague Matthew Yglesias goes through Sanders's comments and Clinton's criticisms in greater depth here. But suffice to say that while Sanders's 30-second debate answer was certainly muddled, Clinton's criticism strikes me as false.

Clinton's broader positioning on Iran is bizarre

Even if we grant that sometimes political campaigns will distort or demagogue to hurt an opponents, then still I must admit I find this line of attack puzzling, and not just because it's false.

If Clinton wants to boost her standing in the upcoming Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, then attacking Sanders from the right on foreign policy is a strange way to do it. Only 5 percent of Democrats see foreign policy as the most important political issue. I struggle to imagine Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats flipping because they see Sanders as insufficiently hawkish on Iran.

Perhaps a more generous reading is that Clinton is preparing herself for the general election, in which foreign policy and especially terrorism are sure to figure heavily, or, more to the point, is hoping to paint Sanders as unprepared for such debates in the general.

But I remain puzzled: Clinton tried that same strategy in 2008, running to Barack Obama's right on foreign policy and specifically on Iran. She ended up hurting herself in the primary and thus excluding herself from the general election for which she had ostensibly been preparing.

And Clinton's positioning as "hawkish on Iran" is not even all that credible anymore. Eight years ago, she could argue with a straight face that she would be unusually tough on Iran, and mock Obama for saying he would negotiate with Tehran. But today she has a record of working to establish negotiations for the nuclear deal, which her campaign rightly touts. She is explicitly trying to align herself with Obama on Iran, while simultaneously attacking Sanders with the same lines she used to attack Obama on Iran. It's bizarre.

This all speaks to the Democrats' real problem on foreign policy

There's an irony to all this: On substantive grounds, Clinton and Sanders differ little on Middle East policy. Though they deploy very different rhetoric and play very different roles — Clinton the hawkish Democrat and tough leader, Sanders the anti-war liberal and activist — their policies are, in actual concrete terms, basically the same.

But it's a primary, so they have to differentiate themselves from one another somehow, so you get attacks like this. And it's not just Clinton: Sanders released an ad on Wednesday portraying himself as the dovish alternative to that warmonger Clinton, which he illustrated by proposing an ISIS war plan that is broadly identical to Clinton's.

All of this goes to show just how awkward the politics of foreign policy have been in this primary. The candidates have to differentiate from one another despite having few differences. They have to propose solutions for ISIS and Syria even though these problems may be ultimately unsolvable for America. And they have to champion Obama's foreign policy record, which is popular among Democrats, while preparing for a general election in which that legacy is less popular.

At some point, a Democrat is going to enter the general election, and he or she needs to be ready to discuss the foreign policy and terrorism problems that are preoccupying voters. This primary is not so far doing much to prepare the candidates for that.