On Wednesday, I wrote a contrarian piece on Bernie Sanders, who has a reputation as perilously weak on foreign policy, arguing that he has legitimate political reasons for ignoring the topic and that it's not as big of a deal as it might seem. Lots of presidents come into office inexperienced on foreign policy, many do just fine by taking steps such as hiring a smart and experienced team, and there is no reason to think Sanders can't do this, too.
I argued that we — political and media elites — demand that candidates put themselves through a somewhat artificial ritual of proving their foreign policy credentials, that this ritual is more about reassuring establishment figures than about actual foreign policy, and we shouldn't write Sanders off on foreign policy purely because his political incentives do not line up with conducting this ritual as usual.
On Thursday, in his MSNBC debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders went ahead and put my theory to the ultimate make-or-break test, giving a cringe-a-minute performance on foreign policy that was near-universally panned. I mean, it was bad.
But the operative question here is whether it was bad in ways that suggest Sanders was merely unstudied — in which case, it is at least possible he's still intellectually capable of getting sufficiently smart on these issues before January 2017 — or if it showed that he is inherently incapable of meeting bare minimum standards of foreign policy competence.
I think we're still on the safe side of that line; I'm still not willing to write Sanders off. But I also can't completely dismiss the opposite position out of hand. Perhaps you'll see what I mean, on both points, if we go through some of his more heavily discussed moments.
The foreign policy debate began poorly for Sanders and then got worse
To see just how badly Sanders performed, it's worth going through the transcript here a bit. What you're reading for isn't just whether it was a bad performance — it was — but whether it was bad in ways that call into question Sanders's ability to competently conduct foreign policy once he has taken the time to staff out and to broaden his focus beyond the domestic issues he most cares about.
The foreign policy section of the debate opened with a question about whether the Obama administration's ISIS policy correctly threaded the needle on the appropriate degree of military force. Clinton gave a long answer on the long-term goals for fighting ISIS and why current strategy fits those goals.
Now here is Sanders's answer, in full:
Let me agree with much of what the secretary said, but where we have a different background on this issue is we differ on the war in Iraq, which created barbaric organizations like ISIS. Not only did I vote against that war, I helped lead the opposition and if you go to my website BernieSanders.com, you will see the statement that I made in 2002. It gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared would happen the day after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
This was the ultimate caricature of a bad Sanders answer on foreign policy: completely ignoring the present-day challenge, for which he articulates no real policy, and revisiting a 14-year-old vote.
Sanders's argument, here and more generally, is that he proved in 2002 that he has better judgment, so therefore he'll have better foreign policy, and fair enough. But it's not terribly persuasive if your superior judgment can't even help you offer 30 seconds of minimally vague platitudes about one of the biggest challenges you'll face in office.
But what was most regrettable about the answer was that Sanders has been stumbling over this very question for months, making it so predictable that Clinton got in the (surely pre-scripted) line, "A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS." If she could see that moment coming, why couldn't he?
The disastrous Afghanistan answer
Most of the discussion about Sanders's foreign policy performance focused on his North Korea answer, because he stumbled at one point and suggested the country was run by a team of dictators rather than just one. It seems at least possible to me that he just innocently misspoke, so I can't get too worked up over it. But what really concerned me was his answer on Afghanistan.
You've really got the read the full transcript here to see, first, how hard Sanders works to avoid articulating a policy for an ongoing war that he would definitely inherit if he became president, and second, how he wanders between making offhand observations about Afghanistan without offering any real thoughts on what to do about it:
MODERATOR: Obviously you've been emphasizing this difference on the Iraq war, but one place where you do agree and you voted to authorize the use of force was in favor of the war in Afghanistan. Right now, it is possible President Obama is going to be leaving the next president, President Sanders, at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. How long will those troops be in Afghanistan under president Sanders?
SANDERS: Well, I think our great task is to make certain that our young men and women in the military do not get sucked into never ending warfare in Syria and Iraq. I will do my very best to make sure that that doesn't happen.
I agree with the secretary that I think what has to happen -- us mention what the king of Jordan said. What he said is essentially the war against ISIS is a war for the soul of Islam and it must be Muslim troops on the ground that will destroy ISIS with the support of a coalition of major powers, US, UK, France, Germany and Russia.
So our job is to provide them the military equipment that they need; the air support they need; special forces when appropriate. But at the end of the day for a dozen different reasons, not the least of which is that ISIS would like American combat troops on the ground so they could reach out to the Muslim world and say, "Look, we're taking on those terrible Americans."
The combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops with our support. We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.
MODERATOR: Can you address the question on Afghanistan. How long are these troops going to be there? If President Obama leaves you 10,000 troops, how long do you think they're going to be there?
SANDERS: Well, you can't simply withdraw tomorrow. Wish we could, and allow, you know, the Taliban or anybody else to reclaim that country. But what we must do, and what we have seen in recent months, is some progress in Iraq, where finally the Iraqi army, which has not been a particularly effective fighting force, retook Ramadi. ISIS has lost I think 40 percent of the territory that it held in the last year.
Hopefully, and you know, one can't predict the future, that maybe our training and their fighting capabilities are improving and we are going to make some progress in destroying ISIS.
This is just a mess. First off, he dodges a question on Afghanistan by offering a very bad answer on a totally unrelated topic, ISIS. He once again calls that conflict a "war for the soul of Islam" — this is false, and it is both worrying reductive and cringe-inducingly tasteless to make it about Islam. He repeats his bizarre praise for the authoritarian monarch for Jordan. He says that a "Muslim army," which he often brings up as his magical unicorn solution for ISIS, should fix it.
Take two: The moderator pushes Sanders to answer. And Sanders gets sort of closer — by saying that things are going well with the Iraqi army so we should apply that in Afghanistan. (I think that's his argument, anyway; it's tough to tell.) First off, the Iraqi army is a disaster whose collapse contributed to ISIS's rise. Second, the US has been spending billions over now 15 years to try to build up an indigenous Afghan army, and it's been a catastrophic failure.
The Bernie Sanders doctrine
One of the most hallowed rituals of foreign policy presidential debates is the demand for the candidate to present his or her doctrine.
This ritual has always struck me as ridiculous. Call me crazy, but I'm not persuaded it's a great idea that every president should be able to articulate a philosophy so broad that it provides an answer for every possible global challenge yet so neat and compact that it can be expressed in a 30-second debate answer.
So I was sympathetic when Sanders got asked to present his foreign policy doctrine at the debate and gave a less than stunning answer. The question is silly; there's no such thing as a catchall sound bite doctrine, so who cares if he can't sum it up.
And yet, once more, Sanders, in his answer, found a way to make me wonder whether I was being a little too sympathetic. His answer, like his answer on Afghanistan, was basically "coalitions":
I think while it is true that secretary and I voted differently on the war in Iraq, what is important that we learn a lesson of the war in Iraq and that lesson is intrinsic to my foreign policy, is the United States cannot do it alone.
We cannot be the policemen of the world. We are spending more on defense. We have to work in strong coalition with the major powers of the world and with those Muslim countries that are prepared to stand up and take on terrorism. So I would say that the key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be no, we cannot continue do it alone, we need to work in coalition.
Coalitions indeed a good idea for a variety of reasons, and Sanders cites them frequently. But they are a tool, not a strategy
The war in Afghanistan — the subject Sanders conspicuously dodged earlier — was the ultimate coalition, a UN-approved International Security Assistance Force of dozens of nations working together. There was no more coalition-y coalition than the Afghanistan coalition we spent 13 years trying to make work until it disbanded in failure in 2014. So when Sanders says, "Hey, have we considered trying out a coalition," it hits on just about every foreign policy wonk's anxieties that he is seriously unprepared.
The reason this concerns me is that Sanders's answer seems — and maybe I am being unfair — to show no evidence of considering cost benefit, of weighing pros and cons, which are the core of foreign policy decision-making. I could not tell you, from reading this, what problems Sanders is trying to solve or what he wants to accomplish.
Sanders's stated doctrine here does have the substantial benefit of expressing skepticism of militarism and unilateralism, and for some voters that may be enough. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion here that Sanders has just not thought seriously about foreign policy or the role he would play in leading it as president.
That was understandable a few months back, when Sanders was the ultra-unlikely insurgent candidate. But now that he's a much more serious candidate, you'd like to think he would have given even just a few minutes' thought to his potential future leading the foreign policy of the most powerful country in human history.
There's real reason to fear, from this debate, that he has thus far not taken even those few minutes. The question is whether this is just because he's chosen to so overwhelmingly focus on domestic policy and primary votes that he hasn't had time, or whether this is a problem internal to Sanders whereby he either can't or won't do the minimal due diligence on developing even ultra-basic thoughts on a Sanders administration foreign policy.
Is Sanders inherently incapable on foreign policy? I'm not prepared to say he is.
The question isn't just whether Sanders stumbled or whether he was unprepared for basic-but-difficult questions (the answer to both is pretty clearly "yes"), but whether it went poorly in a way that suggests Sanders is not just unstudied but inherently incapable of becoming prepared at some point further down the line.
I'm not sure that he did. Yes, these answers are bad, but they come across to me as those of someone who didn't bother to study before the big test — concerning, but not disqualifying — rather than someone who lacks the necessary intelligence or curiosity to ever learn.
Another worthwhile data point: Sanders's record on domestic issues does not suggest to me that he is inherently stupid or incurious in ways that would make it impossible for him to learn about foreign policy as well. We have had those presidents in the past, and I don't think Sanders is among them.
In other words, I'm sticking by my original theory that we shouldn't write him off yet.
I still believe what we're seeing is Sanders making a tactical choice to delay seriously prepping on foreign policy, and that if he wins the nomination it is at least plausible that he will staff and study up enough to be at least as minimally viable as any other candidate without direct foreign policy experience, which is most of them. But take that with a grain of salt, because I'm obviously invested in seeing my theories proven correct.
At the same time, I can at least imagine how someone could read this transcript and reach the conclusion that Sanders's disengagement with foreign policy was so deeply worrying that it calls into question his ability to ever learn the minimal basics for conducting US foreign policy, which would be the point at which this would become disqualifying. I don't think it's fair to say that Sanders has crossed that line. But you should decide for yourself.
Correction: In a stretch of transcript reproduced here, one paragraph was misattributed to Sanders, when in fact it had come from Clinton. The post has been corrected.