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Why Kirsten Gillibrand’s foreign policy plan is one of the strongest yet

She promised to end “endless wars” and restore American diplomacy — but the details should be a road map for other 2020 Democrats.

Democratic presidential candidates Attend AARP Candidate Forums In Iowa
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) campaigning in Iowa on July 16, 2019.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have presented their foreign policy “visions,” most of which focus on broad themes like ending America’s “forever wars” and rebuilding traditional alliances.

But few candidates have offered specifics on how they’d actually accomplish those goals. Kirsten Gillibrand just changed that.

In a speech Wednesday afternoon at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the New York senator and 2020 presidential candidate laid out one of the most detailed, specific foreign policy platforms we’ve seen from a Democratic candidate so far.

Gillibrand serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and had a stint on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the expertise she’s gained working on those issues shows.

She echoed many of the same themes other, more prominent candidates like Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg have emphasized — especially the importance of using diplomacy and alliance-building to solve problems and using military force only as a last resort, with a clear end goal, and with proper congressional authorization.

But she went much deeper into the nitty-gritty details of what those often nebulous ideas would look like in practice on major issues like Afghanistan and Iran.

Her plan isn’t flawless, of course — in some areas, like on arms control and dealing with North Korea, she had fewer details to offer. But her speech should at least be looked at as a serious road map for a future Democratic foreign policy.

Gillibrand’s plan to end America’s forever wars is, well, an actual plan

Gillibrand said that “endless wars” like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq “undermine our national security and must end.” As president, she promised, “I would get the job done of bringing our service members home.”

That’s a pretty bold promise, and one that presidents including Barack Obama and Donald Trump have found harder to execute once in the White House. It’s also a goal many of her 2020 rivals have focused on.

Gillibrand said she could accomplish this while ensuring American forces are able to counter the threat of international terrorism — the only real reason the US is still in those countries after all these years.

“Meeting the terror threat does not require holding territory,” Gillibrand said. She continued:

We have the best intelligence professionals, quick reaction forces, and the best military assets deployed around the world. There is no geography we cannot reach on short notice; we don’t advance our goals by stationing tens of thousands of US troops and heavy equipment in countries that don’t want us there and that are costly to supply.

She cited the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan as an example of how “thorough intelligence and planning and a small surgical force” can be used to neutralize terrorist threats without needing thousands of boots on the ground.

She also brought up the human cost of America’s extended commitments overseas — for US men and women who serve, but also to the civilians in those countries who are displaced and suffer in the aftermath, which gives terrorism the chance to take hold. It’s an obvious but overlooked part of America’s military commitments.

She also has clear ideas about how to avoid getting into new wars

At a time when the Trump administration and Iran seem to be on the brink of armed conflict every other week, understanding how a Democratic president would handle one of the most acute — and potentially deadly — foreign policy crises currently facing America is critical.

And in her speech, Gillibrand showed she has a solid understanding of the situation with Iran and a fairly detailed plan for how to address it.

She slammed Trump’s “hawkish administration and erratic positions,” which she said “risk dragging us into a new war at this very moment with Iran, one that our allies will not support, that could cost many Americans and allies their lives — one without a clear need or strategy, which will make us less secure, not more.”

And she explained how she’d deal with Iran as president: by rehabilitating the Iran nuclear deal and using it as a starting point for further negotiations with Iran.

She praised the merits of the Iran deal while also recognizing its (legitimate) shortcomings, and emphasized the need to balance the concerns of our European allies — who want to the US to abide by it — and Israel, who never liked the deal.

And she laid out a pretty good case for why the US should get back in it — and what it actually did:

President Trump needlessly broke with our European allies when he unilaterally withdrew the US from the JCPOA, putting America at a level of risk we have not seen in years.

Before the deal, Iranians had breakout capacity in only a matter of months before the deal. After the deal, breakout capacity moved to over a decade. With the deal, we gained new, unparalleled intelligence about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Rather than increasing our leverage, Trump’s tantrum resulted in Iran’s decision to breach its obligations and begin enriching uranium. I condemn Iran’s recent escalations and its breach of the nuclear deal, but we would not be in this situation in the first place if it was not for President Trump’s irresponsible actions.

Gillibrand didn’t stop there.

She also discussed other tools that can be used short of military force to more aggressively counter Iran’s nuclear program if need be, saying that “a cyberattack several years ago showed Iran the reach of sophisticated tools to counter their nuclear systems.”

She was almost certainly referring to Stuxnet, a computer virus developed jointly by the US and Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by targeting machines that controlled uranium-enriching centrifuges.

Understanding the whole range of tools available to a president outside of traditional military force gives you a lot more room to maneuver when confronting an adversary like Iran and can potentially reduce the chances of having to resort to full-fledged war.

Another way to reduce those chances is to take some of the president’s authority to start a war unilaterally. Here, again, Gillibrand presented two specific ways she would try to make that happen.

First, she’d ask Congress to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed after 9/11 to fight al-Qaeda and has been used as an umbrella agreement to wage war everywhere from Afghanistan to Syria (and maybe even Iran).

Second, she’d push Congress to pass a law “that we never again authorize a war without a clear time limit, without naming specific enemies, and without geographic parameters.”

Other candidates, including Buttigieg, have suggested repealing the AUMF. Gillibrand is also making it pretty clear that she would make Congress, and the president, much more accountable to the public when committing troops abroad.

Going through Congress and the American public is almost certainly going to slow or stall any attempts to use force if it is an urgent matter; it’s also unclear when, if the nature of the threats is changing, everything falls under this umbrella. For example, cyberwarfare — should that go through Congress too?

That’s pretty granular, though, and it shouldn’t diminish from the larger point: Gillibrand, probably better than most candidates, spoke honestly about the cost and contradictions of war. And as president, she’s said she’d reject the so-called “blank check” of her predecessors, a fundamental break with the past two decades.

Smart diplomacy and foreign aid

Diplomacy was a consistent throughline in Gillibrand’s speech. Other candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have vowed to rebuild the US State Department. But here, Gillibrand made a pretty compelling case for why diplomacy — and the tools around it, particularly foreign aid — is worth the investment.

“Economic development, building democratic institutions, counter-extremism programs — these are not handouts, they are important to American security, help our economy prosper, and help us avoid the greater costs of war,” she argued.

She also criticized Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries, specifically Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — the countries people are fleeing — and promised to restore “targeted aid programs.”

Trump has criticized countries for “taking advantage of” America; Gillibrand is essentially making the case for it on the basis of American values — human rights, international development — but also making a fairly strong foreign policy case for it.

She didn’t lay out specific aid plans or packages (or suggest how she might get this done with a potentially unfriendly Congress), but this, combined with her focus on ending forever wars, offered a much more comprehensive, and pragmatic, approach to America’s foreign policy challenges.

Gillibrand’s policy isn’t perfect, but hopefully it advances the foreign policy debate

Gillibrand glossed over Russia and China in her speech, though in a later Q&A session, she made clear that confronting them would be a priority within her first 100 days. She also glanced over climate change in her speech, but also named that — including rejoining the Paris climate accords — as a top priority.

As Vox has written before, foreign policy often gets overlooked during the presidential debates and campaign because it seems so far removed from the “kitchen table issues” like health care and the economy. But foreign policy is where presidents can flex their power, often unchecked by Congress.

Gillibrand, more than the particulars of her individual plans, showed that she might be better equipped than some of her peers in the foreign policy arena. And maybe she’ll have another chance next week to try to make her case during the Democratic debates.

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