Democratic candidates should counter Trump's foreign policy

Democratic candidates should counter Trump's foreign policy
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All the Democratic Presidential candidates agree the Trump foreign policy is a disaster, shattering alliances while alienating allies, embracing authoritarian dictators, substituting bluster and bluffing for strategy.

This critique ranges from policies toward Russia and China to Iran and NATO to climate change.

Yet national security — apart from Joe BidenJoe BidenTop adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' 'Forever war' slogans short-circuit the scrutiny required of national security choices MORE stressing his experience and third-tier candidates, Reps Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur MoultonMoulton, Stewart pen op-ed backing three-digit suicide prevention hotline 2020 Democrats react to NYPD firing of officer in Garner case: 'Finally' Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE (D-Mass.) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden expands lead in new national poll Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates MORE (D-Hawaii) — seems largely AWOL in the Democratic presidential contest. It's early, and foreign policy doesn't register much with voters. Still, it's a mistake not to join the issue.

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“As attractive as are so many domestic issues, it's really important for candidates to focus on national security,” says Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonough2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Democratic candidates should counter Trump's foreign policy MORE, a top foreign policy adviser and then chief of staff to President Obama. He puts China at the top of the list. That list includes:

China — Trump’s tough talk and tariffs against Bejing may be questionable policy, but this resonates with voters. He's seen standing up for American interests and jobs. Ohio's Mahoning Valley, once a Democratic stronghold, remains an industrial wasteland, but according to a New York Times report, it's Trump country in no small part due to China.

Democrats have yet to figure out how to counter Trump on China without appearing soft. “The  Chinese are bad actors on  trade,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE says while criticizing Trump's policy as centered on his tweets; “The best way to fight back is with strength and and with a coherent plan.” Trump has a plan: high tariffs. China is not a big deal in the primaries; it will be in the general election, and today Democrats are on the defensive.

Climate change — This is a big deal among Democrats and all are advancing aggressive proposals led by another third-tier candidate, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeInslee unveils climate plan to support rural communities Harris to appear in CNN climate town hall after backlash Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates MORE. State and local governments are trying to fill the void caused by the national administration.

But the climate peril is a global crisis. Rejoining the Paris accords is essential, but those targets, set three years ago, need to be updated. There's an opportunity for a candidate to lay out a more comprehensive global plan.

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North Korea — In 2007 candidate Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Forever war' slogans short-circuit the scrutiny required of national security choices Which Democrat can beat Trump? Middle East scholars blame Trump for an Iran policy 40 years in the making MORE was derided by the foreign policy establishment, including rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Polls flash warning signs for Trump Polls suggest Sanders may be underestimated 10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall MORE, for saying he would meet with evil regimes without preconditions. He was right. Trump's problem in his two inconsequential meetings with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnRomney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' Pompeo expresses concern over North Korea missile tests State Dept. extends travel ban to North Korea MORE was not the lack of conditions but lack of preparation and a considered strategy.

Democrats won't beat the war drums on the Korean peninsula. But it's unlikely North Korea will give up all its nuclear arsenal. Is there any plan to deal with that, while intensifying pressure on Pyongyang and getting China to play a more constructive role?

Middle East — All major candidates call for rejoining the Iranian nuclear deal. McDonough notes the irony of an American policy that provides “maximum pressure” on Iran, not a nuclear power and abiding by the deal and “minimum pressure” on nuclear-armed North Korea, whose program is not in check.  

Trump has pandered to Israel's right wing leader, Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, and Saudi Arabia's crown price, Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Democrats need to specify how they will change these policies. And since the best bet is the Administration's Palestinian plan will meet the same failure as earlier efforts, does anyone seriously believe there's a way to change this?

Ending endless wars — The last three presidents have vowed to minimize American interventions abroad. Yet 18 years after 9-11 there still are 20,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Everyone will promise to bring these Americans home but how quickly and are there any caveats or conditions? 

The corollary is laying out conditions for the use of force. For Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE, it may be almost never. For the others, it's a more difficult question.

Foreign policy is not a priority for voters; however, the candidate that cogently addresses these matters, may create a breakout moment.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.