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 Biden stressing his experience and third-tier candidates, Reps Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Tulsi Gabbard (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.

“As attractive as are so many domestic issues, it’s really important for candidates to focus on national security,” says Denis McDonough, 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 Warren 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 Inslee. 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.

North Korea — In 2007 candidate Barack Obama was derided by the foreign policy establishment, including rival Hillary Clinton, for saying he would meet with evil regimes without preconditions. He was right. Trump’s problem in his two inconsequential meetings with Kim Jong Un 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 Netanyahu, 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 Sanders, 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.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 Democratic candidates Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Bernie Sanders Denis McDonough Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Foreign policy of Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jay Inslee Joe Biden Kim Jong Un Seth Moulton Tulsi Gabbard

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