Democratic candidates debate who should be next commander in chief — and attack the current one

Dylan StablefordSenior Writer

Foreign and military policy, mostly absent from the Democratic debates so far, were on the minds of the moderators — and candidates — Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa. Six candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination spent the first 30 minutes of the debate defending their positions on foreign policy and explaining to voters why they are best qualified to be the next commander in chief.

Mostly, they sought to differentiate themselves from President Trump.

Sen. Bernie Sanders began by highlighting his 2002 vote against the war in Iraq — which former Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, supported.

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The Vermont senator called it “the worst foreign policy blunder” in modern U.S. history.

“As Joe well knows, we lost 4,500 brave troops. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died,” Sanders said. “We have spent trillions on this endless war — money that should’ve gone into health care and education.”

Biden acknowledged that his vote was a mistake, but also said he led the effort to end the war as vice president.

“I know what it's like to send a son or daughter to war, like our colleague on this stage,” Biden said, nodding to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve in Afghanistan.

Joe Biden, left, listens as Sen. Bernie Sanders answers a question during Tuesday's debate in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)
Joe Biden, left, listens as Sen. Bernie Sanders answers a question during Tuesday's debate in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

Sanders and Biden both attacked President Trump over his decision to authorize the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The White House initially said that there was an imminent threat to American lives, but the administration has not publicly disclosed intelligence supporting that assertion. Over the weekend, Trump claimed that Soleimani was planning to attack four U.S. embassies, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he had not seen such evidence.

Biden said that Trump “flat-out lied” about the threat to U.S. embassies. Sanders compared it to the events that led to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

“Both of those wars were based on lies,” Sanders said. “Right now, what I fear very much, is we have a president who is lying again and could drag us into a war that is even worse.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she believes the United States should pull its troops out of the Middle East.

“We have to stop this mindset that we can do everything with combat troops,” she said.

Related: 'I didn't say it': Sanders denies saying a woman couldn't win the presidency

Buttigieg criticized Trump, who campaigned on ending "endless wars," over his decision to send nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East in the wake of Soleimani's killing. And he put it in personal terms.

“Whenever I see that happen, I think about the day we shipped out and the time that was set aside to say goodbye to family members,” Buttigieg said. I remember walking with a friend of mine, another lieutenant I trained with, as we walked away and his 1-and-a-half-year-old boy was toddling after him, not understanding why his father wasn’t turning back to scoop him up. And it took all the strength he had not to turn around and look at his boy one more time."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed to her experience in Congress.

“I’ve been in the U.S. Senate for over 12 years,” Klobuchar said. “And I think what you want in a president is someone who has dealt with these life-and-death issues and who has made decisions.”

Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist and long-shot presidential candidate, was asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, one of the co-moderators, under what circumstances a President Steyer would take military action.

“I would take military action to protect the lives and safety of American citizens,” Steyer said. "But what we can see in the Middle East and what this conversation shows is that there is no real strategy in what we’re trying to accomplish in the Middle East. Obviously Mr. Trump has no strategy.”

In the same answer, Steyer pivoted from the conflict in the Middle East to wildfires in Australia.

“We’re confronted by this issue everyone’s talking about,” Steyer said. “But at the same time there’s the gigantic climate issue in Australia, which also requires the same kind of value-driven coalition building that we actually should be using in the Middle East.”

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