Campaigning in Iowa recently, Hillary Clinton, who is facing tightening primary races in key early states, made a shift. She went after her rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, and she hit him on foreign policy. “Senator Sanders doesn’t talk very much about foreign policy,” Clinton told the crowd in Iowa. “And when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes, it can sound like he hasn’t really thought it through.”
So far, I’m in agreement with the former Secretary of State. Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy. Who, for example, are Sanders’s foreign policy advisers? I pay some attention to these things, and I have no idea. When he’s asked about global affairs, Sanders often steers his answers back to his domestic bêtes noires, such as inequality, and applies the concepts abroad. Not the worst sin in the world—certainly, issues like inequality affect global and geopolitics as much or more than then do at home—but the lack of depth about the specifics of global affairs has long been on display.
The Clinton attack, however, went farther, hitting Sanders on the topic of Iran. Her campaign released an ad featuring Clinton foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan almost mockingly describe Sanders’s various position on Iran. The ad raises three issues: Sanders’s purported proposal to invite Iran to send more troops to Syria to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); his notion of an anti-ISIS coalition that would include Iran and Saudi Arabia; and his comments during last weekend’s Democratic debate calling for moving toward warmer relations with the Iranians.
Without delving into the details, on the first score, the Clinton camp is basically right; on the second, they’ve got a point. But they fail on the third point, which seems to be based on a willful distortion of Sanders’s position. Here’s what Sanders said on warming relations with Iran:
Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we have done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.
That should have been entirely uncontroversial; as Sanders made clear, improved relations is a worthy, long-term goal. But Clinton’s camp used it in order to fear-monger not only about a Sanders presidency, but as a matter of his electability. In a conference call for reporters, another Clinton aide, Brian Fallon, said, “I can safely predict that Republicans would love to have a debate with someone who thinks we should move quickly to warmer relations with a major sponsor of terrorism like Iran. Bernie Sanders represents that caricature that Republicans like to put forward.”