MILWAUKEE — On foreign policy, Bernie Sanders does not go after Hillary Clinton with policy precision; he attacks her credibility with red-meat heaves attractive to the liberal base.
In Thursday night’s Democratic debate, Sanders repeated one of his trademark attacks — and one that worked for Barack Obama in 2008 against Clinton — that he opposed the Iraq War and she did not. But he went further in drawing a binary and philosophical contrast by reminding viewers of Clinton’s comments from last week’s debate, that she was “very flattered” to get praise from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who served under President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford, is maligned especially among Democrats for his handling of the Vietnam War and for leading a foreign policy that his critics believed undermined democratic governments around the world, while supporting dictatorships that promoted human rights violations.
And while the reference might not have resonated with the under-30 demographic that Sanders dominated in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was a reductive, symbolically potent bit for baby boomers who may be undecided or unsure of Clinton’s overall worldview. It echoed criticism that emerged on liberal-leaning websites last week at the time of her original remarks.
“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend, and I will not take advice from him on foreign policy,“ Sanders said, calling him the “most destructive” secretary of state in American history.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during an interview in New York in the summer of 2015. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP)
Sanders’ team may have felt it missed an opportunity to hit Clinton on Kissinger when she brought up the controversial diplomat at last week’s debate. But this time they were ready. In fact, the campaign issued a press release within seconds of the exchange, listing 13 “egregious acts” he committed in his tenure, including allegations of launching an illegal war in Cambodia and supporting apartheid in South Africa (later in the debate Clinton name-dropped the late South African president Nelson Mandela as one of the figures in politics she respected the most).
Clinton defended her interactions and comments on Kissinger by saying that as secretary of state she listened to a variety of voices and opinions, weighing some more than others. She also questioned whether Sanders takes foreign policy issues seriously, citing recent media reports that said the one aide he referred to as an adviser only had briefed him once.
"I don’t know who you get your foreign policy advice from,” Clinton quipped.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger,” Sanders replied.
It’s unclear whether re-litigating American foreign policy from 40 years ago will resonate with voters, but Clinton and her campaign obviously believe foreign policy is her strength and any quick move toward that advantage is likely to frustrate the candidate and team who have prioritized showcasing her nuanced and broad grasp of issues she tackled as secretary of state.