In Testy Debate, Democrats Battle Over Who Qualifies to be Commander in Chief

From Iran to the Islamic State, Sanders’s own Democratic colleagues say his lack of foreign policy creds are due to a lack of focus — not naiveté.

This story has been updated.

NEW YORK — A shouting match over war and global security opened the Democratic presidential debate Thursday, with Hillary Clinton chiding Bernie Sanders for needing briefing notes to discuss high-priority foreign policy issues. Sanders, meanwhile, blasted Clinton for supporting the Iraq War — what he called the “worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.”

Clinton, the former secretary of state, also steadfastly maintained that Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas militants; Sanders said he agreed. But in a somewhat daring statement in New York, where Democrats rely on Jewish voters, the Vermont senator described Israel’s retaliatory strikes in Palestinian areas as “disproportionate” and endangering civilians.

Clinton and Sanders largely trod familiar ground while trading barbs over their respective national security credentials, using the stage in Brooklyn, New York, to again question the other’s judgment. But their tone was perhaps nastier and more personal than ever as each sought to portray the other as unfit to be commander in chief at a time of high global threats and tensions.

“Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and the intelligence to be a president? Of course she does,” Sanders said, responding to the first question of the two-hour debate in front of a rowdy crowd. “But I do question her judgment. I question a judgment which voted for the war in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.”

“I led the opposition to that war,” he said, referring to a 2002 Senate vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

Clinton struck back with a tight smile.

Sanders, in earlier comments, “did call me unqualified,” she said. “I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. That was a first.

She then cited a recent newspaper interview with Sanders to further hammer his foreign policy chops. “He could not answer about Afghanistan, about Israel, about counterterrorism,” she said. “… I think you need to have the judgment on day one to be both president and commander in chief.”

Later, the two sniped at each other over the 2011 military intervention in Libya and U.S. reluctance to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.

And in one key domestic issue, Sanders excoriated Republicans for blocking a Supreme Court confirmation vote before the presidential election. But in lieu of a Senate vote before November, Sanders said he would ask President Barack Obama to withdraw the name of his nominee, Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, over concerns the jurist would not overturn a 2010 decision allowing unlimited corporate donations in political campaigns. Clinton did not comment in the debate on whether she favors Garland’s nomination, but both candidates have praised the president’s choice.

Clinton adopted New York to run for the Senate, and was elected to two terms before joining the Obama administration. Sanders was born in Brooklyn, but eventually settled in Vermont.

But judging by a constant chorus of cheers and boos, neither had the home field advantage.

The two candidates ratcheted up their firepower in events across New York this week as the state’s voters prepare for Tuesday’s primary. Clinton leads with about 53 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average, but Sanders, with about 39 percent, has dramatically cut into her support. For the Democrats, 291 delegates are at stake.

Sanders has won eight of the last nine contests, but trails Clinton in the overall count by 220 delegates. Her campaign is hoping for a decisive win in New York, where she won her first Senate election in 2000, to finally kill Sanders’ momentum and free her to focus on her likely general election opponent. Among the Republicans, New York billionaire Donald Trump is the front-runner, but Sen. Ted Cruz is closing in; they, too, are vying for delegates in the GOP primary Tuesday.

The two Democrats’ attacks on each other’s credibility and qualifications provide ammunition for Republicans as both parties turn toward the general election.

Clinton’s campaign has long leaned on a strategy of using foreign policy to question Sanders’ readiness to be a commander in chief. As anxiety over terrorism spikes among the American public, Clinton and her aides argue that his lack of interest — or knowledge — on the issue makes him unelectable. In a series of letters, former senior national security officials backing Clinton have expressed concerns over Sanders’ statements — from Iran to the Islamic State — and highlighted her wide network of foreign policy advisors.

Hours before Thursday’s debate, Clinton’s campaign released another letter hammering Sanders’ foreign policy and national security credentials.

“Bernie Sanders has been seeking the presidency for nearly a year,” wrote 18 former diplomats and national security officials who signed the letter. “It can’t be a surprise to him that serving as commander in chief is a critical part of the job.”

Sanders has also faced criticism for either refusing to name, or formulate a team of, foreign policy advisors. He finally directly answered that critique hours before the debate with his own letter, signed by 19 foreign policy surrogates — mostly academics, but also including former officials such as former Assistant Secretary of Defense Larry Korb, who served during the Reagan administration. Another signatory, Gordon Adams, was the associate director of national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Management and Budget under former President Bill Clinton. He confirmed to Foreign Policy that he’s advising Sanders.

“We are deeply concerned that Secretary Clinton has not fully learned the lessons from her mistaken support for the invasion of Iraq: Dictators can be toppled, but unintended and often disastrous consequences must be fully considered before deciding to act,” they wrote. The presidency “will demand a clear vision and sound judgment. Bernie Sanders has proven he has both.”

Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon told Foreign Policy before the debate that Sanders’ statements on the Middle East and combating the Islamic State demonstrate “a lack of fundamental knowledge” that sharply contrasts with Clinton’s expertise.

“That’s the reason when you look at exit poll after exit poll in all the contests that have happened so far, Democratic voters see her as more ready to assume the role of commander in chief compared to Sanders,” he said, with 30-foot banners reading “America’s Choice” hanging behind him. When asked if Clinton’s longer record, particularly her time in the administration, also makes her vulnerable to criticisms, he nodded but sought to distance her from Obama — a tricky balance Clinton has also sought to strike.

“I think that any exchange on foreign policy issues during the rest of the primary contests, and certainly in the general election, will have to take account of the fact she’s got some slightly different takes on some of the most pressing issues than what the current White House would say,” he responded.

Tad Devine, Sanders’ senior advisor, acknowledged that his foreign policy team is still forming but said the letter Thursday is the start. “I expect it’ll continue to grow,” he told Foreign Policy as the debate began around him on giant screens in the debate filing center, situated in a massive warehouse. “Whether it’s [former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates or others, it’s fair to say that Secretary Clinton was the one who pushed the president, who seemed to be on the fence about [intervention], over the fence, in terms of being so aggressive.”

As to whether Democratic voters in New York and elsewhere will decide based on foreign policy, he said Sanders’ relative reluctance to use military force “is very appealing.” “I think people are sick of having so much American participation, going back to the Iraq War and, frankly, for some voters, going back to the Vietnam War.”

While Thursday’s debate started with foreign policy, the candidates pivoted quickly to economy and jobs. Punctuated by cheers and boos from the crowd, the two sparred over whether Clinton would release transcripts of her Wall Street speeches and when Sanders would release his tax returns.

Sanders promised he would start releasing his returns as early as Friday, tax day. He said he had not had time to get them ready for public view: “Jane does our taxes,” Sanders said, referring to his wife. “We’ve been a little bit busy lately, you’ll excuse us.”

It was just one colorful quip in a night that more closely resembled a political rally than a buttoned-down discussion of issues. At one point, responding to the crowd, Clinton remarked with a smile: “I love being in Brooklyn.”

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/Staff