Foreign policy took center stage in Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, with former Vice President Joe Biden saying he would not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia — marking a sharp contrast with the Obama administration — and stressing he would make the Saudis “pay the price” for their killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
“I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them,” Biden said. “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Biden also said there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and, in reference to Yemen, said he would end “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.”
Biden’s admission is a significant departure from the Democratic Party position before Donald Trump. Saudi Arabia objected to the United States’ posture during the Arab Spring, as well as the Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures toward Iran, but that did not stop the U.S. from supporting the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen and from selling Saudi Arabia more than $100 billion in weapons. In recent years, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has launched an unprecedented crackdown on dissent at home and abroad, and Khashoggi’s murder has led Democrats to call for fundamental changes to the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
At the Atlanta debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called Saudi Arabia a “brutal dictatorship” and said that “what we’ve got to know is that Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally.” He added, “We need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world, work with the United Nations, and not continue to support brutal dictatorships.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said, “It’s a human rights violation, without coming to the United States Congress, for an authorization for the use of military force, for us to refuel Saudi jets to bomb Yemeni children.” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “When the president did not stand up the way he should have to that killing and dismemberment of a journalist with an American newspaper, that sent a signal to all dictators across the world that that was OK.”
Indeed, many of the more captivating moments of the debate — the fifth in the monthly series — were focused on foreign policy, and on appealing to black voters. And the longstanding front-runners — Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders — left ample room for the other seven to jump in. Warren had been at the center of a firestorm in last month’s Democratic debate, having pulled ahead in national and early state polls. She has slipped in national polls, as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has climbed, and questions about topics in her wheelhouse — corruption and Medicare for All — flew by without incident.
Buttigieg came into the debate surging on the back of new polls that showed him leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire, yet hamstrung by basement-level support among both black and Hispanic voters. In a key exchange in the second hour of the debate, Sen. Kamala Harris was asked why she had criticized Buttigeg’s outreach to black voters. She said she had been “asked a question that related to a stock photograph that his campaign published,” referring to an image of a Kenyan woman the campaign used to publicize its Douglass Plan for Black America. Harris said Democratic candidates have long overlooked constituencies that make up the party’s base.
The debate was roughly bookended by two moments with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard at the center: The first conflict of the debate was when Harris went after Gabbard, saying it’s “unfortunate that we have someone on this stage” who “spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” and when Donald Trump was elected, “buddied up to Steve Bannon.”
“What Senator Harris is doing is continuing to traffic in lies, smears, and innuendo,” Gabbard responded.
And near the end of the night, Gabbard went after Buttigieg, citing a comment he’d made about sending troops to Mexico to fight cartels. Speaking at a Latino forum on Sunday, Buttigieg had said, “I’d only order American troops into conflict if American lives were on the line and if it was necessary to meet treaty obligations.”
Buttigieg turned it around, saying she had taken the comment out of context — “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” — and that he was referring to ongoing efforts to work with Mexico on national security. Buttigieg also called out Gabbard’s 2017 meeting with Syrian leader Bashar Assad: “I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”
Sanders also drew a parallel between human rights abuses made by Saudi Arabia and Israel. “It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel,” Sanders said. “But we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”
And, when candidates were asked about climate change at the start of the second hour of the debate, Sanders told the moderators he rejected the premise of the question. “Now, I disagree with the thrust of the original question because your question said, ‘What are we going to do in decades?’ We don’t have decades,” he said. “What the scientists are telling us, if we don’t get our act together within the next eight or nine years, we’re talking about cities all over the world, major cities, going under water.”
The Vermont senator also raised the prospect of prosecuting fossil fuel executives. “And, by the way, the fossil fuel industry is probably criminally liable, because they have lied and lied and lied when they had the evidence that their carbon products were destroying the planet, and maybe we should think about prosecuting them as well,” Sanders said to cheers.
Bernie saying we're going to hold the fossil fuel industry criminally accountable for misleading the public about the existence of the climate crisis. You love to see it— Kate Aronoff (@KateAronoff) November 21, 2019
Biden made some blunders, including saying we have to keep “punching at” domestic violence. And, in an exchange near the end of the debate, Booker came after Biden for comments the former vice president made earlier this week, erroneously claiming marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Biden said he would push to decriminalize marijuana and wanted to better understand the potential long-term effects of the drug.
Biden stressed his “long-standing” relationship with the black community and said he had the support of the only black woman elected to the Senate. “No, that’s not true,” Booker replied, laughing. Cameras panned to Harris, a black woman elected to the Senate who has not endorsed Biden, who couldn’t stop laughing. “That’s not true,” she said. “The other one is here.”