Democrat Debates Round One: What’s the Worst Nat’l Security Threat?

The first round of Democrat debates for the 2020 presidential election (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The first round of Democrat debates for the 2020 presidential election (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The first round of Democrat debates were held last week. It was a dizzying two nights with 20 candidates vying for their time in the sun. Here’s quick digest on where the candidates stand on national security, fighting terrorism, Iran and foreign wars:

Twenty of the 25 Democratic presidential candidates just held their first debates and the threat of Islamist extremism and foreign policy received minimal attention, as the economy, income inequality and race issues dominated the discussion.

The following is a summary of where the candidates stood on questions related to national security during the debates.


What is the Top Threat to the U.S.?

Several candidates chose nuclear weapons as the biggest threat to American national security:

  • Nuclear war and proliferation was chosen by Cory Booker and Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard claimed that the threat of nuclear war is higher than ever before in history. She is likely referring to U.S.-Russian tensions, which she describes as a “new cold war” that she would end.
  • Iran was explicitly mentioned only by Amy Klobuchar. She also mentioned China as the top economic threat.

China was chosen by Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro and Tim Ryan.

Buttigieg said that China is “using technology to perfect dictatorship” and its heavy investments in artificial intelligence will allow the communist regime to “run circles” around the U.S. if we fail to effectively compete. He said the U.S. must show that it cares about democratic values abroad as part of the response.

Russia was chosen by Bill De Blasio, Michael Bennet and Andrew Yang.

De Blasio said Putin is “doing a pretty damn good job” of undermining America’s democracy.

Michael Bennet likewise said that Russia is a bigger threat than China but reiterated that an international coalition to pressure China on trade is necessary.

Andrew Yang said that the Russians have been “laughing their asses off” over the past two years over their election interference. He also said that the U.S. must crackdown on China’s economic malfeasance.

Kamala Harris said President Trump is the biggest threat, as some others predictably did, but her answer focused most on Russia and North Korea. She accused Trump of choosing dictators over U.S. interests and values, such as by “siding” with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community and embracing Kim Jong-Un “for a photo-op.”

Eric Swalwell implied that he sees Russia as the biggest threat, pledging to “break up with Russia and make up with NATO.”

Climate change was also mentioned by most candidates but was singularly named as the biggest threat by Beto O’Rourke and Jay Inslee.

In another part of the debate, O’Rourke emphasized the threat from Russia and criticized Trump for embracing dictators.



The Democrat candidate who has come out strongest against Iran in the debates so far is Cory Booker.

When a moderator asked the first night’s candidates who would immediately re-enter the nuclear deal, Booker was the only one who did not raise his hand.

Booker, who voted for the deal while seriously criticizing it, acknowledged that the U.S. has new leverage over the Iranian regime that he’d use as president to negotiate a better deal than before.

Klobuchar then clarified her stance, agreeing with Booker. She said she’d make a deal that would be better than the original one forged by President Obama.

Gabbard said she’d re-enter the nuclear deal, while emphatically pledging to prevent a war with Iran. She acknowledged that Iran’s ballistic missile program needs to be addressed.

Gabbard dodged a question about whether Iranian backing of the Hezbollah terrorist group would have to be addressed in any potential deal. She is opposed to overthrowing the Syrian dictatorship, which is kept in power by Hezbollah and Iran.

When asked if she had a “red line” that would trigger military action against Iran, she said “obviously” if Iran killed U.S. troops. Of course, Iran has been doing just that since the 1980’s and does so today in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Bernie Sanders came the closest to ruling out military action against the Iranian regime.

He boasted of leading the opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and leading Congress’ efforts to force the U.S. to end its involvement in Yemen’s civil war, where Saudi-backed forces are battling Iranian-backed rebels.


The only candidate to call for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan was Gabbard, leading to a dispute with Tim Ryan.

The topic was raised due to news that the Taliban recently killed two U.S. troops while negotiations continue (Secretary of State Pompeo saying the U.S. could reach a peace deal with the Taliban by September).

Ryan responded that the U.S. must regretfully stay militarily engaged in Afghanistan because the Taliban’s takeover of more of the country will dramatically increase the threat of terrorism. He pointed out that al-Qaeda was able to perpetrate the 9/11 attacks because of the safe harbor granted to the terror group when Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban.

Ryan’s mentioning of 9/11 elicited boos from the audience, who presumably felt he was politically exploiting the attacks.

Gabbard self-righteously responded, “As a soldier, that answer is unacceptable,” sparking a loud applause from the audience.

She argued that the U.S. should fight al-Qaeda but not the Taliban. She also suggested that Saudi Arabia is closer to al-Qaeda than the Taliban. This is strange, considering that the overthrow of the Saudi Royal Family is a top objective of al-Qaeda (even though it is true that the Saudi government has lavishly sponsored the ideology that created al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups).

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has publicly pledged allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Taliban was willing to be overthrown to protect and fight by al-Qaeda’s side after the 9/11 attacks.

As the Long War Journal explains, Al-Qaeda is growing stronger under the “Taliban umbrella.” The Taliban continues to harbor al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the territory that it controls and is blatantly lying about it.

Pundits broadly agreed that Gabbard won the exchange with Ryan, who subsequently published a statement defending his position. The statement jabbed Gabbard for dining with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad after he used chemical weapons on civilians and criticized her for wanting to “retreat from the world.”

Joe Biden pledged to bring home all combat troops from Afghanistan. His choosing of the words “combat troops” suggests he envisions leaving behind a residual force of advisors, trainers, intelligence operators and possibly counter-terrorism personnel who could engage the enemy.


Iraq & Syria

Biden said that President Bush “abused” the authority granted to him by Congress to militarily overthrow Saddam Hussein for failing to comply with U.N. inspections. Biden’s vote for that authorization, often characterized as “voting for the war,” is a top point of criticism from his Democratic competitors.

Biden attempted to appeal to anti-war Democrats by boasting that U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq when he was vice president. He further boasted of putting together a coalition of 65 countries to fight ISIS in Iraq without mentioning that the withdrawal of U.S. forces paved the way for ISIS to rise.


Second Amendment & Gun Laws

Access to firearms, legally and illegally, obviously has consequences for homeland security. Suspected Islamist terrorists are often able to legally purchase guns.

Gun control measures, however, run the risk of infringing upon constitutional rights and disarming responsible gun-owners who could potentially respond to a threat.

Of all the Democrat contenders, Swalwell’s candidacy is most premised on the issue of gun violence. He used the debates to argue for a federal buyback program where civilians would be required to turn in their “assault rifles” (a term that conservatives believe is deceptive) in exchange for a payment from the government for the cost of the weapon.

Harris endorsed Swalwell’s idea on the stage.

Booker argued for requiring licenses for firearms possession just like driver’s licenses are required for operating an automobile.

Joe Biden said that only “smart guns” should be allowed so users can be held responsible and the weapon can’t be stolen or passed to another individual and used.

“We should have smart guns. No gun should be able to be sold unless your biometric measure [is needed] to pull that trigger. It’s within our right to do that. We can do that. Our enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA,” Biden said.

Learn More About Each Candidates’ National Security & Foreign Policy Ideas by clicking here

*Clarion Project does not support or oppose political candidacies on either side of the aisle. The purpose of this review is to provide a substantive breakdown of the policies promoted by the candidates.



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