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Phyllis Bennis on Dem Debate: Support for Combat Troop Withdrawal Is Not Enough to Stop Endless Wars

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Six Democratic presidential candidates sparred on Tuesday night in Des Moines, the last debate before the crucial Iowa caucuses. The debate, hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register, focused heavily on foreign policy and rising tensions with Iran following the U.S. assassination of that country’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani. As the presidential field continues to narrow, the U.S. Senate is preparing for the historic impeachment trial of President Trump, for which Senators Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar are all expected to leave the campaign trail to serve their role as jurors.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, six Democratic candidates took to the stage Tuesday night in Des Moines. For the first time this election cycle, every candidate on the stage was white: former Vice President Joe Biden; Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and billionaire investor Tom Steyer. On Monday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker announced he’s dropping out of the presidential race, leaving only one black candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, but Deval Patrick did not make the cut for this latest debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Tuesday’s debate marked the first time Senators Sanders and Warren openly sparred. At the end of the night, Warren refused to shake the hand of her longtime friend and colleague, Sanders.

The debate took place as the Senate prepares for the historic impeachment trial of President Trump. Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar are all expected to leave the campaign trail to serve as jurors in the Senate trial. On Tuesday, Senator Klobuchar called on the Senate Republican leadership to allow for witnesses at the impeachment trial.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: We’ve asked for only four people as witnesses. And if our Republican colleagues won’t allow those witnesses, they may as well give the president a crown and a scepter. They may as well make him king. And last time I checked, our country was founded on this idea that we didn’t want to be ruled by a king.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In addition to impeachment, much of the debate focused on foreign policy. Senator Sanders warned President Trump about going to war with Iran.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What we have to face as a nation is that the two great foreign policy disasters of our lifetimes were the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. Bost of those wars were based on lies. And right now what I fear very much is we have a president who is lying again and could drag us into a war that is even worse than the war in Iraq.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During the debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren called for the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: On the Senate Armed Services Committee, we have one general after another in Afghanistan who comes in and says, “You know, we’ve just turned the corner, and now it’s all going to be different.” And then what happens? It’s all the same for another year. Someone new comes in, and we’ve just turned the corner. We’ve turned the corner so many times, we’re going in circles in these regions. This has got to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: But some of the other Democratic candidates disagreed with calls by Senators Warren and Sanders to bring U.S. troops home. This is debate moderator Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER: Just to be clear, Vice President Biden, would you leave troops in the Middle East, or would you pull them out?

JOE BIDEN: I would leave troops in the Middle East in terms of patrolling the Gulf where we have to — where we are now, small numbers of troops. And I think it’s a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS.

WOLF BLITZER: Senator Klobuchar, what’s your response?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: I would leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now. Afghanistan, I have long wanted to bring our troops home. I would do that. Some would remain for counterterrorism and training. In Syria, I would not have removed the 150 troops from the border with Turkey. I think that was a mistake. I think it made our allies and many others much more vulnerable to ISIS. And then, when it comes to Iraq, right now I would leave our troops there, despite the mess that has been created by Donald Trump.

WOLF BLITZER: Senator Warren, leave combat troops, at least some combat troops, in the Middle East, or bring them home?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: No, I think we need to get our combat troops out. You know, we have to stop this mindset that we can do everything with combat troops. Our military is the finest military on Earth, and they will take any sacrifice we ask them to take. But we should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.

WOLF BLITZER: Senator Sanders?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Wolf, in America today, our infrastructure is crumbling. Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck. Eighty-seven million people have no healthcare or are underinsured. We’ve got 500,000 people sleeping out on the streets tonight. The American people are sick and tired of endless wars, which have cost us trillions of dollars. Our job is to rebuild the United Nations, rebuild the State Department, make sure that we have the capability of bringing the world together to resolve international conflict diplomatically and stop the endless wars that we have experienced.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Phyllis Bennis, fellow the Institute for Policy Studies, written a number of books, including Understanding the US-Iran Crisis.

Phyllis, your overall response, as basically they opened up on the issue of foreign policy last night in the final debate before the Iowa caucus?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thanks, Amy. You know, I think one of the things that was important to see last night was that all of the Democratic candidates, including the right wing of the group, as well as the progressives, as well as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were vying with each other essentially to see who could be more critical of the Iraq War. They all have said that at various points, but last night it was very overt that this was a critical point of unity for these candidates. Now, whether that says much about the prospects for the Democratic Party is not so clear, but I thought that was an important advance, that there’s a recognition of where the entire base of half this country is, which is strongly against wars.

And those two clips that you just used, from Elizabeth Warren and from Bernie Sanders, I think, spoke to where there are those differences between the progressive side and the others, where you have from Sanders and Warren a clear sense that it’s not only about what are we going to do specifically right now about Afghanistan, what are we going to do specifically around Iran, those questions — they address those, as well — but the broader questions. When Elizabeth Warren spoke about recognizing that there are not military solutions for every problem, that’s been the tendency of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party for the last 20-plus years. When Bernie Sanders said that the focus is on the cost of these wars and it’s not the right use of our money, that was important.

Now, of course, in both cases, they could have gone further. They could have made a specific reference to using half the military budget, for example, $350 billion, which is half the military budget, using that to pay for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college education, all of the various social programs that there was debate about where is the money going to come from. All of them, in the past — it’s interesting. You know, one of the things that was not pushed by the moderators is the fact that back in June all of the Democratic candidates who were asked the question, in a forum that was sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign — were asked, “Would you cut the military budget, specifically?” Every one of them said yes. And yet none of the journalists are pushing them to say, “OK, we’ve established you will cut the military budget. Let’s talk specifics. How much would you cut? Would you use the decision about which programs to cut as something you would tell us now? Where would the money go?” Nobody’s pushing them to remind them that that was a commitment that they made. So there are some problems, but I think that it was important that we saw these very clear and strong positions.

Now, on the specifics, I think there were some serious limitations, in two ways. On the one hand, on the specific question of withdrawing troops, everybody basically said, “I would leave troops.” Elizabeth Warren said, “I would withdraw all the combat troops.” We have to recognize combat troops are not the ones who have been killing people probably since about 2011. The killing of civilians, in particular, is being carried out by Special Forces, by bombing, by drones. We heard the same thing from various other candidates, all of whom said they would leave some behind. And the question is, when we start saying we’re going to pull out the combat troops, in a sense, that’s the easier part. It’s the larger numbers in most cases, but it’s not the troops that are actually carrying out the very violent activities that are continuing to kill children and women and old people in and around Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq — sorry, not in Iran yet — in Iraq, in Syria, in Somalia, in other countries, with these bombings and other Special Forces activities, with the assassination. That was carried out by Special Forces with drones, not by combat troops. So, withdrawing combat troops is an important step. It’s not really enough.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phyllis —

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The other point that I think was where we saw just one — just one other point. We saw a limitation in terms of the issue of American exceptionalism. Across the board, particularly, of course, from the more centrist candidates, but really across the board, there was a focus on what’s going to happen to Americans — American jobs, American soldiers. We didn’t hear about human rights in the rest of the world, even on a day after a U.S. citizen had died in custody as a political prisoner in Egypt. We didn’t hear about the rights of people in these countries. And that, I think, is something that we in the social movements need to be pressing all the candidates much more firmly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phyllis, I wanted to ask you — in terms of the fact this was billed as focusing so much on foreign policy, there were a lot of foreign policy questions that did not come up at all.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Israel-Palestine situation.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The attempt by the Trump administration at regime change in Venezuela, the relations with Saudi Arabia, or even policy, the Trump administration policy, toward Ukraine and Russia.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. There were huge lapses. I think it was inevitable, and perhaps even appropriate, that the main focus was on the question of wars, the “global war on terror” — although that term wasn’t used — because that’s been the urgency of recent days and recent weeks. That’s where U.S. troops are deployed and are responsible for the deaths of people around the world. That’s where the vast majority of money — 53 cents out of every federal discretionary dollar goes to the military. So, in all of those ways, it was perhaps appropriate to keep the main focus on the issues of the existing wars.

But, obviously, leaving out the question of Israel-Palestine, policy towards Russia, towards Ukraine — all of Latin America, all of Africa were left out of the debate, out of the equation. Human rights was left out of the equation. And those are huge problems. And there’s the assumption that somehow it’s OK for people to be running for president as centrists or as progressives and not necessarily have to talk about that every time they talk about what it means to be the president.

They talked some about what it means to be the commander-in-chief. They didn’t talk enough about what it means to be the diplomat-in-chief. There were references. Bernie Sanders referenced, Elizabeth Warren referenced the need for more diplomacy. Others did, as well. Nobody talked about the fact that Trump has left the State Department completely diminished, that massive numbers of people have left the State Department. The professionals, not the political appointees, have left the State Department. So, at any point when somebody says, “Oh, finally, we need to get back to diplomacy,” will there be any competent diplomats ready and able to carry that out? So there were huge questions that were not addressed.

But I think this was a turning-point moment in the campaign, in the sense of the understanding from all the candidates that they had to take seriously the question of their position not only on the past wars — which was important, watching Biden immediately say, “I was wrong,” although he went on to say that he would do essentially some of the same things — but recognizing that it was also important to have positions, not as specific as they should have been, not clarifying that, for example, sanctions are an act of war and not an alternative to war — nobody called them on that. Nobody called them out on the lack of focus on international law and the role of the United Nations, although Bernie Sanders spoke about rebuilding the United Nations. I’m not even sure that he meant to say the U.N. rather than the U.S., but he did say the U.N., or one of our jobs is to rebuild the U.N. That was important. But all of these things are missing.

But it is seems to me it was a way in, because all of the candidates referenced, in different ways and with different integrity, let’s say, but many referenced the question of the role of movements being important. And I think that’s something that we, outside of the political arena, have to take very seriously. These folks are not going to move further than we push them to move. At the end of the day, it comes back to the movements outside, not just what the candidates say on the debate stage. Very few talked about the fact that right now the Senate has in front of it a new War Powers Act that would focus on Iran. Pete Buttigieg said we need a new War Powers Act. That’s wrong. But we’re going to need a movement to say we need to have the end of the existing authorizations for the use of military force, not new ones; get rid of the old ones and stop authorizing illegal wars.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion. Speaking of movements, right outside, at Drake University in Des Moines, Liz Theoharis and Reverend Barber were leading a Poor People’s March once again. They were demanding that the media televise a national discussion on the part of the candidates on poverty. This is Democracy Now! Phyllis Bennis is with the Institute for Policy Studies. We’ll be back in a minute with our roundtable.

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