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Clinton Hits Sanders on His Weak Point: Foreign Policy

As Clinton works to change the narrative after her loss in New Hampshire, she used Thursday's debate to highlight Sanders' lack of foreign policy experience and advisers.

by Liz Fields
Feb 12 2016, 6:20pm

Photo by Morry Gash/AP

After two primary contests in a presidential election that was expected to be about foreign policy, the issue has finally come to the forefront in the Democratic primary.

As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton works to change the media narrative in the Democratic race after losing to Sanders by a bruising 22-point-margin in New Hampshire, she has shifted the focus to one of Sen. Bernie Sanders' perceived weakest points and her strongest: foreign policy.

Clinton took the opportunity during a debate Thursday night to critique Sanders on his foreign policy chops and a rolodex of foreign policy staffers and advisers that is looking remarkably thin. After Sanders criticized her for once soliciting mentorship from Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Hillary Clinton seized on those criticisms.

"Journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is," she said to Sanders.

"Well it ain't Henry Kissinger, that's for sure," he shot back.

But Clinton's critique echoed growing concerns among political observers and foreign policy experts that Sanders has yet to put forward firm proposals on the issue, which could hurt him in the general election if he wins the nomination. Many have also taken issue with the fact Sanders has yet to exclusively address foreign policy without reverting back to the marrow of his campaign: the economy.

The dismissal of Sanders's foreign policy chops was affirmed in a telling hot mic incident at last night's debate. The almost inaudible episode occurred as the Vermont senator launched into his second tirade of the night against Kissinger, during which one of the PBS moderators could be heard gently exhaling and whispering "oh God."

Foreign policy experts are of two minds about Sanders's expertise on the subject. Some have characterized his ideas — such as calls for a new NATO that would include Russia to defeat the Islamic State — as outlandish, while others have defended him as a serious guy on foreign policy.

Michael E. O'Hanlon, who is the research director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told VICE News he was worried about some of the senator's instincts in the Middle East and his treatment of foreign policy issues so far in this campaign. O'Hanlon is supporting Clinton in the primary.

"I am impressed with Sanders' passion and intellect. I am less impressed with the seriousness with which he seems to approach foreign policy — it's the lack of interest and focus that bother me more than his positions to date," he said.

Others believe Sanders already has sufficient expertise in this area. In an op-ed for Politico Thursday, Lawrence Korb, who has worked at numerous think tanks and was as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, declared that Sanders "certainly isn't a foreign policy lightweight."

"In analyzing his record in Congress over the past 25 years, I have found that Sanders has taken balanced, realistic positions on many of the most critical foreign policy issues facing the country," Korb wrote. "Given his long tenure in the House and Senate, he has more foreign policy experience than Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama did when they were running for office the first time."

Related: Ahead of South Carolina, Clinton and Sanders Show Off Support from Prominent Black Leaders

But Sanders has apparently struggled to form a team of foreign policy experts to help advise his presidential campaign. His team has been largely quiet about who is advising him on the issue and those experts that the campaign has cited, have denied advising the senator beyond one or two interactions.

Even Korb admitted he was "surprised" when Sanders cited him as someone who had given him foreign policy advice, given that he had spoken to the senator only once since he declared his presidential run.

Clinton, meanwhile, has a long list of foreign policy experts on her call sheet, given her four years as secretary of state. 

Clinton and her husband have a reputation in Washington for having a notoriously long memory, especially when it comes to advisers and lawmakers that supported opponents. With the expectation among many foreign policy wonks on Capitol Hill that Clinton will snag the 2016 Democratic nomination, some experts have been loath to associate themselves, however laterally, with Sanders on foreign policy.

VICE News spoke to two foreign policy experts from prominent Washington, DC, think tanks on Friday, who did not want to speak on the record. 

But O'Hanlon argued that Sanders's empty foreign policy cabinet wasn't due to a climate of fear surrounding Clinton, but was perhaps his own fault. "I think lots of people would talk to him if he asked," O'Hanlon told VICE News. "He's a sitting senator after all."

Related: In a Break With Obama, Hillary Clinton Backs No-Fly Zone in Syria

Since launching his presidential bid last May, Sanders's main foreign policy talking point has been to highlight his 2002 vote against the Iraq war in the face of a Democratic majority — including then-Sen. Clinton — who voted for it.

Sanders has also frequently rapped Clinton for her aggressive foreign policy stances, including her backing of the 2011 Libya intervention and her break with the Obama administration in her proposal to carve out a no-fly zone in Syria, which would draw the US much more overtly into the conflict there. Sanders has said repeatedly, including at the debate Thursday, that while foreign policy experience — like Clinton's four years as secretary of state — is important, "judgment matters as well."

To get out from under the public and media perception that he's lacking in foreign policy expertise, O'Hanlon suggested that Sanders should organize regular meetings or briefings on at least a weekly basis with a range of thinkers and scholars -- assuming he can find them.

"He absolutely needs to know a lot more than he knows now and to be aware of the major options he will likely have," he said. "January 20, 2017 is way too late to begin the freshman course."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

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