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Candidate(s) Briefing: The Gulf & the First Democratic Debates

While conventional political wisdom dictates that foreign policy is one of the last considerations voters make when casting their ballots for a presidential candidate, the first debate of the Democratic presidential nominating contest did offer moments for candidates to make their most visible attempt yet to ace the proverbial ‘Commander-and-Chief’ test. That the weeks leading up to the debates were unduly focused on controversy surrounding pending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as fallout and concern over escalating tensions vis-à-vis the United States and Iran, nearly ensured that foreign-policy related questions at the debates focused on the Gulf region. While certain candidates have made foreign policy and national security a more prominent pillar of their campaigns than others, answers from all candidates evidenced the influence of progressive ideologies within the emerging foreign policy lanes of the Democratic Primary, a trend that will have consequences for both the Gulf region, as well as other global flashpoints such as Venezuela, North Korea and Sudan in the event that a Democratic becomes President in 2021. Ultimately, while the debates did not draw remarkably distinct policy lines as it relates to the Gulf, certain candidates who seem to give an increased campaign focus to foreign policy did have several moments in which they made clear their orientation toward the Gulf.


An attack on two oil-tankers in the Gulf of Oman heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran that had already escalated when a similar attack occurred weeks prior. In both cases, the Trump Administration was quick to hold Iran responsible, a conclusion that is disputed by Japanese and European officials. As these snowballing tensions increased chatters and fears of yet-another military conflict in the Gulf region, 2020 Democratic candidates were quick to dispute the Trump administration’s assertions. Simultaneously, a report released by the United Nations directing culpability toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought renewed criticisms of the Kingdom back into the spotlight, and a flurry of Saudi oriented legislation dominated the corridors of the Congress in the week leading up to the debate.

Night One

Insofar as the Gulf was mentioned, the first night of the debates unduly focused on increasing tensions between the Trump Administration and Iran. As it relates to clear policy distinctions, a notable Iran moment occurred when the moderators asked candidates if they would recommit to the now defunct Iran Nuclear Agreement. All hands were raised except for that of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who explained, “If I had the opportunity to leverage a better deal, then I’m going to do it.”[1] Still the candidate did not reveal specifics as to what aspects he would like to improve. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said she would commit to the original deal and quipped, “The President is literally, every single day, 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war. I don’t think we should be conducting foreign policy in our bathrobe at five in the morning.”[2] Senator Klobuchar went on to say that although she would rejoin the deal, she would push for extended so-called ‘sunset periods,’ which are the eight, ten and fifteen year benchmarks for when certain nuclear restrictions placed on Iran would no longer be valid.[3] When posed a similar question, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard also reiterated her commitment to the deal, but stressed the need for restrictions on the country’s ballistic missile program.[4]

Surprisingly to some, in spite of Capitol Hill’s recent actions toward Saudi Arabia (including an unprecedented vote of disapproval in the Senate toward impending arms sales to the country) the anti-Saudi sentiment circulating in Washington did little to influence the conversation of the debate. The nation was only criticized once in an exchange between Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio and Gabbard over who was responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks. When Ryan justified a continued presence in Afghanistan by blaming the Taliban for, “flying planes into our buildings,” Gabbard quickly interjected, “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11, Al-Qaeda did.”[5] As the moderators were signaling the end of her speaking time, Gabbard’s comment, “You know who is protecting Al-Qaeda right now? It’s Saudi Arabia,” was drowned amidst the noise.[6] Given the public image debacles faced by Saudi Arabia since last October, their absence from the debate (which could have easily devolved into a widespread bashing of the Kingdom) is likely a pleasing respite for Saudi leadership.

Ultimately, night one did not reveal major foreign policy distinctions among the candidates, with the caveat that Senator Booker’s unwillingness to recommit to the 2015 version of the Iran Nuclear Agreement is unique for current Democratic party orthodoxy. The questions related to the moderators gave some well-received moments for candidates such as Klobuchar and Gabbard, however many of their counterparts not given the opportunity to discuss Iran likely have similar positions.

Night Two

As the second set of Democrats assembled on the stage for the final round of the first debates, foreign policy took even more of a backseat than previously. The Gulf region was not brought up until near the end of the debate when moderators questioned former Vice President Joe Biden’s initial support for the Invasion of Iraq. Biden answered by framing the decision as a learning experience saying that, “Bush abused that power.” He went on to then take credit for orchestrating the Obama Administration’s withdraw of troops from Iraq.[7] Seeing this answer as unsatisfactory however, was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who used the moment to quickly paint himself as the original opposition to the now-unpopular war saying, “Joe voted for that war, I helped lead the opposition to that war which was a total disaster,” a tactic reminiscent of that which he used against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary.[8] Bernie then used the moment to pivot to his most recent foreign policy achievement, passing a War Powers Resolution related to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, calling it, “the most horrific humanitarian disaster on earth.”[9]

Like the first night, escalating tensions with Iran were also referenced by the candidates. After recalling his legislative achievements related to Yemen, Senator Sanders pivoted to the topic, promising “I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran.”[10] The other candidate to highlight Iran as an issue was New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who said that her first foreign policy act as President would be to “engage with Iran…and make sure we do not start an unwanted war.” Gillibrand also used the moment to criticize President Trump, telling viewers that the president was “hellbent,” on creating military conflict between the two nations.[11]


Ultimately, the lack of significant chatter amongst the candidates related to the Gulf region (or Foreign policy in general) speaks to both the domestic priorities of voters, as well as the massive configuration of candidates. Arguably, there are only five candidates, who have indicated an intent to make foreign policy, or national security experience a large part of their candidacies. Three of those five (Biden, Gabbard, Sanders) qualified for the first round of debates, while the other two, (Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel) failed to meet the Democratic National Committee’s threshold. For other candidates such as Booker, Klobuchar and Gillibrand, their decision to speak on these issues is more a result of moderator questioning, rather than foreign affairs zeal. In the event that the random drawing determining placement for the next debate has more of these candidates on the same stage, then perhaps a more robust discussion with clearer fault-lines will emerge.



[1] Cory Booker, “Cory Booker Says He Won’t Necessarily Rejoin Obama’s Iran Deal,” The Huffington Post, June 26, 2019.

[2] Morgan Chalfant, “Klobuchar says Trump is ’10 Minutes’ Away From Going to War,” The Hill, June 26, 2019.

[3] Patrick Goodenough, “Booker, Gabbard, Klobuchar Portray Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal as Imperfect

[4] Goodnenough.

[5] Rebecca Morin, “Tim Ryan Incorrectly Said the Taliban Carried out the 9/11 Attack. Gabbard Quickly Responded.” USA Today, June 26, 2019.

[6] Tulsi Gabbard. Twitter Post. June 27, 2019. 12:05 AM.

[7] Veronice Rocha et. Al, “The First Democratic Debate, Night 2” CNN, June 28, 2019.

[8] “Bernie Sanders Hits Joe Biden Over Support for Iraq War,” NBC NEWS, YouTube pj;kjhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmfMeEFMm8c, June 27, 2019.

[9] “Bernie Sanders Hits Joe Biden Over Support for Iraq War,”

[10] “Bernie Sanders Hits Joe Biden Over Support for Iraq War,”

[11] Patrick Goodenough, “Democratic Candidates on Which Relationship They’d ‘Reset’ as President: Iran, China, NATO,” CNSNews.com, June 28, 2019.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy

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