New York, Nov 21 : Democrats vying for the party's presidential nomination trained their guns on President Donald Trump in their debate that came in the middle of impeachment hearings while heatedly clashing on US role abroad.
The testimony at the impeachment hearings showed that here is "a criminal enterprise engaged in by the president, from what we heard today, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the Chief of Staff," said Kamala Harris at the fifth debate on Wednesday summing up the dominant sentiment of the ten candidates on the stage.
"Donald Trump is the greatest threat to the national security of our nation at this moment," she said referring to his foreign policy moves.
Although Trump and domestic issues got top billings, the moments of high drama came during two clashes over foreign policy pitching the establishment candidates against the insurgents.
Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu American to make a serious bid for presidential nomination, started it by assailing the party leadership's previous support for foreign military intervention.
She said the Democratic Party "has been and continues to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, represented by Hillary Clinton and others' foreign policy, by the military industrial complex, and other greedy corporate interests".
Americans "are calling for an end to this ongoing Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars, overthrowing dictators in other countries, needlessly sending my brothers and sisters in uniform into harm's way to fight in wars that actually undermine our national security and have cost us thousands of American lives".
"This is personal to me because I served in Iraq. I left my seat in the state legislature in Hawaii, volunteered to deploy to Iraq," Gabbard, who continues to be a major in the Army National Guard, said.
Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican-African descent, responded saying that Gabbard "has spent full time criticizing people on this stage as affiliated with the Democratic Party", meeting Trump before he became President, and visiting Syrian leader Bashar al Assad whom she "fails to call a war criminal".
Gabbard hit back: "What Senator Harris is doing is unfortunately continuing to traffic in lies and smears and innuendos because she cannot challenge the substance of the argument that I'm making." In an earlier debate, Gabbard had highlighted criticism of Harris's tough record as a prosecutor setting off her downward spiral in polls.
As for her meeting with Assad, Gabbard said later during the debate: "I take the example of those leaders who have come before us, leaders like J.F.K. (John F. Kennedy), who met with (Soviet Cold War leader Nikita Khrushchev), like (F.D.) Roosevelt, who met with (Soviet World War II leader Josef) Stalin." She later criticised Pete Buttigieg, a small town mayor who has made a big splash, for saying that he would deploy US troops in Mexico to fight drug cartels.
The other clash was between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Sanders said: "One of the big differences between the Vice President and myself is he supported the terrible war in Iraq and I helped lead the opposition against it. And not only that, I voted against the very first Gulf War, as well." He also made his case for reducing military spending saying that the US expenditure is more than that of the next ten countries.
South Asia did not figure in the foreign policy discussion, except for a passing mention of negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Sanders said: "If it's necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, of course, we will do that" and added that the war on terror has to be rethought.
Biden said that he would make human rights a central issue in dealing with China and Saudi Arabia, which has "very little social redeeming value".
He also said that he would assert US role as a Pacific power, building up its military there, and in association with countries like Japan. South Korea and Australia put pressure on China to make the Korean peninsula nuclear-free.
Harris said that Trump got "punked" by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un who took advantage of him.
Buttigieg opposed the trade war launched by Trump on China, but warned of its rise in technology and the US losing out. "We are spending a fraction of the attention and resources on things like the artificial intelligence research that China is doing right now," he said.
Senator Corey Booker said that on China, "we need a much stronger policy, one that's not led, as President Trump seems to want to do, in a transactional way, but one that's led by American values. So, yes, we will call China out for its human rights violations".
Biden said he would stop selling arms to Riyadh.
He got support from Sanders, who said Saudi Arabia was not a reliable ally.
But Sanders offered a novel suggestion for US diplomacy in the Mideast. "We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room under American leadership and say we are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts." In domestic affairs, the candidates differed on a government-monopoly healthcare system that Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders have proposed, but others like Biden oppose, and a billionaires' tax Warren wants and some like Booker are skeptical of.
Beyond foreign policy issues like his handling of Ukraine, Trump was criticised for a whole range of domestic policies and actions from his crackdown on illegal immigration - which Warren said resulted in children being held in "cages" separate from their parents - to installing his associates in key jobs.
But Sanders also cautioned his party against making Trump the center of the Democratic campaign at the expense of policy issues, He said: "We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump, because if we are, you know what? We're going to lose the election." "We can deal with Trump's corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country. We also have to stand up to the fact that our political system is corrupt, dominated by a handful of billionaires, and that our economy is rigged with three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of America." (Arul Louis can be contacted at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @arulouis)