The debates' message to Putin

Presidential candidates Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and Bill de Blasio participate in the CNN Democratic debate in Detroit on Wednesday, July 31.

Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Barack Obama's National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)As millions of Americans tuned into two nights of Democratic presidential candidates talking about everything from health care to Honduras, we weren't the only ones watching. Foreign officials -- and their bots and trolls -- were likely pouncing on what the candidates had to say and using it to decide where to apply their own resources and support going forward.

 Sam Vinograd
Still, despite the fact that the threats facing our elections have gotten more complex and more public since 2016, election security was not a central focus. Russia, Iran, China and potentially others want to interfere in our elections. They've had years to up their game and evolve their tactics, but candidates didn't point out that, as important as debates are to our democracy, they're also Russian President Vladimir Putin's prime time to sow divisions. Key topics during the debate -- like health care and climate change -- are divisive for Americans, which means that they're ideal targets for Putin's information warriors. Bots and trolls got a treasure trove of new content to retweet and amplify on social media.
More generally, the content of the debates sent a message that domestic policy issues are dominating -- with candidates citing detailed facts about their opponents' records on health care, crime and immigration. For governments who are actively attacking us -- or seeking to do so -- these debates also signaled that the Democrats will not be prioritizing their threats anytime soon.
This is particularly alarming, because despite the fact that any candidate's ability to win the election could be influenced by election insecurities and vulnerabilities -- and any candidate's ability to govern could be impacted by foreign attacks on our democracy -- the content of the candidates' remarks did not suggest an awareness of the gravity of these threats.
Our allies -- who have been harassed and harangued under President Donald Trump -- also didn't hear candidates talk much about how they would repair relationships and refocus on protecting rather than insulting American allies. They may read this as a signal that we're self-centered for now -- foreign policy and national security is more of an afterthought than a priority during the election cycle. This tracks with the public's top policy priorities, but the strength of the threats against our democracy and the damage that's been done to our national security is unprecedented.
For the few minutes when foreign policy was discussed, there was some consensus. Eighteen years into our war in Afghanistan, candidates who spoke on the topic agreed on the need to draw down our troops. And while the Trump administration is currently negotiating with the Taliban about a US troop withdrawal, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said he wouldn't put an arbitrary timeline on withdrawing, the Taliban and our Afghan allies are hearing from the current and potentially future President that a withdrawal is forthcoming. This could lead our enemies to not make any serious commitments to establish the conditions that would lead to a responsible withdrawal.
While the issue of Iran was raised, it was not clear that the candidates understood or had time to acknowledge that even if Trump is voted out of office in 2020, the foreign affairs landscape could be ever more complex. Iran has broken its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal, which shortens the time it could take them to break out to a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, North Korea is seemingly continuing to advance its own nuclear capabilities.
If a Democrat defeats Trump in 2020, our next president could be faced with a nuclear-armed Iran and an even more powerful nuclear North Korea. We did not hear a plan during the debates about how candidates would deal with the situation they may inherit from Trump and how they would reestablish the non-proliferation regime that past presidents have pursued. So even if Iran wanted to try to wait out Trump - in hopes that a Democrat wins in 2020 - they can't be sure that sanctions relief would come from a new president, especially if Iran's nuclear program is stronger by then.
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