The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Foreign Policy in the First Democratic Presidential Nominee Debate

October 14, 2015


So, after breaking out and analyzing the foreign policy aspects of the two Republican presidential nominee debates, it’s finally time for the Democrats to take center stage. I’ll be working off the transcript posted at the Washington Post.

The foreign policy starts early, with candidates touting their cred: Chafee notes that he voted against the Iraq war and served on the Foreign Relations Committee; Webb offers up his service in Vietnam and as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the the Navy, as well as his early support of the “pivot” to Asia.

The debate swings into domestic policy for a while, before arriving at the first foreign policy question:

COOPER: …I want to move on to another issue, which is in the headlines right now, another crisis making headlines.

Secretary Clinton, Russia, they’re challenging the U.S. in Syria. According to U.S. intelligence, they’ve lied about who they’re bombing. You spearheaded the reset with Russia. Did you underestimate the Russians, and as president, what would your response to Vladimir Putin be right now in Syria?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, we got a lot of business done with the Russians when Medvedev was the president, and not Putin. We got a nuclear arms deal, we got the Iranian sanctions, we got an ability to bring important material and equipment to our soldiers in Afghanistan.

There’s no doubt that when Putin came back in and said he was going to be President, that did change the relationship. We have to stand up to his bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important — and I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict.

And, to — provide safe zones so that people are not going to have to be flooding out of Syria at the rate they are. And, I think it’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position, which is what I’m advocating.

A very political answer, reflecting Clinton’s deep experience in foreign policy. She’s completely right that the US and Russia have many coinciding interests and have often found common ground to address some of the most serious global problems. It’s just not reasonable for the US to think that it can ignore Russia entirely. It’s not clear how she would “stand up to [Putin’s] bullying,” but at least she didn’t claim, like Chris Christie, that she would threaten to shoot down Russian fighters. And her claim that the US doesn’t have much clout unless it has some real skin in the game is right on; whether the US should create safe zones–and whether they would work and be worth the risks to the US–is an interesting policy question. But this comes off as a reasonably thoughtful and serious answer.

The same question is then directed to Sanders:

COOPER: Senator Sanders, what would you do differently.

SANDERS: Well, let’s understand that when we talk about Syria, you’re talking about a quagmire in a quagmire. You’re talking about groups of people trying to overthrow Assad, other groups of people fighting ISIS. You’re talking about people who are fighting ISIS using their guns to overthrow Assad, and vice versa.

I’m the former chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, and in that capacity I learned a very powerful lesson about the cost of war, and I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country. We should be putting together a coalition of Arab countries who should be leading the effort. We should be supportive, but I do not support American ground troops in Syria.

A completely Bernie answer. While generally I find his foreign policy too retrench-y, if not isolationist, here, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that the US has no business putting troops in Syria.

The debate then turned to the impact of supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

BASH: Governor Chafee, you were the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the Iraq war. You say Secretary Clinton should be disqualified from the presidency because she voted in favor of using force in Iraq. She has since said that her vote was a mistake. Why isn’t that good enough?

CHAFEE: Well, we just heard Senator Sanders say that it’s the worst decision in American history. That’s very significant, the worst decision in American history, I just heard from Senator Sanders.

So, as we look ahead, if you’re going to make those poor judgment calls, a critical time in our history, we just finished with the Vietnam era, getting back into another quagmire — if you’re looking ahead, and you’re looking at someone who made that poor decision in 2002 to go into Iraq when there was no real evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — I know because I did my homework, and, so, that’s an indication of how someone will perform in the future. And that’s what’s important.


BASH: Secretary Clinton, he’s questioning your judgment.

CLINTON: Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State.

He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him…


…in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.

You know, I — I agree completely. We don’t want American troops on the ground in Syria. I never said that. What I said was we had to put together a coalition — in fact, something that I worked on before I left the State Department — to do, and yes, that it should include Arabs, people in the region.

Because what I worry about is what will happen with ISIS gaining more territory, having more reach, and, frankly, posing a threat to our friends and neighbors in the region and far beyond.

So I think while you’re talking about the tough decision that President Obama had to make about Osama bin Laden, where I was one of his few advisers, or putting together that coalition to impose sanctions on Iran — I think I have a lot of evidence…

If making bad decisions was a disqualifying criterion for being president, no one who has ever served the public could ever be elected. Now, is it reasonable to argue that the Iraq war was so disastrous that it should be an exception? I’m not so sure. While the issue is obviously an exceedingly complicated one, I happen to believe that the error was not in the decision to go to war but in the way the US planned and implemented the post-war occupation and reconstruction. And there’s plenty of blame to go around there. But that blame does not fall on those that voted for the war, nor should those who voted against it get credit for their wisdom and foresight (unless they voted no for fear of the aftermath, as Sanders did [see his next answer below]). Clinton is right: A public career is more than a single decision.

Next, Sanders gets pushed on his foreign policy of retrenchment:

BASH: Senator Sanders — Senator Sanders, I want to bring you in here. My question for you is, as a congressman, you voted against the Iraq War. You voted against the Gulf War. You’re just talking about Syria, but under what circumstances would a President Sanders actually use force?

SANDERS: Let me just respond to something the secretary said. First of all, she is talking about, as I understand it, a no-fly zone in Syria, which I think is a very dangerous situation. Could lead to real problems.

Second of all, I heard the same evidence from President Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld about why we should overthrow Saddam Hussein and get involved in the — I would urge people to go to, hear what I said in 2002. And I say, without any joy in my heart, that much of what I thought would happen about the destabilization, in fact, did happen.

So I think…

BASH: All right.


SANDERS: I think the president is trying very hard to thread a tough needle here, and that is to support those people who are against Assad, against ISIS, without getting us on the ground there, and that’s the direction I believe we should have (inaudible).

COOPER: But, Senator Sanders, you didn’t answer the question. Under what — under what circumstances would you actually use force?

SANDERS: Well, obviously, I voted, when President Clinton said, “let’s stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” I voted for that. I voted to make sure that Osama bin Laden was held accountable in Afghanistan.

When our country is threatened, or when our allies are threatened, I believe that we need coalitions to come together to address the major crises of this country. I do not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action.

Two things stand out here: First, that Sanders believes that ethnic cleansing is worthy of the use of American military force ; second, that he “[does] not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action.” I’ll give the Sanders the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s simplifying for the debate format. Any president must believe that there are some situations in which the US must use unilateral force; anyone who has a blanket prohibition on that is dangerously unsuited to be president. However, this answer doesn’t really give us insight into when President Sanders would use force. What was it about Kosovo that justified an American intervention? Would he have intervened in Rwanda, where the humanitarian situation was unquestionably worse? What about the genocide of the Yazidis and the brutal human rights violations of ISIS? If Kosovo warranted intervention, why does Syria not? It’s not that these questions can’t be answered and justified, but we don’t really have enough here to assess when and where President Sanders would believe that the use of force would be justified.

O’Malley then gets his first foreign policy question:

COOPER: Secretary Clinton voted to authorize military force in Iraq, supported more troops in Afghanistan. As Secretary of State, she wanted to arm Syrian rebels and push for the bombing of Libya. Is she too quick to use military force?

O’MALLEY: Anderson, no president — no commander in chief — should take the military option off the table, even if most of us would agree that it should be the last option.

What disturbed people so much about — and I would agree with Senator Sanders on this — leading us into Iraq under false pretenses and telling us, as a people, that there were weapons of mass destruction there was — was one of the worst blunders in modern American history.

But the reason why people remain angry about it is because people feel like a lot of our legislators got railroaded in a war fever and by polls. And I remember being at a dinner shortly before that invasion. People were talking at — and saying, “it’ll take us just a couple years to rebuild democracy,” and I thought, “has this world gone mad?”

Whenever we go — and contrary to John Quincy Adams’ advice — “searching the world for monsters to destroy,” and when we use political might to take a — at the expense of democratic principle, we hurt ourselves, and we hurt our (inaudible).

COOPER: Does she — does she want to use military force too rapidly?

O’MALLEY: I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think Assad’s invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

A pretty solid answer from the person with the least foreign policy experience of the bunch. He’s right to say that the US should never take the use of force off the table, and he’s right to argue that the US needs to be much more reluctant to use the military to spread democracy. He’s also right to think carefully about the risk of imposing no-fly zones in Syria. A thoughtful answer, even if a relatively safe and easy one.

Clinton responds:

CLINTON: You know, I have to say, I was very pleased when Governor O’Malley endorsed me for president in 2008, and I enjoyed his strong support in that campaign. And I consider him, obviously, a friend.

Let me say — because there’s a lot of loose talk going on here — we are already flying in Syria just as we are flying in Iraq. The president has made a very tough decision. What I believe and why I have advocated that the no-fly zone — which of course would be in a coalition — be put on the table is because I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table. You know, diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution. It’s about how you balance the risks.

COOPER: Thank you.

CLINTON: And I think we have an opportunity here — and I know that inside the administration this is being hotly debated — to get that leverage to try to get the Russians to have to deal with everybody in the region and begin to move toward a political, diplomatic solution in Syria.

Clinton returns to the theme she introduced before: if the US wants to have any leverage over Russia and the situation in Syria more broadly, it needs to be involved to a greater degree than it is today. That strikes me as correct. And that safe zones and no-fly zones would be the best way to do that. She talks about balancing risks, so we might be able to assume that she has thought about the increased likelihood of an accident or misunderstanding with Russia potentially leading to an military exchange. And she is 100% right that “diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution.”

Webb, who was demonstrably upset about being left out of this conversion, gets a question about Benghazi, which he wisely ignores:

COOPER: Senator Webb, you said as president you would never have used military force in Libya and that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was, in your words, “inevitable.” Should Secretary Clinton have seen that attack coming?

WEBB: Look, let’s start — I’ve been trying to get in this conversation for about 10 minutes — let’s start with why Russia is in Syria right now. There are three strategic failings that have allowed this to occur. The first was the invasion of Iraq, which destabilized ethnic elements in Iraq and empowered Iran. The second was the Arab Spring, which created huge vacuums in Libya and in Syria that allowed terrorist movements to move in there. And the third was the recent deal allowing Iran to move forward and eventually acquire a nuclear weapon, which sent bad signals, bad body language into the region about whether we are acquiescing in Iran becoming a stronger piece of the formula in that part of the world.

Now, I say this as someone who spent five years in the Pentagon and who opposed the war in Iraq, whose son fought in Iraq, I’ve fought in Vietnam. But if you want a place where we need to be in terms of our national strategy, a focus, the greatest strategic threat that we have right now is resolving our relationship with China. And we need to do this because of their aggression in the region. We need to do it because of the way they treat their own people.

COOPER: Senator…

WEBB: And I would say this. I’ve been waiting for 10 minutes. I will say this.

COOPER: You’re over your time as of now.

WEBB: I will — well, you’ve let a lot of people go over their time. I would say this…

COOPER: You agreed to these debate rules.

WEBB: … to the unelected, authoritarian government of China: You do not own the South China Sea. You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of American citizens. And in a Webb administration, we will do something about that.

This answer would have fit nicely in the Republican debates. It’s a whole lot of nothing. A Webb administration “will do something” about Chinese cyber activity. Wow…something? Really? That’s great. A Webb administration will “[resolve] our relationship with China.” Wow…that’s great too! We do learn that he thinks the Iran deal was a bad agreement. But other than that, there’s nothing here. It seems like he should have been able to come up with something better while waiting for 10 minutes to talk.

Sanders then comments on Syria:

SANDERS: Well, I think Mr. Putin is going to regret what he is doing. I think that when he gets into that…

COOPER: He doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to regret a lot.

SANDERS: Well, I think he’s already regretting what he did in Crimea and what he is doing in the Ukraine. I think he is really regretting the decline of his economy. And I think what he is trying to do now is save some face. But I think when Russians get killed in Syria and when he gets bogged down, I think the Russian people are going to give him a message that maybe they should come home, maybe they should start working with the United States to rectify the situation now.

Fair enough. This is certainly a possibility, but it doesn’t give us much insight into how Sanders thinks about foreign policy.

Clinton then gets the same question on Benghazi that Webb ignores. She ignores it as well:

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, on the campaign trail, Governor Webb has said that he would never have used military force in Libya and that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was inevitable. Should you have seen that attack coming?

CLINTON: Well, let’s remember what was going on. We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands, as I’m sure you remember, threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, “We want you to help us deal with Gadhafi.”

Our response, which I think was smart power at its best, is that the United States will not lead this. We will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line. We did not put one single American soldier on the ground in Libya. And I’ll say this for the Libyan people…

COOPER: But American citizens did lose their lives in Benghazi.

CLINTON: But let — I’ll get to that. But I think it’s important, since I understand Senator Webb’s very strong feelings about this, to explain where we were then and to point out that I think President Obama made the right decision at the time.

And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things, there was turmoil to be followed.

But unless you believe the United States should not send diplomats to any place that is dangerous, which I do not, then when we send them forth, there is always the potential for danger and risk.

Libya is going to be a point of weakness for Clinton throughout her campaign, as Libya is arguably just as big of a disaster as Iraq. And it’s certainly questionable whether there really was going to be a “mass genocide” there. Her claim that Libya represents the ideal use of “smart power” (a ridiculous term that generally is used to mean successful uses of power) is absurd: the US responded to European concerns over the situation in Libya and repeated the mistakes of Iraq in removing an authoritarian leader of a country rife with ethnic division that resulted in the near-dissolution of the country and the unleashing of Islamist forces. She elides over what happens, noting that Libya had an election and then “turmoil followed”. That’s pretty disingenuous there. The best answer Clinton could give is that Libya wasn’t really an American operation; the US was merely supporting the Europeans for whom Libya was much more important. This could, in turn, open her up to claims of supporting Obama’s abdication of US global leadership, but that’s a price she might have to pay.

Cooper than more or less forces O’Malley and Webb to answer his Benghazi question, which they do. But the question and their answers aren’t worth addressing here. Webb then gets a question whether Sanders can be CINC of the American military given that during the Vietnam War he applied for status as a conscientious objector:

COOPER: Secretary (sic) Webb, you served in Vietnam. You’re a marine. Once a marine, always a marine. You served as a marine in Vietnam. You’re a decorated war hero. You eventually became secretary of the navy.

During the Vietnam War, the man standing next to you, Senator Sanders, applied for status as a conscientious objector. Given his history, can he serve as a credible commander-in-chief?

WEBB: Everybody makes their decisions when the time there is conscription. And as long as they go through the legal process that our country requires, I respect that. And it would be for the voters to decide whether Senator Sanders or anyone else should be president.

I will say this, coming from the position that I’ve come from, from a military family, with my brother a marine, my son was a marine in Iraq, I served as a marine, spending five years in the Pentagon, I am comfortable that I am the most qualified person standing up here today to be your commander-in-chief.

Not much of an answer, but a very generous one coming from someone who did indeed serve in Vietnam.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, tell an American soldier who is watching right now tonight in Afghanistan why you can be commander-in- chief given that you applied for conscientious objector status.

SANDERS: Well, first of all, let me applaud my good friend Jim Webb for his service to this country in so many ways.


SANDERS: Jim and I, under Jim’s leadership, as he indicated, passed the most significant veterans education bill in recent history. We followed suit with a few years later passing, under my leadership, the most significant veterans’ health care legislation in the modern history of this country.


SANDERS: When I was a young man — I’m not a young man today. When I was a young man, I strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. Not the brave men like Jim who fought in that war, but the policy which got us involved in that war. That was my view then.


SANDERS: I am not a pacifist, Anderson. I supported the war in Afghanistan. I supported President Clinton’s effort to deal with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I support air strikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do.

Yes, I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that war should be the last resort that we have got to exercise diplomacy. But yes, I am prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary.

Sanders essentially repeats his position from before: there are times when he would support the use of US military force, but he won’t clearly identify the criteria that he uses to make that decision. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect him to do so in this format, but at some point, Sanders is going to have to answer this question if he wants to have a serious chance at being president.

Chafee and Webb get into it over whether the Iran nuclear agreement was in part responsible for the Russian entry into Syria:

CHAFEE: OK. I just have to answer one thing that Senator Webb said about the Iran deal, because I’m a strong proponent of what President Obama — and he said that because of that the Iran deal that enabled Russia to come in.

No, that’s not true, Senator Webb. I respect your foreign policy chops. But Russia is aligned with Iran and with Assad and the Alawite Shias in Syria. So that Iran deal did not allow Russia to come in.

COOPER: OK. Senator, I can give you 30 seconds to respond.

WEBB: I believe that the signal that we sent to the region when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded was that we are accepting Iran’s greater position on this very important balance of power, among our greatest ally Israel, and the Sunnis represented by the Saudi regime, and Iran. It was a position of weakness and I think it encouraged the acts that we’ve seen in the past several weeks.

A very interesting disagreement about the degree to which the Iran deal conceded regional hegemony or hegemonic aspirations to Iran and its effect on Russian foreign policy. Chafee is probably right that both Iran and Russia would have gotten involved in Syria regardless of the outcome of the nuclear negotiations  (Hezbollah got in to Syria in 2012). But Webb’s answer does tell us something about he thinks about global diplomacy. Webb’s answer is more about Iran than Russia, but he needs to be more clear about why the deal should be seen as a sign of American weakness rather than strength and under what conditions diplomacy is not a signal of appeasement.

Cooper then asks each candidate to name the greatest national security threat facing the US:

COOPER: Thirty seconds for each of you. Governor Chafee, what is the greatest national security threat to the United States?

CHAFEE: It’s certainly the chaos in the Middle East. There’s no doubt about it.


CHAFEE: And it all started with the Iraq invasion.

COOPER: Governor O’Malley?

O’MALLEY: I believe that nuclear Iran remains the biggest threat, along with the threat of ISIL; climate change, of course, makes cascading threats even more (inaudible).

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, the greatest national security threat?

CLINTON: I — I think it has to be continued threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands. I know the terrorists are constantly seeking it, and that’s why we have to stay vigilant, but also united around the world to prevent that.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, greatest national security threat?

SANDERS: The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.

COOPER: Senator Webb?

WEBB: Our greatest long-term strategic challenge is our relation with China. Our greatest day-to-day threat is cyber warfare against this country. Our greatest military-operational threat is resolving the situations in the Middle East.

Given the AP’s report on the attempts by black marketeers to sell fissile material to jihadis, Clinton’s answer is certainly timely. But it’s hard to see that as the greatest threat to the US, if only because low probability, high magnitude threats tend to produce “1% doctrine” kind of responses. O’Malley and Sanders both name climate change, which, while potentially a major threat to the US, is ill-suited to be addressed through the mechanisms of national security. O’Malley also lists a nuclear Iran and ISIS, Chafee answers that it’s the Middle East, while Webb gives a nuanced answer, separating long-term challenges from immediate ones from military ones.  A great question that gives some interesting insight into how each candidate understands US national security its relation to global security. Sanders emphasizes (positively or negatively, I’m not sure) his rejection of traditional security paradigms. Clinton reveals her insider status by focusing on the nightmare scenario for any president. Whether that should objectively be seen as the most serious threat is not so clear.

Foreign policy disappears for a long time, returning when Chafee notes how his administration would differ from Obama’s:

COOPER: Another — another question for each of you, starting with Governor Chafee.

Name the one thing — the one way that your administration would not be a third term of President Obama.

CHAFEE: Certainly, ending the wars. We’ve got to stop these wars. You have to have a new dynamic, a new paradigm. We just spent a half-billion dollars arming and training soldiers, the rebel soldiers in Syria. They quickly join the other side. We bombed the…


COOPER: President Obama’s generals right now are suggesting keeping troops in Afghanistan after the time he wanted them pulled out. Would you keep them there?

CHAFEE: I’d like to finish my question — my answer.

And also we just bombed a hospital. We’ve had drone strikes that hit civilian weddings. So I would change how we — our approach to the Middle East. We need a new paradigm in the Middle East.

A weak non-answer. It’s not enough to just talk about ending wars. Obama is certainly realizing this as the resurgence of the Taliban and the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan are forcing him to rethink the withdrawal of US troops.

That concludes the foreign policy discussion. So, what did we learn?

First, that all of the Democratic candidates are thoughtful and careful when it comes to foreign policy. By contrast, most of the Republicans come off as uninformed, overly simplistic, jingoistic, and insanely hawkish.

Second, Sanders has serious questions about his ability to be president. He needs to clearly identify the criteria under which he believes US intervention would be justified. I’m not saying that he is unqualified, but given his general approach to politics, we need to know more about how he understands the US’s role in the international system, the nature of American global leadership, and the purpose and role of the US military.

Third, Webb’s foreign policy is closest to the Republicans. He sees the Iran deal as a sign of weakness from the US and worries about American global leadership. He’s focused on China. And he knows that his military experience is a serious advantage over the others.

Fourth, Chafee comes off the worst, to my eyes. His answers are the most vague and undeveloped,

Finally, Clinton’s foreign policy is entirely predictable (not that that’s a bad thing). Few analysts or academics would identify terrorists acquiring nuclear material as the single most significant national security threat faced by the US, but an experienced political leader, who is incentivized to focus on high-magnitude events, certainly would.


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Seth Weinberger is Associate Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound. He received his B.A. (1993) in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, an M.A. (1995) in Security Studies from Georgetown University, and an M.A. (2000) and Ph.D. (2005) in political science from Duke University. He teaches courses on international relations, U.S. foreign policy, international security, terrorism, constitutional law, and political philosophy. His book, Restoring the Balance: War Powers in an Age of Terror was published by Praeger Press in 2009. His recently published articles include “Enemies Among Us: The Targeted Killing of American Members of al Qaeda and the Need for Congressional Leadership” in the Georgetown Global Security Studies Review (Spring 2013) and “Institutional Signals: The Political Dimension of International Competition Law Harmonization” (with Geoffrey A. Manne) in The Anti-Trust Bulletin (57, no. 3). His current research focuses on congressional-executive war powers in the on-going armed conflict against al Qaeda. In 2011, Professor Weinberger received the Thomas A. Davis Teaching Excellence Award.