The election that killed foreign policy. Paul Pillar remarks on the damage that the campaign has done to America’s reputation and the neglect of foreign policy in the presidential debates.
Let’s rethink what “leadership” means in foreign policy. Daniel Davis calls for distinguishing between real leadership and reflexive interventionism.
Does America need overseas bases? John Glaser contends that overseas bases aren’t all that useful or necessary for U.S. security.
As the Bouteflika era ends, what’s next for Algeria? Vish Sakthivel looks ahead to what may follow the end of the Algerian president’s long tenure.
“The dynamic is totally different from what I saw a decade ago” when Democratic and Republican elites were feuding over the invasion of Iraq, said Brian Katulis, a senior Middle East analyst at the Center for American Progress. Today, the focus among the foreign policy elite is on rebuilding a more muscular and more “centrist internationalism,” he said [bold mine-DL].
Every term used in that last sentence is either misleading or flat-out wrong. A more aggressive policy in Syria or anywhere else shouldn’t be described as “muscular” for a few reasons. For one thing, committing the U.S. to short-sighted and ill-conceived military interventions does nothing to enhance the strength or security of the country. Such a policy doesn’t build strength–it wastes it. Calling an aggressive policy “muscular” betrays a bias that aggressive measures are the ones that demonstrate strength, when they usually just demonstrate policymakers’ crude and clumsy approach to foreign problems. One might just as easily describe these policies as meat-headed instead.
“Centrist” is one of the most overused and abused words in our politics. The term is often used to refer to positions that are supposedly moderate, pragmatic, and relatively free of ideological bias, but here we can see that it refers to something very different. Many people that are considered to be “centrists” on the normal left-right political spectrum are frequently in favor of a much more aggressive foreign policy than the one we have now, but that doesn’t make their foreign policy a moderate or pragmatic one. In fact, this “centrism” is not really a position in between the two partisan extremes, both of which would be satisfied with a less activist and interventionist foreign policy than we have today, but represents an extreme all its own. Besides, there’s nothing moderate or pragmatic about being determined to entangle the U.S. deeper in foreign wars, and that is what this so-called “centrist” foreign policy aims to do.
Likewise, it is fairly misleading to call what is being proposed here internationalist. It shows no respect for international law. Hawkish proposals to attack Syria or carve out “safe zones” by force simply ignore that the U.S. has no right or authority to do either of these things. There appears to be scant interest in pursuing international cooperation, except insofar as it is aimed at escalating existing conflicts. One would also look in vain for working through international institutions. The only thing that is international about this “centrist internationalism” seems to be that it seeks to inflict death and destruction on people in other countries.
Many in the foreign policy establishment are laying out the blueprints for more aggressive policies overseas under a Clinton administration:
Taken together, the studies and reports call for more-aggressive American action to constrain Iran, rein in the chaos in the Middle East and check Russia in Europe.
The studies, which reflect Clinton’s stated views and the direction she is likely to take if she is elected [bold mine-DL], break most forcefully with Obama on Syria. Virtually all these efforts, including a report that will be released Wednesday by the liberal Center for American Progress, call for stepped up military action to deter President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russian forces in Syria.
The proposed military measures include calls for safe zones to protect moderate rebels from Syrian and Russian forces. Most of the studies propose limited American airstrikes with cruise missiles to punish Assad if he continues to attack civilians with barrel bombs, as is currently happening in besieged Aleppo. So far, Obama has staunchly resisted any military action against the Assad regime.
Clinton’s predictable hawkishness is not news to me or anyone reading my posts on her foreign policy over the years, but for much of the last year there have been several attempts to dismiss or downplay Clinton’s record and her own statements about what she wants to do abroad. The presidential debates mostly ignored foreign policy, and Clinton faced very few hard questions about what she did in the Obama administration or what she would do in the White House. That the U.S. will have a significantly more aggressive foreign policy under Clinton–happily embraced by much of the foreign policy establishment–seems to be obvious to anyone that looks at the evidence, but it is one of the least-discussed parts of the election campaign.
Even though Clinton’s proposed policies commit the U.S. to a larger military role in Syria and potentially risk even greater escalation with Russia in the future, she has largely been given a pass for this and for endorsing more aggressive policies across the board. The problem here isn’t just that those policies are dangerous and reckless, but that she has been allowed to go through the entire campaign without having her proposals put under the necessary scrutiny and criticism that any presidential candidate should have to undergo. Clinton will be coming into office with a more aggressive foreign policy agenda that has never been seriously debated and which most voters will know little or nothing about.
Foreign policy professionals and pundits have spent the last several years paving the way for this more aggressive foreign policy with their constant complaints about America’s supposed “retreat” from the world under Obama and his alleged “inaction” in Syria. In reality, the U.S. hasn’t retreated, it is is deeply ensnared in multiple foreign conflicts, and it has been anything but inactive in Syria, but according to the fantasy version of the last seven years Obama has presided over “withdrawal” and “retrenchment.” That sets up Clinton to offer a supposed “middle ground” between Bush and Obama:
Virtually no one among the foreign policy elite is calling for a return to the Bush administration policies that led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the costly occupation of Iraq. Instead, they are advocating something of a middle ground between Bush’s interventionism and Obama’s retrenchment.
So Clinton’s foreign policy will strike a “balance” between Obama’s eight years of unending war in multiple countries and Bush’s very costly, illegal, and strategically disastrous debacle. The “middle ground” framing used to describe Clinton’s position is damning. It tells us that her foreign policy is supposed to be equidistant between Bush’s exorbitant and ruinous record and Obama’s largely unsuccessful but much less expensive one, and the amazing thing is that her supporters think this is something to tout. In practice, this guarantees the continuation of existing wars and it likely means the initiation of new ones somewhere down the road.
The third presidential debate was arguably the most substantive of the general election, but that wasn’t a high bar to clear. It was also probably Trump’s best performance against Clinton, but it still wasn’t nearly good enough to close the gap between them. His refusal to say simply that he would accept the result of the election became the main takeaway from the debate and the banner headline in practically every newspaper. Trump was very likely to lose the election anyway at this point, but he seems determined to lose it in a way that will bring even more discredit on him and his supporters. He managed to overshadow everything else he said during the debate with that one answer, and anything else he said–for good or ill–will receive very little attention. Since Trump was already trailing Clinton going into the debate, the onus was on him to score a clear victory. He did not, and he missed his last major chance to make the election more competitive. That failure is his, and no one else did it to him.
Clinton was forced to dodge questions about donors to the Clinton Foundation and her support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria, but that was the result of tough questioning from the moderator. Her answers to these questions were woefully inadequate and evasive, but her opponent didn’t take advantage of them. Trump never really managed to get the better of Clinton the entire night, and he tended to ramble aimlessly in response to questions that might have worked to his advantage. On more than one occasion, he ended up railing against the nuclear deal with Iran in response to questions that had nothing to do with it. This not only kept him from giving a coherent answer to the questions he was asked, but it also showed how heavily he relied on discredited hawkish talking points when he ran into difficulty. At one point, Trump tried to attack Clinton over New START, which he laughably called “the start-up.” Even if there had been merit to Trump’s criticism, he made such a hash of it as to make his attack useless.
The result of all this was that Clinton was able to escape scrutiny of most of her record. She was never asked to defend her support for the Libyan war, nor did she really have to answer for anything else that she did as Secretary of State. Once again, her opponent didn’t know enough to know how to use her record against her. Despite her poor record on foreign policy, Clinton was able to get off almost completely scot-free.
As I feared, the final presidential debate paid almost no attention to foreign policy except as it related to Iraq and Syria. I’ll comment on the candidates’ answers in a later post, but first I wanted to say a few things about the almost total neglect of foreign policy in the general election to date. Foreign policy is without a doubt one of the principal responsibilities of the president, and it is an area where the president has the greatest leeway with the least resistance from the other branches of government. Congress’ abdication of responsibility in this area is well-known. That suggests that the presidential candidates’ views on foreign policy should be among the most important things to know about them, and it means that voters need to be informed about the candidates’ understanding of the relevant issues and how to address them. For the most part, that isn’t happening, and it’s a serious problem that ought to concern us all.
Perhaps more than in any election cycle since 2000, foreign policy has received remarkably little attention in the general election (and it didn’t receive much more during the primaries), and many pressing issues have been ignored entirely throughout the campaign. The war in Afghanistan and the war on Yemen are among the most obvious and damning omissions in my view, but one could find quite a few other other important things that the candidates have never been asked about. We have almost no idea how either candidate would approach approximately nine-tenths of the rest of the world, and the election is in less than three weeks. That is pathetic even by our usual poor political standards.
To some extent, the neglect of foreign policy is a reflection of voters’ lack of interest in it, but that can’t fully account for the consistent absence of questions about ongoing wars that the U.S. is involved in or actively supporting. Coverage of foreign policy in presidential candidate debates has often narrowly focused on the Near East and terrorism, but last night’s debate verged on being a parody of that. Based solely on last night’s debate, the average viewer would conclude that the U.S. was involved nowhere else in the world except in Syria and Iraq, and there would have been no indication that the U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan after fifteen years or that it has been enabling the wreckage of Yemen for eighteen months. The candidates have never been asked what they would do about these wars, and they aren’t being asked about them because the U.S. role in these wars isn’t even being publicly acknowledged during our election process. The U.S. is perpetually at war, and some of those wars aren’t even up for debate during the process of choosing the next president. No matter what one thinks about the policies in question, that cannot possibly be healthy for our country or our system of government. It isn’t possible to hold candidates accountable for policies that they are never asked about and have never had to defend publicly, and a president can’t be kept in check when he or she is never challenged to justify policies that entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts. If our system is failing so completely during an election year, it seems certain to be even worse once the campaign is over. The debates were the time to demand answers from the candidates on these and other pressing issues, but that opportunity has been thoroughly squandered.
Jonathan Chait wonders why the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee is pulling its resources out of the Florida race:
Yes, Rubio was steamrolled in the primaries. But not every candidate who loses is a bad politician. If Rubio holds his Senate seat by a few points or less, and then wins his party’s nomination in four years, Democrats will be kicking themselves they didn’t pull out every stop to end his political career, in the short term, when they had the chance.
It’s still possible that Rubio could end up losing the re-election bid he had said he wouldn’t pursue, but even if he wins Chait is worrying about a scenario that is extremely unlikely to happen. Rubio may very well run for president again in the next cycle. His multiple statements that he doesn’t intend to do that don’t mean very much, and they mean even less when we remember that he pledged not to seek re-election because of his last presidential campaign. But another Rubio campaign would likely be hampered by many of the same problems that dogged him this year: his reputation for opportunism, his flip-flopping on the Gang of Eight bill that gave him that reputation, his lack of relevant experience, and his lack of any accomplishments in the Senate.
Supposing that Rubio does win re-election, he would end up in an evenly-divided or Democratic-controlled Senate where he would have few opportunities to put his name on any legislation that has a chance of being signed into law. If he did manage to get his name on a major bill signed by Clinton, that would tar him in the eyes of many Republicans, and if he doesn’t he would continue to be a senator who gets nothing done for his constituents. Trump voters would have no reason to get behind a future Rubio bid since he represents much of what they dislike about the party, and many anti-Trump Republicans would presumably hold his late support for Trump against him. All politicians are opportunists, but Rubio is a little too obvious and abrupt in his maneuvering, and that means that lots of people on both sides of the party don’t trust him. Obviously, many things can happen between now and then that could change some of this, but I very much doubt that the GOP is going to change so much in the next few years that enough primary voters are going to get behind Rubio next time around.
All of this should go without saying, but for some reason Rubio is judged by a very different standard. Any other candidate who was trounced in his own state’s primary and won only a handful of other contests in a race against two of the least likable people in his party would not be taken seriously as a major contender for the nomination in the future. He would be appropriately written off. If Rubio loses next month, maybe he finally will be.
Foreign policy has received relatively little attention so far in the debates, but we might hear a bit more about a wider range of these issues tonight. One of the announced topics for the final 2016 presidential debate is “foreign hot spots,” which suggests that the candidates will be pressed for their views on various conflicts and flashpoints around the globe. It is almost a given that one question will be on the recently announced Mosul offensive against ISIS, and I assume there will be more of the same leading Syria questions that we heard last time. Ideally, we should also hear questions about at least two of the following: the ongoing war in Afghanistan, heightened tensions between India and Pakistan following the attack in Uri, the war on Yemen and the U.S. role in it, the supposed firing of missiles at U.S. ships in the Red Sea related to that role, the Russian deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, and the public rift between the U.S. and the Philippines under its new president. All of these involve U.S. policies and relationships in one way or another, and we have not heard much of anything from either candidate about any of them. I doubt that any of these additional topics will come up tonight, but Wallace may surprise me.
Tonight will be Trump’s last chance to challenge Clinton on her lackluster foreign policy record. He has mostly failed to do this in the last two debates, and I don’t expect him to do any better this time. If he could spell out the dangerous implications of Clinton’s Syria policy, that could finally put her on the defensive and possibly put a dent in her support, but to do that he would have to know what he’s talking about. Meanwhile, Clinton has been allowed to skate through the entire campaign without facing much scrutiny on foreign policy at all, and there is almost no time left. For all the talk of how this was going to be a foreign policy election, the subject has mostly been ignored for the duration of the general election. Considering that the next president will take office while the U.S. is fighting and/or supporting at least three wars after fifteen years of being at war somewhere in the world, this is a major failure on the part of the candidates and the media. Americans are electing another wartime president, but the candidates have had to answer remarkably few questions about how and why they would continue America’s entanglements in foreign conflicts.
P.S. As usual, I will be covering the debate on Twitter (@DanielLarison). The debate begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
Chris Cillizza watched Marco Rubio’s opening statement from his Senate election debate last night and said this:
The fundamental core appeal of Rubio — his story and the way he tells it — is much more where the Republican Party needs to head if it wants to be a majority party in the country going forward.
The part of Rubio’s “story” that Cillizza doesn’t address in his post is the section where Rubio claims all sorts of achievements on behalf of his constituents. Rubio said:
I’m proud of what we’ve done in my nine years as a state legislator, two of them as speaker, and in my six years in the United States Senate. Tonight, throughout this debate, you will hear about the numerous accomplishments, things that I’ve done, real things–not just letters that I’ve signed on to or bills that I’ve co-sponsored–but laws that we passed that have been good for America and good for the state of Florida.
This sounds fine, but the core problem with this part of the story is that it isn’t true. Rubio’s time in the Senate included one failed attempt on immigration legislation that he abandoned to the consternation of his one-time allies and the embarrassment of his original supporters. The rest of his record was practically empty, and then became more so as he skipped out on his job to run for president. Naming a single accomplishment as senator was a recurring problem for his surrogates during the primaries, because there was nothing any of them could cite. Rubio is a senator with no significant accomplishments to his name, and he shortchanged his voters by neglecting his job for almost a third of his term. He is trying to pretend otherwise in a re-election campaign that he said he wouldn’t run. Anyone that still thinks that Rubio could have been or still could be the answer to the GOP’s electoral problems in this or some future presidential race is just kidding himself.
Shadi Hamid thinks the world needs U.S. military interventions:
If the United States announced tomorrow morning that it would no longer use its military for anything but to defend the borders of the homeland, many would instinctively cheer, perhaps not quite realizing what this would mean in practice. But that is the conundrum the Left is now facing. A world without mass slaughter, of the sort of we are seeing every day in Syria, cannot ever come to be without American power.
It’s very likely that a “world without mass slaughter” won’t be realized at all, but it is very doubtful that it is possible only through American use of force. The real question is whether the frequent, violent interference in the affairs of other countries that Hamid is talking about yields better results than non-interference. The answer to that question depends on the circumstances of each case, but in almost every case from the last half-century the decision to interfere, to fuel conflict, and to take sides in the quarrels of others has needlessly inflicted more harm on the affected countries. This is true of U.S.-led interventions and of the wars waged by U.S. clients with our government’s approval and support. If we’re generous, the number of “successful” U.S. interventions can be counted on a few fingers, and they are severely outnumbered by the failures and disasters. Given that shaky record, there has to be a very compelling reason to make the attempt and it has to be one that is worth taking the risks involved.
Even when an intervention can be said to have “worked” according to some definition, there are always some innocents that pay a severe price because they found themselves on the “wrong” side of the fight or because their country suffered from the adverse effects of intervention in a neighboring land. By taking sides in foreign conflicts, the U.S. is choosing to participate in bringing death and destruction upon people who have usually done nothing to us or our allies to provoke such action. That choice is often made for reasons that have little or nothing to do with concern for the well-being of the people in the country in question, and it is almost always made rashly and before other alternatives have been exhausted. At best, the record of our interference shows that we tend to be cavalier and irresponsible in our use of force in other countries, and at worst we leave those places drastically worse off than they were before we “helped.” That is not what the world or the U.S. needs.
Pointing at the horrors of Syria is not a counter-argument to any of this. Syria is suffering as much as it is because almost every state in the region and quite a few from other parts of the world (including the U.S.) have opted to take sides, to funnel weapons and support to warring parties, and in some cases to intervene directly in the fighting. It takes a very unusual moralist to look at this and conclude that the big problem is that the U.S. hasn’t contributed sufficiently to the carnage and that Syrians would be better off if it did. The lesson we ought to take away from the last fifteen years is that military action takes longer, costs more, and does more unintended damage than all but the most pessimistic people thought possible at the outset. Don’t assume that a bad conflict can’t be made worse by more intervention, because almost any situation can be made worse, and in some cases it can be made much worse.
Michael Rubin repeats a familiar lie:
Indeed, the Houthis represent perhaps the clearest example of Iranian imperialism.
Rubin refers to Iran as having “de facto control” over Yemen’s government, which is nonsense. Whatever limited support Iran has provided to the Houthis, that doesn’t give it control over the country or the Houthi-led government. Thomas Juneau studied this question and said this:
Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.
If the Houthis are the “clearest example of Iranian imperialism” when the Houthis aren’t even really their proxies, we should conclude that referring to Iran as an “imperial” power is a ridiculous exaggeration. The purpose of repeating this falsehood isn’t only to provide cover for the Saudi-led war on Yemen by pretending that there is an Iranian “presence” to be eliminated, but also to lend support to the false claim that Iran is “on the march” throughout the region. Both are wrong, and the latter depends heavily on the former. Because Yemen wasn’t about to fall into the hands of Iranian proxies, we can see that Saudi claims to that effect are nothing more than paranoid propaganda. Because Iran isn’t “on the march,” we can recognize that indulging the Saudis and their allies in their most destructive habits is an indefensible blunder.
Iran undoubtedly has significant influence in Iraq and Syria, but at present it is trying to shore up two governments that currently don’t control large sections of their own territory. Insofar as those governments are satellites in Iran’s orbit, they have become liabilities that drain Iranian resources. There is also no question that Iran has substantial influence in Lebanon through Hizbullah, but that has been true for decades and hardly counts as proof of an “empire.” The reality is that Iran’s regional influence is considerably weaker than it was just ten years ago in large part because of its role in backing Assad in the Syrian war. Every other government in the region is opposed to them and their goals to one degree or another. If that qualifies as an “empire,” it is a very rickety and declining one.
Of course, the point of warning about Iranian “imperialism” is not to give an accurate assessment of what’s happening, but to push a flimsy story about how Iran has supposedly made great gains at the expense of the U.S. and its clients in recent years. The truth is that the biggest gain in regional influence that Iran made happened because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent empowerment of parties aligned with Tehran, and it hasn’t made another gain that is remotely comparable to that one since then. Michael Hanna sums this up nicely:
The revisionist history on Iranian regional power is convenient for many, but the major shift in Iran’s profile+posture happened in 2003.
— Michael Hanna (@mwhanna1) October 18, 2016
When that was happening over a decade ago, Iran hawks denied that it was taking place, and now that Iranian influence is receding they are convinced that Iran has an “empire.” If you want to get a good idea of how relatively powerful Iran is at any given moment, take whatever Iran hawks say about it and assume that the opposite is true.