Now that we’ve reached the final weeks of the seemingly endless presidential campaign, the candidates are squaring off against one another, face-to-face, and making their cases to the last group of undecided voters. Given that one of the major party nominees has spent the entire process trying to bluff his way through, the first debate shined more light on that candidate’s ill-preparedness than on the issues facing the country. For a full picture of U.S. foreign policy in 2016, one must step back and try to differentiate between Donald Trump’s most outlandish ideas and other misguided notions that get in the way of sound policy.
When Trump was asked at the first debate about the threat from cyber attacks such as email hacking, he rambled on about China, “somebody sitting on a bed that weighs 400 pounds,” the content of the former Democratic Party chair’s hacked emails, and the computer skills of his own ten-year-old son—all to resist the consensus view, pointing to Russian President Putin’s regime as the prime suspect. The question of hacking by Russia also came up in the second debate, again with Trump bizarrely covering for Moscow. By then Trump was directly at odds with the same U.S. intelligence agencies from which he, as a potential commander in chief, receives special briefings. With those agencies having publicly identified Russia as the source of the hacking, a senior U.S. intelligence official responded to the debate by saying, in effect, Donald Trump ought to know better. Recall also that Trump several weeks ago encouraged Russian hackers to expose more of his opponent’s emails, presumably because U.S. authorities didn’t find evidence of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mishandling state secrets. It should go without saying, but welcoming a foreign power’s intervention in an American election falls way out of bounds, even in a time of intense polarization.
At the same time, there are major elements of Donald Trump’s campaign platform that parrot flimsy ideas the Republican Party has been promoting for years or decades. My new book, I Call Bullshit, looks at how GOP policy approaches have degenerated into unworkable far-right dogma. Specifically on foreign policy, the Republican delusion of an "almighty America"—the fantasy that the United States has the ability to exert full command of world events and keep other international players from doing anything against our wishes. Listen to the way Trump and other Republicans address the challenge posed by the Islamic State, and it becomes apparent that they offer little more than posturing and empty rhetoric.
At the first debate and on the campaign trail, Trump regularly pledges to “knock the hell out of ISIS and do it fast” after President Obama’s supposed failure to confront the self-styled caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This is the core conceit of the Republicans’ foreign policy approach: that they can vanquish America’s enemies and whip the rest of the world into line through unflinching shows of strength and will. GOP leaders flatter themselves that, unlike Democrats such as President Obama and Secretary Clinton, they wouldn’t shrink from the forceful steps necessary to get the job done. However, little attention is paid to the specifics of our national security challenges.
Donald Trump is hardly the only Republican leader to badly oversimplify the solution to the ISIS threat. For instance the second-place finisher in the GOP primaries, Sen. Ted Cruz, responded to President Obama’s December 2015 Oval Office address on ISIS with a statement that: “If I am elected President, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS.” Stunning, coming from a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee seeking the presidency. At any rate, contrary to this fantasy version of national security, new military action in Syria or Iraq would require more from a President Cruz than just giving the ‘go’ signal for a precooked surefire plan.
Trump and Cruz may not realize thousands of U.S. troops are in Iraq currently, helping local forces wrest towns and cities from ISIS control. American service members are deployed as part of a larger 60-nation coalition assembled to combat ISIS starting in 2014. In approximately two years, their air campaign has carried out over 11,000 airstrikes against more than 22,000 ISIS targets.
For their own political purposes, Republicans are keen to focus the entire foreign policy debate on the bad things that happen in the Middle East through constant fear-mongering. Because of all the forces involved, the Syrian crisis deserves to be approached with a good measure of humility and prudence. As we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to remake the power structure of another nation is among the hardest things for a geographically remote outsider, like the U.S., to do. The Syrian conflict is savage and tragic and demands a continued search for a solution, but it is not the main test of an effective U.S. foreign policy.
American foreign policy debates tend to focus disproportionally on the Middle East. To correct this tendency, the Obama administration’s adopted the so-called pivot to Asia (aka “rebalancing”): to refocus U.S. policy in proper proportion to the full range of the nation’s challenges and interests.
The top tier of the U.S. foreign policy agenda is comprised of challenges that, if allowed to worsen, could seriously erode the international system: keeping the global economy growing, stemming climate change, and checking the spread of nuclear weapons. The good news is that President Obama leaves office having made significant progress on all three fronts. Working with the world’s other major players to recover from the Great Recession, reach diplomatic agreements on Iran, and a global climate deal were Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s top priorities.
Indeed, this broader perspective on today’s interconnected world and diligent approach to building the necessary coalitions, are the main elements that distinguish Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s pragmatic approach from the Republicans’ bullheaded approach. Most crucially, the key is for America to exercise leadership by steadily bringing the other players along, rather than just issuing ultimatums. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she stressed this point by saying that “part of leading is making sure you get other people on the field.” After all, it isn’t leadership if no one else stands with you.
This column was adapted from David Shorr’s new book about the Republican policy agenda, I Call Bullshit: Four Fallacies That Keep Our Politics From Being Reality-Based.