Last week’s Commander in Chief forum drew much attention because moderator Matt Lauer spent so much time discussing Hillary Clinton’s email while not pushing Donald Trump to provide policy specifics, support his claims about how weak the US military has become or even to tell the truth about his position on Iraq. The Commander in Chief forum was clearly not quite the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but lost in the analysis of how Lauer moderated and the craven nature of Trump’s views of Russian President Vladimir Putin is that the forum was further evidence of how we Americans are still unable to discuss foreign policy.
One obvious demonstration of this was that in the sixty minute forum, there was no mention of what is probably the biggest challenge to American national security and our future-climate change. Similarly, there was almost no discussion of China; nor were the candidates even asked to present a general strategy for combating global Jihadist terror.
One of the few substantive issues that was discussed was the health care and other support for America’s veterans. Given that the US is now in its second decade of what increasingly looks like permanent war, how we treat out veterans is extremely important. It is not, however, a foreign policy question. It is a domestic policy question and one that is best understood as part of a discussion of what other kind of support we offer to Americans in need. Additionally, veterans affairs touch on a whole range of other domestic issues, not least of which are jobs, the prison-industrial complex and education. Making veterans affairs a large part of a foreign policy debate, helped preclude a meaningful discussion of foreign policy while also not allowing for a fuller discussion of how to help our veterans.
The forum also demonstrated that the discourse about foreign policy is still driven by scandals, today’s headlines and the endless rehashing of who took what position in 2002 and 2003 during the run-up to the Gulf War. While these are sometimes important issues, yet another barrage of the same questions, and the same answers, about Hillary Clinton’s email, or what the candidates thought about the Iraq War in 2003 is something less than a holistic and valuable discussion of foreign policy. Instead of discussing a strategy for combating Jihadist terror, the candidates were each asked a question or two about the Iran deal and their early support for the Iraq deal. Trump was probed, a little, about his relationship with Putin, but neither candidate was asked to flesh out their vision of the US role in an increasingly multi-lateral world. Trump rabbited on, with no evidence whatsoever, about the weak state of the American military, but neither candidate was asked whether huge military budgets and a global network of military bases, for example, serves the interests of the American people.
A core question facing the next American President, and indeed the American people, is what the US role in the world should be. This question should be particularly salient in this election because the candidates, at least at first glance, seem to be on different sides of this issue. Clinton is a product of, and in fact a creator of, the bipartisan interventionist, or internationalist if you prefer, foreign policy consensus. It is this consensus that leads politicians from both parties to confidently assert, unburdened by any rigorous analysis or clear evidence, that the world is safer, or better off, when a strong America leads. These kinds of platitudes have enjoyed support across much of the political spectrum for decades and have provided the rationale for most American foreign policy successes and failures during these years.
Donald Trump, regardless of what he thought of the war in Iraq in 2002-3, does not seem to believe share this view, except of course when he does. Trump has argued for a US role in the world that, in words that have very unfortunate historical echoes, put “America First.” Trump clearly seems content to led Russian President Vladimir Putin have sway over Ukraine, Georgia and much of the former Soviet Union. The GOP nominee has also called for both a stronger military and less US involvement in the rest of the world. He seems to want lots of bombing, but little of the other aspects of American presence around the world.
The incoherence of Trump’s ideas, and his struggles to present them in a reasonably clear and informed way, also preclude what should be a meaningful discussion between the candidates. It would be valuable for the American people to hear the central arguments of the foreign policy establishment, of which there is no better representative than the Democratic nominee, challenged. However, between Trump’s inability or refusal to do anything more than speak in seemingly random superlatives, insults and promises about foreign policy, and Matt Lauer’s obsession with a political scandal about which every American has already made up their mind, we missed this opportunity yet again.