European Affairs

Perspectives: Presidential Candidates Follow Polls and Ignore Important Foreign Policy Issues     Print Email
By Laurence I. Barrett, Former Senior Editor, Time Magazine

BarrettViewed by America’s allies in Europe and Asia, the opening round of discussion of international security threats among 2016 presidential wannabes must rank somewhere between unserious and scary. One would hardly know, listening to the candidates’ major pronouncements, that the next president will face stern challenges from most points of the compass, just as Barack Obama does.


The Democrats give pro forma support to the administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Otherwise their significant rhetoric focuses on domestic concerns.  Her tenure as secretary of state and membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee are large credentials in Hillary Clinton’s application to be commander-in-chief. But income inequality, educational opportunity and similar issues have constituted her set-piece initiatives.

Why? Clinton has to fend off a noisy challenge from her party’s left-most faction, which is currently allergic to national security affairs. Its avatar, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, sports a campaign site, Bernie ’16, with a sub-section “on the issues.” Of the eight broad headings, not one even touches on military or diplomatic matters.

The Republicans denounce the Iran deal in apocalyptic terms. But they are vague about what the U.S. would do if Congress actually sank the agreement, the international sanctions regime collapsed, and constraints on Iran’s nuclear program crumbled.

Most of the G.O.P. candidates have been advocating some degree of military escalation in the conflict with the Islamic State.  They also talk of the need to keep America strong. Donald Trump was only a bit more vague than his rivals on the strength issue when on August 16 NBC’s Chuck Todd asked whom he relies on for military advice. Trump’s response, verbatim: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, really see a lot of great, you know, when you watch your show and all the other shows, and you have great generals.”

Jeb Bush, by broad consensus one the adults in the Republican arena, used his first major foreign policy speech on August 12, to make Iraq the sharpest spear in his assault on Hillary Clinton’s record. In his construct, the surge of U.S. ground forces ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007 turned the tide in Iraq.  But the “premature withdrawal [of American forces in 2011] was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill.”

Further, Clinton visited Iraq only once as secretary of state. She and Obama “stood by as that hard won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.”  Therefore Washington must ratchet up its intervention in tactical terms – for instance, deploying American forward observers to improve the effectiveness of allied air strikes on ISIS.

That Bush would make a who-lost-Iraq argument the centerpiece of his first national security demarche is odd on several grounds. For one thing, it reminds the world his elder brother launched the invasion on specious grounds, then botched the occupation. There are also flaws of fact and logic in the younger sibling’s argument.

The reason Clinton, as secretary of state, went to Iraq just once is well known. Obama gave Joe Biden the Iraq brief. Biden, in a speech April 8, noted that he had visited Iraq 23 times. Since the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, took office last year, the vice president joked, they have had more phone time than Biden has had with Mrs. Biden.

Further, it was the Bush administration, in 2008, that set the withdrawal date of 2011 in a formal agreement with the government of Nuri al-Maliki. Obama, it is true, was half-hearted in his attempt to negotiate an extension that would have allowed a U.S. force to remain in a non-combat role. Maliki cooperated not at all.

Emma Sky, political adviser to the coalition commander, General Ray Odierno, argued in her recent book “The Unraveling” that Obama blundered in allowing Maliki a second term in 2010, and in his zeal to withdraw. (I discussed Sky’s memoir in an article posted here on August 7, pointing out she offered no prescription for blocking Maliki.)  Whether the continued presence of a small U.S. contingent three and four years ago would have made a critical difference cannot be known today.

Odierno, in a Fox News interview in July, was tentative: “If we had stayed a little more engaged, I think, maybe, [ISIS’s successes in Iraq] might have been prevented.”  On August 12, in his farewell press conference as Army chief of staff,  Odierno implied that Washington will likely have to expand the U.S. military presence in Iraq – now roughly 3,500 advisers and instructors – by a modest increment. But he added: “The U.S. cannot solve this problem for the region.”

As to other global threats, the crowded Republican field grumbles that the U.S. must demonstrate greater resolve, but is notably quiet about specific problems. The contenders seem not to have paid attention to the congressional testimony of the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford.

In July Dunford named Russia as the most serious overall threat to peace. Given Moscow’s Crimean land grab, its continued military aid to separatists in Ukraine, its growls at the Balkan states, and its nuclear arsenal, Dunford obviously has a case. He awarded second and third place on the threat list to North Korea and China. By his reckoning, ISIS is fourth on the menace roster.

Certainly all four – and others, such as Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya -- are problems likely to vex the U.S. and its allies for years to come. Why has this reality escaped notice by the class of 2016 so far?

Opinion polls provide part of the answer. The Gallup survey of perceived threats found in February that 84 percent of Americans consider ISIS and “international terrorism” each to pose a “critical threat” to American security (the two were listed separately). North Korea’s military power registered 69 percent on the “critical threat” scale. But “Russian military power” (49 percent) and “conflict between Russia and Ukraine (44 percent) worry Americans far less.

Another part of the answer is that stiffening America’s global spine will require additional resources. Most politicians don’t want to confront that sober fact during the long nominating season. Odierno warned in mid-August that further cuts in Army strength – virtually inevitable if bipartisan gridlock on the budget issue persists – will leave the service “unable to fulfill its mission.” By his reckoning, the Army is already 40,000 soldiers below its optimum strength of 490,000.  

Overcoming the budget impasse, of course, would require a grand compromise that has eluded the government since 2011. Democrats adamantly defend domestic spending. Republicans equate revenue increases with bubonic plague. In fact, with the exception of Bush and Trump, all the better known Republican candidates have signed the “pledge” to defend the republic from any tax hike.

Those looking to the U.S. for leadership on global issues may avoid total gloom by recalling some facts. Once the two parties have settled on their presidential nominees, the influence of the extremes, left and right, tends to recede.  Second, two presidents in recent memory achieved significant budget compromises despite hellacious political obstacles. The surnames of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton may well seem familiar come general election time.

While Jeb Bush’s formal record provides no basis for speculation on his posture as commander-in-chief, his pragmatic temperament flashes a clue. He is likely to follow the “realist” school embodied by his father rather than the neoconservative doctrine embraced by his brother. Hillary Clinton, in the Senate and State Department, honed her own instinct on national security affairs.  While diplomacy will be a strength, she will probably distress the Sanders wing by being the most interventionist Democratic president in decades.


Laurence Barrett was associated with Time Magazine for 32 years as Correspondent and Editor. He is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.”

Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting member and guest views on topical issues.