We Still Don’t Know if Foreign Policy Matters in the Presidential Election

January 28, 2016

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So wait, is this a foreign policy election or not?

Good question, one that Elizabeth Saunders sought to answer this week in The Washington Post. One reason voters sometimes don’t support candidates based on foreign policy issues, even when they profess to be concerned with them, is because the divides between candidates’ positions can be less stark than on issues like, say, taxes and social welfare policy: “Consider Vietnam and the 1968 election … [when] most individuals’ votes were not based on Vietnam — because there was little difference between the public positions taken by Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. … That’s potentially true in 2016 as well. The most likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has taken more hawkish foreign policy positions than many recent Democratic candidates, presumably bringing her positions closer to the more traditionally hawkish Republican side.”

Democratic candidates avoiding foreign policy

While the GOP field is happy to talk about national security and foreign policy issues, the Democrats (as we’ve noted before) are simply not interested. For Buzzfeed, Zack Beauchamp talked to Democratic foreign policy wonks who aren’t happy about that. Some of the highlights:

Heather Hurlburt, New America Foundation: “The discussion of national security in the presidential debate is terrible. You sit around and say, ‘If only they would talk more about our issues in the context of the presidential campaign,’ and then they do. Just be careful what you wish for.”

Matt Duss, Foundation for Middle East Peace: “Whenever there’s a crisis, Democratic leaders scramble to make statements about what we should do. But there’s a failure to constantly articulate a progressive vision for foreign policy.”

Rachel Kleinfeld, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Hillary is probably a little more interventionist than the Democratic base would like. Bernie Sanders is closer to where the Democratic base is … [but] that’s not the message he wants his campaign to be about.”

Although Clinton is kind of an exception

To be fair, in this week’s Democratic town hall hosted by CNN, Clinton did spend a lot of time tackling foreign policy issues, especially compared to her two opponents. She addressed the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Islamic State, radicalization, and Benghazi. But as Frida Ghitis writes for CNN, “there was, however, a downside for Clinton. … The once seemingly inevitable Democratic nominee opted to tie herself ever more closely to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Indeed, come the general election, Clinton’s full-throated defense of the controversial Iran deal and other foreign policy choices will make it that much harder to distance herself from the broader historic catastrophe of the unraveling of the Middle East that has unfolded during Obama’s watch.”

So in a big way, this makes the Clinton campaign the only show in town for Democratic foreign policy types hoping to get plum jobs in the next administration. And that’s why the “shadow cabinet” she’s putting together is full of big names. Unlike the GOP field, so crowded that aspiring appointees have to take a gamble and hope their early loyalty and an ultimate electoral victory will leave them in the right camp, Bernie Sanders’ perceived lack of interest in foreign policy means the Clinton campaign is the only team actively recruiting. Check out Josh Rogin’s examination of the emerging advisory team forming around the former secretary of state, over at Bloomberg View.

The Republican national security establishment has their own concerns

So if this is supposed to be an election in which national security features prominently, why does Donald Trump continue to ride high in the polls despite an apparent lack of expertise on key security issues? It’s tough to tell, but prominent GOP national security figures aren’t happy about it, as Jeremy Herb describes in Politico. Their concerns are driven by the fear that his vague promises and frequent gaffes — among them, confusion about the nuclear triad, between the Kurds and Iran’s Quds Force, and between the F-35 and the long-range strike bomber — will ultimately hurt him and the party’s chances of taking the White House in November. It’s worth checking out for some pretty devastating criticisms of the GOP frontrunner.

Carson’s ISIL plan

In November, Ben Carson was running in a dead heat with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP field. Since then, he’s lost two-thirds of his supporters and is currently polling at 8 percent. His campaign needs a jumpstart, and to provide it (and to counter criticisms of his lack of foreign policy chops), he released his plan to combat the Islamic State this week — his third plan addressing national security in a month.

To Carson’s credit, the plan is six pages long (although two of those pages are essentially headshots of the candidate) — giving it at least the appearance of more detail than we’ve typically seen in this race. Whether or not it’s a good plan is really more of an eye-of-the-beholder proposition. Some might commend its rather clear and direct language. Others will appreciate its specific differentiation between the majority of Muslims and extremists (not necessarily a foregone conclusion). And its recognition that even destroying the Islamic State will not inevitably eliminate the ideology that drives the group’s violence suggests a much-improved grasp of the challenge than he has heretofore demonstrated.

Yet, his comparison of the counter-ISIL fight to that of the WWII war against Nazism or the long effort to contain and rollback communism will be criticized by some as simplistic. His emphasis on the Obama administration’s hesitance to use certain terminology is predictable, but also does nothing to suggest that Carson understands the actual drivers of the group’s violence. And he likely didn’t do himself any favors — at least in some circles — by referring to the group as an “existential threat.”

Where do they all stand on Asia?

The East–West Center has a new tracker that includes information on all of the presidential candidates’ and their experience with and views on issues related to Asia. Want to know how a President Clinton would deal with China, how a President Trump would handle U.S. relationships with allies in Asia, or which candidates are most committed to a rebalance toward the region? Look no further. (h/t Mira Rapp-Hooper)

Gates not letting up

On the media circuit to promote his new book, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is not cooling his criticism of the GOP candidates’ articulation of their national security views. Speaking at a Politico event this week, he had this to say of his party’s White House aspirants: “The level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler. People are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable. Either they really believe what they’re saying or they’re cynical and opportunistic and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter, because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.”

Gates also criticized the media for not challenging candidates on their statements, and joked that he would move to Canada if Donald Trump were elected.


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photos by Gage Skidmore