Oh, the naiveté of the Quincy Institute, with their “Top 10 foreign policy questions.” Sure they predicted that their queries “probably” wouldn’t get asked back during the first presidential debate, but still, there was some hope that the event last night — which was billed with at least one national security segment — would throw us at least one bone.
But there was little bone, much less meat, to be had during the Nashville head-to-head. Foreign policy just wasn’t on the menu.
There were some small bite samplers, a moment here or there where the two men alighted on the topic, but frankly it left behind bad taste. What we heard clearly indicated that neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden have a clear vision or desire for addressing our wars and military operations overseas without being forced to, or even an interest in defining what comes next in our tense relations with China, Russia, or Iran.
“The fact that Afghanistan — which is the longest active war in U.S. history — was omitted from the second presidential debate is indicative of a U.S. national security policy that is completely disconnected from public discussion,” charged QI’s Adam Weinstein, Research Fellow for the Middle East and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
The word “Afghanistan” did not come up once, though the United States still has some 8,600 troops there. Trump has demanded that they come home by the end of the year, which would have been an interesting question to pose to Biden — where does he stand on ending the 19-year war? — but moderator Kristen Welker didn’t go there.
Nor did she shift to Iran, the nuclear deal, or the January assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, which at least got primetime play during the Vice Presidential debate two weeks ago. Other than a mention of Iran as grist for the election meddling narrative, none of the larger national security issues tied to Tehran were discussed. What could have turned into a more substantive exchange about how either man would approach their great power cohorts, any mention of “Russia” or “China” led to lengthy exchanges about Biden’s son Hunter and Trump’s taxes.
“The debate delivered an absurdly shallow discussion of relations with China, the world’s number-two power, by both candidates and the moderator. Most of the discussion revolved around accusations about personal financial entanglements,” noted Stephen Wertheim, QI’s Deputy Director of Policy and Research.
“It is also a scandal, or it should be, that the presidential debate meant to address national security did not mention America’s forever war across the greater Middle East,” he added. “The silence itself implied that the forever war will continue.”
A window did open, albeit briefly, that let in some illumination. Biden attacked Trump for meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who he called a “thug,” and boasted his own administration would only open such high level talks on Pyongyang’s promise to denuclearize. Trump shot back that there has been “no war” with North Korea on his watch, and that it was perfectly appropriate for leaders to talk. They danced about this for a few moments, with at least one reference to Hitler by Biden. It was a stark reminder that before Trump, so much of the failures to end the Korean War and move ahead in peace talks with the North were rooted in U.S. conditions that never worked. Biden seemed incapable of shedding that and offering a new way for our role in the peninsula.
“The little that was mentioned about North Korea tonight was confusing and exaggerated,” noted Jessica Lee, QI senior research fellow and expert on Korea policy. “President Trump took too much credit for negotiating with Kim Jong Un, while Biden essentially ruled out dialogue without nuclear concessions from North Korea.”
“The Korean War is the oldest endless war in American history and a source of deep mistrust between the United States and North Korea,” she added. “Trump and Biden should have stated their intention to declare the war over and sign a peace treaty, rather than try to sound tough.”
The hawkish talk continued over to China as well. Trump invoked tariffs and making China “pay,” while Biden said he would force China to live up to new environmental standards and suggested he wouldn’t cave to Beijing’s demands about the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea. But as Wertheim notes, the sum total of the rhetoric was a vast departure from the escalatory talk of previous presidential cycles, particularly after 9/11, when candidates in both Democratic and Republican camps seemed locked in a verbal arms race of their own.
“Overall, the candidates presented much of the world in menacing terms: China, Russia, and North Korea all threaten America. That said, the discussion of foreign policy wasn’t as belligerent or militaristic as Americans have heard over the past two decades,” he said.
“The candidates were hardly brimming with constructive solutions, but they also seemed to sense that the American people have no interest in any more costly foreign crusades.”
Maybe so, and perhaps the candidates — consigned to strict rules and time limitations — didn’t have much of a chance. The moderator hardly asked the questions we wanted to hear. And for the most part there seems to be no recognition, no awareness, that expending trillions on wars and occupations abroad, affects our ability to address all of these other critical issues — like COVID, climate change, economic stability — at home. We cannot continue to expend resources for both and expect success.
As my colleagues said repeatedly last night, at every inflection point that ended up going nowhere, “it was a missed opportunity.”
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.