Throughout the campaign season, we watched as the two candidates frequently sparred over oft times trivial issues. Meanwhile, substantive American interests abroad continued deteriorating at an alarming rate. Some of the most significant foreign policy issues — those with direct ramifications for American national security — have been completely ignored by our presidential nominees.
American service members are actively engaged in combat in Afghanistan. Whoever wins next week will have to make some major decisions regarding that operation. Yet this war which has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans — the latest of whom was killed on the same day as the final debate — garnered not a single mention at any of the three debates. Such silence does a disservice to those we’ve placed in harm’s way, but perhaps even more so given that the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is in danger of outright, unqualified failure.
The Deputy Speaker of the Upper House of the Afghan Parliament, Hasibullah Kalemzai, told me via email that Afghan government forces were suffering egregious casualties, were losing territory to the Taliban in several key provinces, and most alarmingly, for the first time he has concerns that “some part of Kabul may actually collapse at some point to Islamic extremists.” This deteriorating situation rarely makes news, especially with all eyes focused on the battle of Mosul. Since Afghanistan has been knocked off the front page, the war there apparently doesn’t warrant comment from either of the would-be Commander-in-Chiefs.
While the subject of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, did come up during the debates, it was almost all related to speculation regarding whether Russian hackers had been the source of WikiLeaks’ release of private emails and whether Putin was trying to influence the U.S. election. While those are not minor issues, matters of geostrategic importance went unaddressed. That is unfortunate, because there are several volatile major power issues that remain unresolved and have significant implications for U.S. national security.
During the debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Hillary Clinton, “If you impose a no-fly zone and a Russian plane violates that, does President Clinton shoot it down?” Clinton avoided his question. Her position on that matter, however, is crucial for voters to know. The answer carries significant war-and-peace implications for the United States.
Meanwhile in the Asia Pacific, many years of poor U.S. foreign policy decisions are pushing one of America’s closest allies into the arms of China. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly humiliated President Obama with crude language on more than one occasion. At a press conference, Duterte boasted before Chinese officials, “In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.… America has lost.”
American miscalculation and policies based more on hubris than cold, reality-based foreign policy fundamentals have also pushed once-antagonistic competitors Russia and China closer together to the detriment of American interests. Last month Bloomberg reported that in recent months there has been “greater security cooperation between Russia and China as they find common ground against the U.S. The neighboring giants last month held their first joint naval drill in the South China Sea.” But the fallout isn’t restricted to competitors. It’s even affected a NATO ally.
Turkey continues to drift from the U.S. orbit towards Russia, and is increasingly hostile to U.S. interests. Also on the day of the final U.S. presidential debate, Turkish President Recep Erdogan telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to confirm that he was willing to cooperate with Russian military efforts targeting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Syria. Earlier in October, while in Moscow, Erdogan added that he had “full confidence that the normalization of Turkish-Russian ties will continue at a fast pace.” Days later, Turkey launched a devastating air attack with impunity against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northern Syria.
Whether it’s U.S. allies the Philippines and Turkey distancing themselves from Washington and warming to Moscow, or the growing military cooperation between Russia and China, American global influence among both friends and competitors has deteriorated to perhaps its lowest point in a century. When also considering the unbroken string of failed military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, Washington’s declining influence abroad is putting American national security at increasing risk.
The common denominator in these situations is an unwillingness on the part of American policymakers to even acknowledge that our foreign policy decisions over the past 20 years have consistently failed to secure outcomes beneficial to the United States.
Whoever becomes America’s 45th President must reverse these trends. This can’t be a Democrat v. Republican issue, nor even a “who’s right and who’s wrong” debate. It has to be a hard, cold analysis that flatly looks at what works and what doesn’t. For America’s future prosperity and security, we’d better hope the next Commander-in-Chief is willing to stop doing what doesn’t work — no matter how popular supporting the status quo may be.