A Blinkered Foreign Policy Debate

Foreign policy didn’t get a lot of air time in last night’s GOP debate, which often seemed to focus primarily on Donald Trump and the fact that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman. The candidates appeared worryingly ill-prepared to discuss foreign policy issues, with confused and misleading statements, incorrect facts, and a few truly bizarre comments.

There is a lot of great news coverage - see here or here for examples - highlighting these statements, from Jim Gilmore’s call for the U.S. to create a Middle Eastern NATO, to Ted Cruz’s decision to describe the opinions of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as nonsense. At least one candidate conflated Iran with ISIS. The first debate included a baffling discussion of ‘cyberwalls,’ a never-before heard term that seemed to encompass both the Great Firewall of China, and the refusal of private companies like Google to hand over data to the U.S. government.

The bigger problem with the debate, however, was the mass oversimplification of foreign policy. Only one candidate, Carly Fiorina, acknowledged that foreign policy can be complicated, a statement immediately undermined when she noted that some issues are black and white, and promised to tear up the Iran deal on her first day in office. Unfortunately, foreign affairs is actually complex. Take the Middle East, where the United States is involved in conflicts both in opposition to, and in alignment with Iranian proxies. Or our relationship with Russia, which isn’t limited to confrontation in Ukraine, but includes cooperation on the Iranian nuclear deal and Syrian issues. Debates, with their reliance on manufactured soundbites, aren’t the best place to delve into these complexities. But no candidate on the stage gave any indication of a willingness to engage with the complicated nuances of foreign policy.

The debate also lacked regional balance, focusing almost entirely on the Middle East, Iran deal, and ISIS. These issues aren’t unimportant, but other major topics went unaddressed. Russia got limited talk time, while China - arguably America’s most important diplomatic relationship - wasn’t even discussed. Trade issues were glossed over, except Donald Trump’s facile assertions that he’ll help America “win” at trade. America’s relationship with Latin America, our fastest growing trade partner, came up only in the context of illegal immigration.

By failing to address other regional or topical issues, the foreign policy debate focused on the immediate future, and didn’t address long-term strategic concerns. The next president needs to think not only about the issues in today’s headlines, but about how actions taken today will impact foreign affairs in the future. Indeed, one question - which asked candidates their plan to defeat ISIS in ninety days - showed an utter lack of awareness of America’s own recent history. After two decade-long insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the time commitment required to intervene in such conflicts shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. 

The many gaffes and omissions in last night’s GOP debate highlighted how few of the candidates are genuinely prepared to address foreign affairs issues. There are many more primary debates to come, for both the Republican and Democratic Party. Hopefully future debates will feature not only candidates who are better-prepared on foreign policy issues, but also questions which allow them to address more than just the Middle East.