With the exception of a few passing references during the vice presidential debate on October 8 and an embarrassing spectacle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden about who is and isn’t a stooge of the Chinese Communist Party, foreign policy has gotten the short end of the stick this election cycle. The closest the American people have come to a discussion about the world was a simplistic, thirty-second long soundbite from Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris about foreign policy being all about relationships. There has been more coverage on who a hypothetical President Biden would pick as his top diplomat than on how Biden would actually conduct diplomacy.
Granted, Americans don’t usually base their vote on foreign policy. With the coronavirus killing thousands of Americans every week and economic recovery beginning to stall (not to mention the money-pit that is the deficit), foreign policy is unlikely to be much of a factor in this year’s contest. However, the lack of dialogue between the nominees about issues outside U.S. borders is still distressing. The President of the United States is, after all, also the commander in chief. The American public deserves a substantive discussion about how Trump and Biden would manage and increasingly precarious relationship with China; when the use of military force is appropriate; and what kinds of diplomatic agreements would be pursued.
Fortunately, this Thursday’s presidential debate will finally feature a segment about national security. One hopes that for a few minutes at least, Americans tuning in will be able to weigh the candidate’s visions for U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. Even so, the entire segment will be a wasted opportunity if the moderator doesn’t ask the right questions.
There is a lot going on in the world today. These three questions would give the American people the most bang for their buck.
1. Both of you have committed to ending America’s forever wars. Explain how you intend to do it.
Trump and Biden are both running as peace candidates. The former has long complained about the United States wasting precious lives and dollars on wars in the Middle East that serve no purpose and have marginal security benefits to the United States. The latter pledged early in his presidential campaign to terminate the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet the record is not as clear and dry as the candidates insist. More U.S. troops actually deployed to Syria last month. Despite Trump’s insistence of cutting Washington’s losses in the Middle East, there are approximately 60,000 to 70,000 U.S. troops stationed in the region today. Biden talks a big game about leaving these conflicts, but in the next breadth recommends a small residual U.S. troop presence for counterterrorism purposes.
Trump and Biden both need to address these discrepancies. Trump needs to explain why he hasn’t in fact ended any of the conflicts the U.S. military has been involved in. And Biden must add more detail about why he believes keeping a small U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria aligns with his pledge to remove America from these very same countries.
2. If you are elected, what would be your top foreign policy priority?
This question is about as basic as one can imagine, but it ought to be asked for the simple fact that Americans are entitled to know what issue their next commander in chief believes is the most urgent. It will force Trump and Biden to differentiate themselves, elevate the discussion above the typical partisan hackery that so often dominates presidential debates, and return both candidates to first principles. The answers also have the potential to be enlightening, for they provide clues about the tools each would use to either manage the problem or solve it entirely.
3. Each of you have had the experience of either casting a major foreign policy vote or making a critical decision about national security. If you had the opportunity to go back and re-do a mistake, which one would it be?
Some will interpret this is a “gotcha” question designed to put both candidates on the defensive. The purpose, however, is less about making next-day headlines and more about pushing them into exercising some introspection. No policymaker or decision-maker is perfect. Presumably, both have regrets and wish they could go back in time and make a different choice. Biden has spoken in the past about his 2002 Iraq war authorization vote, going as far as admitting he had poor judgment in trusting President George W. Bush’s word. Trump, unexpectedly, has yet to look inward and offer any regrets of his own. Forcing the question will compel both men on the stage to confront an uncomfortable issue and help the American public shed light on who is willing to learn from their mistakes—and just as crucially, who isn’t.
Although national polls have Joe Biden up by a healthy margin against Trump, the polls have been wrong before. As Biden’s own campaign expressed last week, the 2020 presidential election is likely tighter than the horserace watchers would have you believe. Whoever wins the election in two weeks will enter the White House with a list of immediate items. None of us can afford national security to be overlooked.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a contributor to the National Interest.