What the 2016 Presidential Candidates Lack in Foreign Policy Gravitas

Hillary Clinton, Democratic Debates. foreign policy

Our foreign affairs discussions about the rest of the world have left us in a discourse stranded in religious ideology and war. The “debate” on international issues has become so black and white that there is no room for compromise, empathy, thoughtful exchange, or the slightest room to think critically about how to tackle real issues.

Let’s face it, this country is in major trouble when it comes to its future in foreign policy. Both the Republican and Democratic debates showed us that these candidates, save Hillary Clinton, know little, if anything, about the rest of the world. The Republicans barely covered it other than blaming President Obama for just about everything from Russian troops in Syria, despite the fact some were already there, to Ebola showing up in Africa, a rare and deadly disease no one has control over.

Neither party wanted to talk about it. Unless you equate foreign policy to immigration or use of force, the candidates appear to be pretty much clueless. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is oblivious about the most devastating humanitarian chaotic disaster ensuing in Syria. “I think [Syrian President] Assad’s invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder,” he stated when questions arose about a no fly zone, something, by the way, that is a forgone conclusion to a no longer implementable act – unless you want full on war with Russia. If anyone has invaded Syria the fingers should point at bombs being dropped by U.S., Israel and Turkey. The additional Russian presence was invited. Of course, the debate blunder by O’Malley was in suggesting that the president of Syria could invade his own country.

In the Republican debate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee reminded us that most Americans don’t understand how their government works, let alone how it should be used in international situations. He believes “the purpose of the [U.S.] military is to kill people and break things.” That in itself is bad enough, but what’s worse is that he has millions of followers who probably believe this too. May I remind Huckabee that the military is for the defense of our nation, it is not a group of individuals that go to murder and destroy. Our military is professional and its service members defend the U.S.; they are not people deployed at will to kill people the U.S. government leaders do not like (although I think someone should have told George W. Bush that when he sent our men and women after the now deceased Iraqi President Saddam Hussein).

As for Democrat Jim Webb, he  told the debate crowd, “[China] you do not own the South China Sea. You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of American citizens. And in a Webb administration, we will do something about that.” Webb spouted this without specifying how he would happen to achieve those things under his administration. Someone should remind these candidates that all this nonsensical and insulting rhetoric does not work. Building relationships and engaging countries on common ground does. One of the few semi-coherent and true foreign policy statements from the Democratic debate came from Lincoln Chafee when he said that, “the U.S. government must change its paradigm in the Middle East.” Bu that’s a no brainer, so how about a conjoining statement about halting the sales of billions of weapons to the lot of them?

Our foreign affairs discussions about the rest of the world have left us in a discourse stranded in religious ideology and war. The “debate” on international issues has become so black and white that there is no room for compromise, empathy, thoughtful exchange, or the slightest room to think critically about how to tackle real issues like global climate change, a multifaceted, regional and international blood bath in the Middle East, the rise of the Cities and the demise of the States. The citizens of this globe have allowed their leaders to distract them from large-scale, complex issues they must face with petty discussions about walls, guns, abortion, religion and other things that just divide people so that they can continue to conquer (i.e., make money, hoard resources, sell small arms so we can kill each other and not think beyond war).

Now, I know I haven’t picked on Hillary yet but I will. She, unlike any other presidential candidate, has the credentials and resume many of us aspire to amass and with it the baggage not one Republican or Democrat ever risked accumulating over their less-esteemed career. Nevertheless, she has things she must answer to in the international affairs arena that are no doubt important – Libya, Syria, and Iraq just to name a few. Sadly, not one candidate to date can challenge her on any of these issues because they just do not have the knowledge or experience.

This pains me. As an international security professor, consultant, and commentator, one that has done nothing but strive to improve America’s performance abroad, when it comes to choosing a candidate to support, I can make no choice other than Clinton. However, I do hope she has learned from her mistakes. Having seen Libya, I hope she sees that trying to overthrow even the worst dictators is not the answer. Having seen the explosion of refugees and displaced people, I hope she sees that random bombing of countries is not the answer either. And having seen the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, I hope she knows that indiscriminate arming of unknown groups is going to get us all killed – therefore not the answer.

Hillary made one particular statement during the debate that gave me some insight and actually did reinforce my hopes. “You know,” she said, “diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution. It’s about how you balance the risks.” And balancing those risks needs to be done by people not bombs.

Clinton has balanced risks in unprecedented circumstances for our nation. They have not always given way to solutions nor have they brought us peace. Yes, there have been major mistakes. But the bottom line is that she is the only candidate that has demonstrated that she is willing to adapt to much needed change in order to lead. She goes out in the world despite the fact that there is no easy way to address any of these problems. Each time with successes and failures and, each time, somehow she has managed to come out on top. She has been a successful activist, lawyer, senator, secretary of state and even with all the odds stacked against her, she still has the fortitude to try to lead this country to a better tomorrow despite itself.

My last hope is this time, in this presidential race, all Americans are ready to stand by the next U.S. president so she can accomplish what this country so desperately needs – being a leader with the vision for its future.

Patricia (Tricia) DeGennaro is a senior intelligence analyst for ThreatTec, LLC and a professor of international security at New York University’s Department of International Affairs. She recently completed a Franklin Fellowship at the United States Agency for International Development in the Office of Civilian Military Cooperation. She is a contributor to the forthcoming book, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Bamberger.


Image via U.S. Dept. of State/in the public domain

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