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- The Democratic debates covered a lot of ground but left out a major topic: foreign policy.
- No 2020 Democratic candidate has a clearly articulated plan to deal with the challenged facing the US.
- The Democrats and the media need to change the way they address foreign-policy issues during the primaries.
- Brett Bruen was director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat.
This week’s two debates showed us that national security just isn’t seen as a central issue in the Democratic primaries. That needs to change.
The first of CNN’s two Democratic debates went on for two hours before a single question on the subject was asked. There weren’t many others. The second saw just eight minutes dedicated to nondomestic issues. Yet America or the Democratic Party may suffer some buyer’s remorse if the candidates don’t have a deep, detailed debate about foreign policy.
Let me start from the premise that war, peace, trade, and, well, deadly diseases like Ebola are critical components of a president’s job description.
George W. Bush famously assured us he did not need much experience abroad because his advisers would have some. As commander in chief, his role was as the "decider" and that decisiveness was all that really mattered. The tragic legacies left by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with indelible blemishes on our national honor from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, now strongly suggest otherwise.
I will also posit based on what they’ve showed so far in the campaign that a significant majority of the more than two dozen candidates running in the Democratic primaries lack the requisite foreign-affairs experience.
Most of the Democratic candidates have not demonstrated up till now even the basic knowledge needed to oversee our nation’s military, diplomatic, and development agencies.
Promises versus plans
The crowded field of candidates allows many of them to avoid addressing national-security issues. A few one-liners and a simple policy proposal or two seems to do.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg offered one up in the last debate. If elected, American troops would be out of Afghanistan within a year. Beyond being a catchy promise, what does that mean? How will we deal with a still serious threat posed by the Taliban? Without knowing the situation on the ground or in the region more two years from now, why would you even make such a presumptuous promise?
Sen. Barack Obama made similar statements as a candidate, assuring the public he would get the US out of Iraq.
I happened to be serving on a contingency operating base outside of Tikrit when he took office. For a year, it was quite painful to watch us draw down our presence just as we were so close to winning the peace. No amount of effort after the election could alter the president from that campaign pledge. We pulled out far too fast and created the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State.
This shows how clever campaign promises can create real problems, especially when they are not informed by the realities of the world in which we live. For our nation’s safety, it is simply no longer possible for a candidate to credibly suggest they can be president without bringing the requisite foreign-policy experience.
We should expect our president to come into office with a basic knowledge of the way the world works. Learning on the job is not a luxury leaders are afforded, and being dependent on advisers with their own agendas — like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — can be extremely dangerous.
Unfortunately, the first few debates and much of the 2020 Democratic primary race coverage have seen few questions focused on national security. We need to spend less time on outrageous tweets and more dedicated to the threats our next president will confront from outside our borders.
One reason we ended up with Donald Trump in the Oval Office was an overly crowded primary field and a lack of adequate attention to foreign-policy concerns. Candidates should not be able to spout off superficial suggestions like building a wall or banning all those of a certain religion from entering the United States, without a much more in-depth analysis of its implications.
One question in the debate or an interview is not enough. We need to restructure the coverage so it enables us to dive deeper on diplomacy and protecting our nation.
There are ways to get better
Part of the problem is we don’t always have the right people asking the questions. There should be at least one moderator at the debates who has reported on foreign policy. Coverage of the entire elections shouldn’t be limited to those on the domestic-politics beat. Pentagon and State Department correspondents should also do interviews of the candidates. We need to see more pundits with national-security backgrounds weighing in after the debates and at key moments during the campaign.
For too long international affairs has occupied too small a part of our national debates. Those running for president should not be able to so easily run away from questions about their qualifications and plans for how to start the long journey toward rebuilding America’s role on the world stage.
Restoring or global strength has also got to be about more than clever criticisms what Trump is doing wrong. We need to know how and why they are prepared to undertake what is arguably one of the most important jobs facing the next president: breaking down walls, bringing into force new trade agreements, bridging the credibility gap dug by this administration, and boosting our international influence.
Brett Bruen was director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room and teaches crisis management at Georgetown.
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