FPI Bulletin: The Debate America Needs

October 19, 2016

Tonight’s third and final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may very well be the debate that voters deserve, but not the one they need. At a time of rising global threats and diminished American capabilities, this election cycle has shed little light on how the next president will actually lead the United States in the world. Although moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News is well-versed in these issues, only one-fifth of tonight’s debate is devoted to foreign policy, and little in the campaign so far has suggested the candidates will devote much time to describing how they would respond to the challenges America faces.

More than five years after President Obama declared that “the tide of war is receding,” the reality is that his successor will inherit a set of crises that are growing more urgent by the day. Whether or not the two candidates answer any of the following questions tonight, one of them will be forced to address them next year.

  • Iraq: How will the next president cement the gains won by Iraqi troops against ISIS and secure an enduring U.S. role in order to prevent a repeat of the collapse that followed Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from the country?
  • Syria: Can the United States afford to allow Aleppo to fall to the combined forces of Bashar al Assad, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah? How will the next president stop the regime’s war against the Syrian people, take the fight to ISIS, and develop a moderate alternative to Assad’s rule?
  • ISIS and Al Qaeda: The Islamic State still has major strongholds in Iraq, Syria and beyond, while both it and Al Qaeda still seek to attack the West. How would the candidates work with our partners and allies around the world to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat these entrenched networks before they conduct another major terror attack?
  • Iran: The Iran nuclear deal has proved far less restrictive than the Obama administration promised, while Tehran has expanded its aggression in the region. How would the candidates break from Obama’s pattern of offering new concessions in response to Iran’s provocations?
  • Afghanistan: Fifteen years after 9/11, the Taliban controls large amounts of territory in Afghanistan and is imposing significant casualties on the Afghan security forces. Should the United States accept the deteriorating security situation there or deploy more U.S. troops to reverse recent setbacks?
  • Russia: In the past eight years, Russia has invaded and dismembered two countries along its borders, violated its arms control agreements, and enabled Assad’s crimes in Syria. What will the next president do to preserve the territorial integrity of NATO members, bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, and make clear to Russia that its aggression will not stand?
  • North Korea: The next president will likely face the prospect of a North Korea that can use nuclear weapons to threaten not only its neighbors, but also the American homeland. How would the candidates renew the confidence of our regional allies in America’s security guarantees and lead efforts to denuclearize the North after decades of failed diplomacy?
  • China: Despite a stalling economy, Beijing continues to pour resources into modernizing its military forces, and may directly challenge the next administration by seizing additional territory in the East or South China Sea. In the best case scenario, the next president will face an increasingly capable and aggressive rival. How should the United States strengthen its regional posture and alliances in response to these challenges?

No matter how the next president wants to respond to these challenges, the reality is that the United States will remain hobbled by Budget Control Act (BCA) caps on defense spending and an October 1, 2017, deadline to avoid another round of sequestration.

The heads of our military services recently warned that they would not be able to defend the nation if sequestration comes back into effect. Furthermore, they noted that even under the series of budget deals that Congress has patched together to avoid the sequester, the military is struggling to support current missions and prepare for future combat. As Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley noted, “we are mortgaging future readiness” in order to sustain current operations. Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson observed that while the Navy is able to meet its current commitments, “we are compromising the readiness of those ships and aircraft that we will have to surge to achieve victory in a large conflict.”

In other words, the next commander-in-chief may find that the military is unprepared for conflict. This is a dangerous possibility in peacetime. It is unacceptable when the United States is fighting wars around the world. This is why bipartisan experts have called for years to restore defense spending to at least pre-BCA levels and why doing so must be a priority for the next administration.

The American people need to hear a frank and detailed debate on these issues before they cast their ballots. The next president will have little time to begin addressing these challenges, all of which will be consequential for achieving the security and prosperity that Americans desire. Unfortunately, both major candidates have yet to make clear how they would meet this task, and there is little reason to believe that they will do so tonight.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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