5 National Security Issues Largely Missing From the 2016 Campaign

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a meeting in Beijing in June.

By BRIAN KATULIS – – – – – –

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is on Twitter: @katulis.

The quality of the national security discussion in the presidential campaign reminds me of a scene in the movie “Billy Madison” in which an academic debate judge says: “At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is dumber for having listened to it.”
The U.S. faces some critical foreign policy issues, but we aren’t talking about them. Short-term campaign controversies dominate the discussion–a dynamic that could undermine U.S. security in the long run, regardless of who wins in November. When Donald Trump said repeatedly that President Barack Obama (and then Hillary Clinton) founded ISIS, the effect was a lot of coverage of what Mr. Trump meant by founded and his followups that he had meant what he said, and then whether his “sarcasm” had been clear. Substantive discussion of Islamic State moved to the fringes. Also unresolved and not prioritized: how U.S. strategy against ISIS is to produce long-term stability in Libya and other places, and how we can defeat the terror group’s ideology.

Other key issues getting short shrift in the campaign include:

1. U.S. strategy in Asia without the proposed TPP trade deal. The Obama administration has argued that the Trans Pacific Partnership is a key part of the U.S. strategy to engage Asia and counter China’s growing reach and influence. Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton have said they oppose TPP. Mr. Obama has pushed his case, but even pro-trade Republicans such as Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) have turned against TPP, a bad sign for the deal’s prospects. U.S. allies in Asia wonder how Washington’s lack of follow-through on TPP might cede influence to China. Their questions could affect the U.S. strategy to rebalance focus on Asia.

2. Cybersecurity. The U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment ranked cybersecurity its top priority. This issue has received attention, most recently related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, but there hasn’t been much forward-looking debate about how to craft a clearer strategy or how to address Russia’s likely involvement. In an interview this month, National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers reflected on the new, unsettled context of cyberspace. There are indications the U.S. has gone on the offensive, but it hasn’t been established that there is a clear, effective strategy to deter cyberattacks from the likes of Russia or Syria.
3. Next steps in the fight against Islamic State. The U.S. and its coalition partners fighting ISIS have inflicted serious damage in Iraq and Libya, but the fight is far from over. Syria remains the weakest front. In Iraq, the long-standing conflicts between competing factions threaten stability; tensions could escalate if and when ISIS is further diminished. Mr. Trump has expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin while Mrs. Clinton has been strongly critical. Discussing the implications of these positions and the candidates’ views of Russian involvement in Syria could help clarify next U.S. steps in Syria and the fight against ISIS.

4. The global anti-democratic wave. The wave of democratic transitions that began in the 1970s and crested through the turn of the 20th century has stalled. These days, democracy is in a global recession. Among the recent examples is the backsliding in Africa. The rise of far-right-wing nationalist political movements operating with an “us vs. them” mind-set has raised pressures in established democracies globally. In the U.S., trust in democratic institutions is decreasing, especially among younger Americans. Where is discussion of this trend in the presidential campaign?
5. Climate change. Less than a year after the landmark Paris climate agreement, the pace of institutional change to meet the target goals may already be too slow. Meanwhile, July was the hottest month on record in 136 years of collecting data. Effects of warming are being felt in the Middle East, where a heat wave is adding to tensions in a tense region. Climate change has set off new geopolitical competition in the Arctic, but the implications for global affairs are all but absent from the campaign.

Campaign pledges and debates aren’t going to conclusively untangle all important issues. Global complexities make it difficult to articulate coherent, forward-looking foreign policy visions. But debates over U.S. engagement (or disengagement) in the world offer opportunities for political constituencies to coalesce in ways that can help advance policy agendas in years to come. Think of how debates over the Iraq war or diplomacy with Iran in 2008 ultimately created a political pathway for policy shifts in Mr. Obama’s presidency, or how arguments about arms control helped build support for the New Start Treaty of 2011.

The issue is not merely that Mr. Trump has campaigned more with erratic statements than substantive proposals. Some of those statements can work to our adversaries’ advantage, as Michael Singh recently noted in Think Tank. Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories about ISIS could impede the already-difficult task of building trust and cooperation with partners in the Middle East.

One thing that might help is for Republicans concerned about national security to stake out clearer positions on our country’s longer-term challenges and ways to rebuild a national consensus about next steps. Signing letters criticizing Mr. Trump or issuing national security plans to distance themselves from him are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on electoral outcomes; the primary campaign showed this.

The years-long phenomenon of fragmentation and incoherence of the Republican Party’s foreign policy helped pave the wave for Mr. Trump’s rise. Many internationalist Republicans have ceded ground to fringe voices, including conspiracy theorists. Criticizing Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton isn’t enough. Offering more substance is at least a start toward giving Americans a real choice and creating policy options.

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