Does Your Candidate Even Have a Foreign Policy?

Eight questions to help you find out.

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 03:  Republican presidential candidates (Lto R) Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) greet each following a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Voters in Michigan will go to the polls March 8 for the State's primary.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - MARCH 03: Republican presidential candidates (Lto R) Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) greet each following a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Voters in Michigan will go to the polls March 8 for the State's primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

To the extent there has been any attention paid at all to foreign policy in the ongoing presidential campaign, the focus has been exceedingly narrow. The moderators of the primary debates have seemed mostly interested, if anything, in discussing counterterrorism policy and, even then, just those relatively miniscule aspects of terrorism that impact U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, when interviewers have tried asking broader foreign-policy questions, they’ve generally refrained from following up with clarifying questions. (Recent sit-downs with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been welcome exceptions.)

But just because the media circus has displayed an unusual disinterest in foreign policy, that doesn’t mean individual voters are obliged to. Here are eight questions to help you evaluate the soundness and seriousness of the remaining candidates’ foreign-policy positions.

Is their proposed policy actionable? After the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Paris, and Brussels, the White House-hopefuls all made unspecific promises to “get tough,” “get serious,” or “redouble our efforts” in the war against the Islamic State. These are examples of emotive posturing, not actual policies that any governmental agency can implement. A policy is a clear statement of intent with supporting courses of action that government employees can implement. As English diplomat Harold Nicholson wrote in 1933, “[a]n imprecise policy means no policy at all. It means aspiration only.”

Does it acknowledge the existence of Congress? Republican candidates blame President Barack Obama’s administration for “weakening,” “eviscerating,” or having “destroyed” the U.S. military and subsequently vow to rebuild the armed forces. Unfortunately, presidents do not authorize discretionary defense spending; Congress does. For seven years, Obama proposed a budget, both houses of Congress passed the military component of that budget in defense authorization bills, and those finally became public law with Obama’s signature. The next president will remain bound by this process, and any effort to significantly expand defense spending would require the consent of budget hawks as much as defense hawks on Capitol Hill.

Is it markedly different from existing U.S. policy? Recently, Sanders declared that he would oppose Israeli settlements “if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory.” This has been, to varying degrees, the position of the past four administrations, yet the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank alone has grown from 139,450 to 547,000 since 1996. Sanders has yet to specifically clarify how the United States would compel Israel to stop its support for the steady expansion of settlements. Moreover, whenever a current policy proposal echoes the existing positions of the U.S. government, candidates should be pressed to identify what has failed in the past and which future adjustments would overcome that failure.

If it mirrors current policy, why would it work next time? When asked about North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, many candidates have proposed the long-tried, rarely successful plan of: “Let’s lean on China, to lean on North Korea.” Similarly, various candidates have vowed to increase contributions from other countries in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State (non-U.S. countries have been conducting one-third or fewer of all airstrikes since August 2014) and assemble Sunni Muslim ground forces to fight militants on the ground (there is no evidence that these heretofore nonexistent infantry divisions will emerge).

Are they recent converts? At one time, Ted Cruz supported “fast-track” trade promotion authority (TPA) and Hillary Clinton, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Now, Clinton opposes TPP on the grounds that it fails to “provide the basic safety net support that American workers need in order to be able to compete and win in the global economy,” while Cruz opposes TPA because it would “open up the potential for sweeping changes in our laws that trade agreements typically do not include.” We would hope that politicians are open-minded and willing to change their views based upon new information or a marked change in the international environment. However, when presidential candidates pivot quickly to reflect the perceived belief of their targeted voters, or discredit their previous on-the-record statements, we should question whether any of their foreign-policy statements are sincere.

Do they stand by it? Many candidates have wavered repeatedly on their campaign promises. Cruz vowed to “carpet bomb [the Islamic State] into oblivion” but later amended this promised war crime by adding, “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops.… You have embedded special forces to direct the air power.” Similarly, Trump, in the course of minutes, endorsed nuclear proliferation for South Korea and Saudi Arabia, while intermittently declaring, “No, no, not proliferation,” and, “I don’t want more nuclear weapons.” This melting machismo suggests that these commitments are said without due consideration and are insincere.

Do they acknowledge the likely consequences? When Trump proposed bombing Iraqi oil fields, it was brought to his attention that Baghdad would oppose that action. Trump replied, “Who cares? I don’t care about the government of Iraq. They’re corrupt. The government of Iraq is totally corrupt.” In February, John Kasich entertained the possibility of fomenting near-term regime change in a nuclear-armed country, “if there was an opportunity to remove the leader of North Korea and create stability.” Unilaterally bombing another country’s critical infrastructure (where you have 3,800 troops stationed), or toppling a nuclear-armed dictator (who borders a mutual-defense treaty ally), would be immeasurably consequential. To refuse to address them, or merely wish them away, indicates a leader incapable of long-term strategic thinking.

Finally, will the policy work? Clinton has pledged to enforce a safe zone, including a no-fly zone, in northern Syria to protect civilians from barrel bombs dropped by Syrian combat aircraft. Unfortunately, the area where Clinton would enforce a no-fly zone is not where civilians are being killed by those bombs. The policy, in other words, will not achieve the stated objective (protecting civilians from barrel bombs). This is consistent with how many politicians defend the use of military force: select a tactic with low costs and risks and then apply it to an ongoing conflict. But when the means cannot match the ends, candidates should accept that the policy is illusory and must be adjusted or discarded.

Hopefully, there’s still time for the media to elevate the dismal campaign conversations about the world and America’s role in it. But even if they don’t, voters can still refer to the eight questions above to evaluate whether the candidate they’re considering voting for has a true foreign policy, or merely the aspiration of one.

Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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