The Cable

In First Presidential Debate, Watch Out For These 3 Foreign Policy Issues

How Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will handle key national security questions in the debate speaks to their judgment as commander in chief.


NEW YORK — On Monday night, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump will face off for the first time on one stage at the first presidential debate of their general election matchup, predicted to be one of the most-watched televised events ever.

Much of the hype stems from the epic clash of personalities pitting the typically wonkish, staid former secretary of state, New York senator, and first lady against the generally rakish, self-described New York real estate magnate who has more experience on reality TV than he does in holding public office — much less national security.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced that moderator Lester Holt of NBC had chosen three broadly defined topics — “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America” — for the 90-minute debate in New York, beginning at 9 p.m. ET, and broken into six, 15-minute time segments.

Viewers will have to wait for the second Clinton-Trump bout for the foreign policy-centered presidential debate. Their polar opposite approaches on that key issue will still provide as much gunpowder as Monday night’s anticipated explosive exchanges over personality.

There’s plenty of fodder — in the previous week alone, a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent was arrested in connection with bombings that rocked New York and New Jersey. A cease-fire agreement between the United States and Russia described as a “last resort” for finding a political resolution to the war in Syria crumbled amid incessant violations, an inadvertent U.S. strike on Syrian soldiers, and an attack on a United Nations humanitarian convoy officials claim was conducted by Moscow. And on Friday, a Yahoo News report revealed that a manager of an energy-focused consulting firm whom Trump has described as a key foreign-policy advisor is under federal investigation for meetings with — and potential promises to — Kremlin cronies currently sanctioned by the United States.

National security is one of the sharpest dividing lines between Clinton and Trump in the 2016 election. Though they may not swing the most votes, stances on security could prove much more telling for each candidate’s style for fitness as commander in chief. So listen up for these three key foreign policy issues.

Who will keep you safe?

Polls from Fox News to CBS News/The New York Times indicate that broadly, Clinton is better trusted to deal with terrorism, national security, and related “crises” — a lead she’s maintained even as national polls overall have tightened, and despite the GOP traditionally being more trusted on defense.

Each candidate’s response to explosions in metropolitan New York a week ago provide a test case.

Trump responded to the reports emerging last Saturday night by immediately hinting at an act of terror, before the cause had been confirmed by authorities, and folding it into his stump speech in Colorado.

“I should be a newscaster, because I called it before the news,” he later said, following a pattern in prior attacks of seeking to take credit for “calling” them.

He then used the nonlethal attacks to repeat calls for halting immigration from the Middle East or predominantly Muslim countries. But then he went even further, calling for racial profiling and a return to the controversial “stop and frisk” law enforcement practice that’s come under legal scrutiny.

“There’s many foreign connections,” he said last Monday, though officials have yet to confirm them. He continued, “We’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.”

Clinton was cautious in her immediate response, but then suggested Trump’s jump to scapegoating was boosting the Islamic State’s propaganda.

“I am the only candidate in this race who has been at the heart of decisions to take terrorists off the battlefield,” she said in a press conference that Monday. “We know a lot of the rhetoric we’ve heard from Donald Trump has been seized on by terrorists, in particular ISIS, because they are looking to make this into a war against Islam.”


Much of the Clinton campaign’s attacks against Trump have wielded her substantial foreign-policy experience against its absence from his résumé — and much of his response has centered on “judgment.”

As the former secretary of state has sought to distance herself from the Obama administration’s foreign-policy failures, her Republican rival has used the sitting president’s 2008 tactic of accusing Clinton of “bad judgment” to tie her back to them — particularly the 2011 intervention in Libya. Trump’s also hit her on voting for the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the Republican Bush administration.

“Her policies in Iraq, Libya, and Syria are responsible for the rise of ISIS,” Trump said last Tuesday at a rally in North Carolina. “It’s time to break with the corruption, the bad judgment, and the failures of the past.”

Both Clinton’s — and frankly, Holt’s — responses will be tricky. Trump, like Clinton, supported both the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya, but how forcefully she reminds him and viewers of that also risks reviving criticisms that her decisions on foreign policy haven’t borne out the stability she had sought.

Mother Russia

U.S. defense officials have consistently named Russia as America’s No. 1 security concern in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its subsequent entry into the war in Syria. And while immigration and a trickle of Islamic State-inspired or -invoked terrorist attacks in the United States are likely what Holt had in mind when choosing “Securing America” as a debate theme — and not Russian President Vladimir Putin — the latest reports of the Trump campaign’s coziness with the Kremlin make it a timely topic.

On Friday, Yahoo News reported that Carter Page, a businessman Trump once described as a foreign policy advisor, is under investigation for suspected meetings with sanctioned Russians and potential promises that punitive financial strictures would be loosened if Trump were elected. It follows the resignation of Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort after ledgers surfaced showing he’d been paid millions by pro-Putin Ukrainian politicos, and murky ties between Moscow financiers and Trump and his family’s businesses.

Expect Clinton to raise the growing pile of troubling reports as a key example of the threat she claims Trump poses to U.S. national security and the global order, or at least, his naivete, whereas she’ll draw a much harder line.

But even as Republican national security leaders alike express their concern over Trump’s policy proposals for Russia, their nominee has been defiant. He’s reiterated his admiration for Putin and recommended that the United States either work with Moscow in Syria, or step back and leave the mess to Russia. And, somewhat bizarrely, he points out simultaneously that Obama and Clinton’s so-called Russian reset failed — after it sought to find common ground with Moscow — but also that Clinton didn’t really believe in it, anyway.

And even if none of these come up Monday, stay tuned for the Oct. 9 debate, which will focus on global affairs.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Staff

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