This Thursday, October 22, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will finally debate each other on U.S. national security policy. The segment could not come at a more important time.
Foreign policy issues have barely made an appearance during the 2020 presidential campaign. The first presidential debate on Sept. 29 was wholly unsatisfying. While the 90-minute vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris was a bit more civilized, the discussion was so general and superficial as to be virtually meaningless. Short of bumper-sticker phrases that are designed to win the news cycle, the American people have been left to wonder how a President Trump or President Biden would manage relations with some of Washington’s most significant adversaries; the circumstances with which each would use U.S. military force; which conflicts they believe are important enough to warrant U.S. involvement; and what specific concepts will help guide their decision-making. The last presidential debate offers both candidates the opportunity to provide the country with the foreign-policy conversation it deserves.
After two consecutive decades of U.S. overreach that has taken U.S. troops into countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines, and Niger—all on the backs of a tired, 19 year-old authorization for the use of military force—Americans are increasingly searching for leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who understand that a course correction is desperately overdue. Recent public opinion surveys portray an American population disillusioned with what can only be described as a whole-of-government fixation on a violent and dysfunctional Middle East—a region whose strategic value to the United States is dwindling. More than $6 trillion and the sacrifice of tens of thousands of U.S. casualties over 19 years have bought the United States little security benefit. The list of opportunity costs, however, have continued to grow. It is not a coincidence that China’s hard power, diplomatic influence, and wealth have improved while Washington was stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan taming multiple insurgencies.
Americans don’t agree on much these days, but learning from the last 20 years of foreign policy malpractice is an exception. The fact that 57% of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center last month believe foreign policy is “very important” to their vote this November could reflect in part just how wary, if not frustrated, the population is about the lack of positive results. The Eurasia Group Foundation found a 35% plurality believes keeping a focus on domestic needs and avoiding unnecessary intervention overseas is the best way for the United States to both achieve and sustain peace. Americans have illustrated a pragmatism that often comes after a long period of overextension. While the United States has its fair share of adversaries, nearly 60% of Americans in the same EGF survey support negotiating with those adversaries in order to prevent military conflict.
Trump and Biden can read the polls and clearly see which direction the American public is moving. Deploying the U.S. military to solve the internal conflicts of other nations, defending nations who have the capacity to defend themselves, or simply preserving the status-quo are no longer viable options. Both realize that ending U.S. participation in the expensive counterinsurgency and nation-building exercises that have swallowed up U.S. resources this century is not only popular with the public, but a crucial step if they hope to salvage U.S. strength and resilience domestically. Joe Biden has consistently reminded reporters throughout the campaign of his strong opposition to sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan when the Obama administration was debating the surge option. Similar to his 2016 campaign, Trump is basing his 2020 re-election effort on a “bring our troops home" message. “[W]e’re bringing our soldiers back home,” Trump said during an ABC News town hall on Sept. 15. "And you know who’s the happiest? The soldiers, I see them all the time.”
Both men, in other words, are running as peace candidates. For those wishing for a big burst of judiciousness and restraint in how the U.S. utilizes its awesome military power and interacts with the world, the comments uttered by Trump and Biden are a welcome sign on the door of a new era in U.S. foreign policy.
For the evolution to actually occur, however, words must be met with concrete action. It is one thing to declare your intention to remove U.S. servicemembers from fruitless, circular wars that have gone on for far too long—it is another thing entirely to follow through and order those servicemembers out of harm’s way. The American people are exasperated with business as usual, no more so than on matters of war and peace. For leaders to claim a period of enlightenment, only to perpetuate the same old irresponsible policies would further widen an already cavernous gap between policymakers in Washington, D.C. and the people they represent.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for the Washington Examiner. The views expressed are the author's own.