The circus of politics can often be a distraction from actual policy – and last night’s debate proved no exception when it came to the subject of foreign affairs.
The back and forth between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was perhaps more instructive in terms of what was not mentioned – Syria’s civil war, for instance – than what was discussed.
To be fair, the debate was not intended to focus on international issues, which were basically a footnote in the “securing America” segment. But amid the exchanges about ISIS, Iran, NATO and nuclear proliferation, there were some brief glimpses of what the world might look like under a President Trump or a President Clinton.
For the most part, Trump focused on attacking Clinton’s record – “she’s got experience, but it’s bad experience” – rather than on articulating his own foreign policy proposals.
That was certainly true of the discussion on ISIS, which was mentioned 24 times during the foreign policy part of the debate. Clinton spoke of the need to “intensify our air strikes against ISIS,” “support our Arab and Kurdish partners,” and “take out their leadership” – positions that don’t differ much from President Barack Obama’s current policies.
Trump repeatedly slammed Clinton and Obama for contributing to the rise of the terror group by pulling out of Iraq, but he offered no details of his own “secret” plan “to knock the hell out of ISIS.”
When Clinton taunted him about not having a plan, he retorted: “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do … No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” (Fact check: ISIS only came into being in 2006 after splintering from al Qaeda in Iraq. Clinton was born in 1947.)
Iran’s nuclear deal
Similarly, on Iran, Trump repeatedly attacked Clinton for striking “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history,” arguing that Iran had been “about to fall” and was now poised to become a “major power.”
But he didn’t offer many suggestions for how it should have been done differently, beyond suggesting that “they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea. And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places.”
Support for NATO
If the debate didn’t offer much new insight into Trump’s foreign policy plans, his comments about America’s allies and NATO certainly did.
“I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world … where they’re not paying us what we need,” Trump said.
It was a moment that will have sent shudders down the spines of America’s international allies – an isolationist vision that has many global leaders wary about a President Trump. Already under Obama, there is a perception that the US has retreated from taking an international leadership role, particularly in the Middle East.
Clinton sought to provide some reassurance that she would be different, saying: “we’ve got to work more closely with our allies”. But it remains to be seen how she would take on some of the toughest foreign policy questions – namely, the civil war in Syria – in a way that would be meaningfully different or more impactful than her predecessor.
Perhaps the next debate will offer some more clues.