American presidential campaigns no longer offer voters reasoned debate about world affairs or foreign policy. Candidates compete with each other to promise that they will keep America safest, build the strongest military, and kill the most enemies.
At town-hall meetings and other events during the current campaign, voters have rarely asked foreign policy questions. When they do, they ask only two things. The first is: What will you do to crush ISIS? Inevitably the reply is some variation of “They are savages, and I will destroy them.”
The only other question that comes up regularly runs something like this: Who are our enemies, and how will you fight them? This gives candidates the chance to rant against Russia, Iran, China, or whichever country is the enemy du jour. Almost never are they asked what they would do to calm global tensions.
When Republican candidates speak of diplomacy, it is usually to denounce President Obama for using it. Some promise to close the newly reopened American embassy in Cuba. Most vow to “rip up” last year’s nuclear accord with Iran. This would allow the rest of the world to continue the normalization process without us, and make billions in the process. Pointing that out, however, suggests that the United States does not control the world, a truth too uncomfortable for most candidates to pronounce.
The complexity of foreign policy does not lend itself to one-liners. Nonetheless candidates have already come up with some good ones. They focus our attention and offer insight into the minds of prospective presidents.
The first memorable foreign policy line of this campaign came from Ted Cruz. Rather than simply promise to kill every insurgent in the Middle East, he said: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Being a mom in Raqqa or Fallujah must be miserable now, but Cruz seems ready to put an end to that misery by carpet bombing.
Donald Trump has more experience in the art of the pithy sound bite than any other candidate. His background as a television host, as well as his refusal to accept Republican orthodoxy, makes his outbursts highly entertaining. When asked if he would tolerate waterboarding, he replied that he would go “a hell of a lot further,” and then added a line that may reveal something about his conscience: “It wouldn’t bother me even a little bit.”
During the recent debate in South Carolina, Trump did something Republicans are not supposed to do. He called the invasion of Iraq — the major Republican initiative in world affairs during this century — “a big fat mistake.” Then, referring to President George W. Bush and his advisors, Trump said: “They lied! They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none!”
Bush’s brother Jeb was standing on the same stage. He indignantly accused Trump of “going after my family,” and then gave an odd justification for his candidacy: “My mom is the strongest woman I know.” Trump shot back with the perfect insult: “She should be running!”
Lindsay Graham had dropped out of the race by then, which was a shame because he might have chimed in with a line he used in Iowa: “I miss George W. Bush. I wish he were president right now.”
Democrats have been calmer on foreign policy, but the two remaining candidates had a wonderful exchange during their last debate. Bernie Sanders launched into a tirade against Henry Kissinger, whom he called “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the history of this country.” That spotlighted Hillary Clinton’s ties to a figure many Democrats detest — and, by extension, her reliance on mainstream foreign policy veterans who are responsible for much of the world’s mess. Clinton replied that Kissinger’s background is “incredibly useful,” and added that she does not know who advises Sanders on foreign policy.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure!” Sanders shouted.
In this campaign, the foreign policy fun may be just beginning. John Kasich had it right when he marveled, “This is just crazy. This is just nuts. Jeez! Oh, man!”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.