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Our Foreign Policy Is Muddled, Because Our Public Is Muddled, Because Our Leaders Are Muddled

President Donald Trump responds to a question about Ukraine and the whistleblower report during a joint news conference with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto at the White House, October 2, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In a Corner post below, I quoted James Mattis’ autobiography, and his assessment of U.S. foreign policy in 2012: “I was disappointed and frustrated that policymakers all too often failed to deliver clear direction. And lacking a defined mission statement, I frequently didn’t know what I was expected to accomplish.” Considering today’s news, it is fair to wonder how much has changed.

It’s also fair to wonder how much will change, even if there’s a new president taking office January 20, 2021.

In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president while promising to simultaneously “take the oil,” bring the troops home, and “bomb the [excrement] out of ISIS,” while also “letting Russia take on the Islamic State.”

Trump’s stated desires and goals were often contradictions, but not many voters seemed to mind, because a lot of voters want contradictory things, too. They want terrorists to be attacked and destroyed until they’re not a danger anymore, and they also want all U.S. military forces to be kept out of harm’s way. They want the Pentagon to have the power to hit any target, anywhere, anytime, quickly enough to disrupt an attack or other calamity, but also don’t want our troops stationed abroad as a potential target for IEDs, suicide bombers, mortars, car bombs, and so on. They want to support allies like Israel or pro-American kingdoms, but they don’t like populations of Islamists hating us because we support allies like Israel or pro-American kingdoms. They want America to stop being the world’s policeman, and then nod in agreement to the words “never again,” on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We want all the good parts of foreign policy, but none of the bad parts.

A good leader has to level with the American people and tell them the facts that they don’t want to hear. Foreign policy and national security rarely give us easy answers, or win-win scenarios, or no-risk scenarios. Tradeoffs are inevitable, as are disappointments, setbacks, accidents, and provocations by hostile states. Oftentimes there is not a good option, only competing varieties of bad options. Our choices are to live with the risks of engagement or the risks of disengagement.

Donald Trump is pretty bad at leveling with the American people about difficult choices. But it’s worth noting that the alternative on the other side of the aisle is a big jumble of contradictory impulses and desires as well, and comparably shameless in their promises. Asked about terrorism in Afghanistan in the last debate, Elizabeth Warren responded:

We need to treat the problem of terrorism as a worldwide problem, and that means we need to be working with all of our allies, our European allies, our Canadian allies, our Asian allies, our allies in Africa and in South America. We need to work together to root out terrorism.

Work with our allies! What an original and groundbreaking suggestion!

Pressed further by George Stephanopolous, Warren added, “We need to work with the rest of the world. We need to use our economic tools. We need to use our diplomatic tools. We need to build with our allies. And we need to make the whole world safer.”

Moments later, Pete Buttigieg added, “if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Afghanistan, from Afghanistan, it’s that the best way not to be caught up in endless war is to avoid starting one in the first place.” Did the U.S. start the war in Afghanistan? Or did al-Qaeda start it with the 9/11 attacks?

Joe Biden seemed to suggest Afghanistan could be calmed by splitting the country into three, which just happens to echo his preferred policy on Iraq about a decade ago:

The whole purpose of going to Afghanistan was to not have a counterinsurgency, meaning that we’re going to put that country together. It cannot be put together. Let me say it again. It will not be put together. It’s three different countries. Pakistan owns the three counties — the three provinces in the east. They’re not any part of — the Haqqanis run it. I will go on and on.

But here’s the point. The point is that it’s a counterterrorism strategy. We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases — insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know. We don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home.

Biden seems convinced that stationing smaller groups of U.S. troops at Pakistani air bases and sending the rest home will provide Americans with all of the counter-terrorism they need. It seems odd that the benefits of this apparently self-evidently brilliant plan have eluded all of the U.S. military strategists, planners, intelligence analysts, and troops on the ground.

And then there was Bernie Sanders:

I think that what we have got to do is bring this world together — bring it together on climate change, bring it together in fighting against terrorism. And make it clear that we as a planet, as a global community, will work together to help countries around the world rebuild their struggling economies and do everything that we can to rid the world of terrorism. But dropping bomb on Afghanistan and Iraq was not the way to do it.

“Bring the world together.” “Do everything we can to rid the world of terrorism.” Thank God he’s here to come up with these ideas.

Yes, it’s hard to give a good or detailed answer about foreign policy and national security, off the cuff, in one minute and fifteen seconds. But these are word salads, and to the extent they promise anything, it’s a return to Obama administration policies that, a broad bipartisan consensus would agree, did not generate the results we wanted to see.

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