During every presidential election cycle, pundits argue that foreign policy will play a decisive role. Every time — at least in my experience of 14 election cycles, nine in campaigns — they have been proved wrong. This year will almost surely be no different.
On the hustings, presidential candidates rarely get questions from voters on foreign policy. However, during the televised debates, journalist-questioners looking to make news quiz candidates on what they might do in thus-and-so circumstance, although they can’t possibly know until faced in the Oval Office with real-world choices.
Election Campaign Damage: Israel and Palestine
By contrast, presidential campaigns often have a serious impact on U.S. national security interests. This year, three foreign policy issues tightly linked to U.S. domestic politics stand out. First, last week, Trump joined with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House to launch the “deal of the century” on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The deal is so one-sided as to be risible and is “dead on arrival.” It’s good politics for Trump with U.S. constituencies that are strongly pro-Israel, though with less impact with American Jews (most of whom are almost certain to vote for the Democratic nominee) than with many American evangelicals.
But does it matter that, with Trump’s proposal, the United States has abandoned any pretense of being an “honest broker” in the Middle East? To be sure, keen observers rightly note that most Arab governments give no more than ritual support to the Palestinian cause. Many have joined Israel in seeing Iran as their common enemy, and the Palestinians be damned.
But most Arab leaders still must look over their shoulders: can they be sure that their populations will forget about the Palestinians’ decades-long perception of humiliation by Israel, the United States, and most Arab leaders? Thus, to guard against giving a hostage to fortune, both the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIG) have formally rejected the Trump plan.
Still, a third Palestinian Intifada (or “uprising”) has so far not started. But these are early days. In any event, U.S. chances of promoting stability in the region have been seriously damaged.
More consequential is the standoff between the Trump administration and Iran’s clerical leadership, with the U.S. being egged on by regional partners. Trump probably does not want an open war with Iran. But heightened tensions raise doubts that either Trump or the Iranians can control the pattern of escalation/de-escalation. Little would be needed to spark a major conflict, even by accident. After the United States assassinated Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran responded only by launching pin-prick missile attacks against two Iraqi airbases used by the U.S. military, with advanced warning to keep from killing Americans. Trump — and the world — might not be so lucky next time.
It takes strong nerves to bet that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran will remain controlled, much less that Iran will accede to U.S. demands before negotiations even begin. Meanwhile, following Trump’s amazing folly two years ago of withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which effectively trammeled any chance that Iran could get nuclear weapons for at least a decade, Iran is now ramping up its nuclear activities. Given that Trump has pledged that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” at some point a “red line” can get crossed, not just in politics-driven perceptions but in reality. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still has on the table 12 demands that Iran must meet before any negotiations can begin. No country will accept unconditional surrender as the opening bid for talking.
Several of the Democratic candidates for president, while deeply concerned about Iran’s behavior, oppose the Trump-Pompeo approach, with all of the risks of open conflict. Amid deep unease on Capitol Hill, the Democratic-controlled House has voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), originally the legal basis for the invasion of Iraq, and to prevent funding of military action against Iran without congressional authorization. (Yet neither House bill has much chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.) But these concerns could be swept aside if an incident in the Persian Gulf region led to Americans getting killed, provoking a national outcry. So long as Trump favors confrontation with Iran over any consideration of compromise or conciliation, the dangers will continue. “Hair trigger” continues to be an apt metaphor.
Damage: The Democrats on Russia
It’s not just the White House that is doing serious damage to U.S. interests abroad during this year’s election campaign. Of even greater consequence (absent a new Middle East war) is the U.S. relationship with Russia. It’s currently unthinkable that Washington will try to move beyond the status quo, even if Russian President Vladimir Putin were prepared to do so. Even before Trump was inaugurated, many Democrats began calling for his impeachment. Leading Democrats laid Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the feet of Russian interference in the U.S. election — a claim that stretched credulity past the breaking point. Further, as Democrats looked for grounds to impeach Trump (or at least terminally to reduce his reelection chances), the “Russia factor” was the best cudgel available. Charges included the notion that “Putin has something on Trump,” which presumes he would sell out the nation’s security for a mess of pottage.
All this domestic politicking ignores a geopolitical fact: while the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and, for some time thereafter, Russia could be dismissed, it was always certain that it would again become a significant power, at least in Europe. Thus, even before the Berlin Wall fell, President George H. W. Bush proposed creating a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. Bill Clinton built on what Bush began. Both understood that a renascent Russia could embrace revanchism, and for several years their efforts seemed to have a chance of succeeding.
Then the effort went off the rails. Putin took power in Russia, which made cooperation with the West difficult if not impossible. He worked to consolidate his domestic position, in part by alleging that the West was “disrespecting” Russia and trying to encircle it. For its part, the U.S. played into the Putin narrative by abandoning the Bush-Clinton vision of taking legitimate Russian interests into account in fashioning European security arrangements. The breaking point came in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and sent “little green men” to fight in some other parts of Ukraine. The West necessarily responded, with economic sanctions and NATO’s buildup of “trip wire” forces in Central Europe.
But despite the ensuing standoff, the critical requirement remains: the United States has to acknowledge Russia’s inevitable rise as a major power while also impressing on Putin the need to trim his ambitions, if he is to avoid a new era of Russian isolation. There is also serious business that the two countries need to pursue, including strategic arms control, the Middle East (especially Iran), and climate change. Despite deep disagreements, including over Ukraine and parts of Central Europe, the U.S. needs to engage in serious discussions with Russia, which means the renewal of diplomacy which has been in the deep freeze for years.
All of this has been put in pawn by the role that the “Russia factor” has been permitted to play in American presidential politics, especially by Democrats. Longer-term U.S. interests are suffering, along with those of the European allies and Middle East partners. The task has been made even more difficult by those U.S. politicians, think tanks, and journalists who prefer to resurrect the term “cold war” rather than clearly examining the nation’s strategic needs because of the blinkers imposed by domestic politics. Open discussion about alternatives in dealing with Russia is thus stifled, at serious cost to the United States and others.
In all three of these areas, the U.S. is paying a high price in terms of its national interests to the games political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, are playing. Great efforts will be needed to dig out of this mess, beginning with U.S. willingness to do so. Leaders elsewhere must also be prepared to join in — far from a sure thing! Unfortunately, there is currently little hope that, at least in the three critical areas discussed above, pursuit of U.S. interests abroad will prevail over today’s parochial domestic politics.