Joe Biden (Pix Arena/Shutterstock) and Donald Trump (Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock)
10 foreign policy questions that should be asked at the presidential debate (but probably won’t)

Tuesday’s highly anticipated debate between President Trump and Democratic challenger Vice President Joe Biden is expected to delve into several broad topics critical to today’s political environment: the Supreme Court, COVID, the economy, race and violence in cities, the integrity of the election, and the candidates’ records.

Of course the discussion may or may not touch upon salient foreign policy and national security issues that often spill over from these more domestic concerns — like the U.S. relationship with China, Russia, or the continuing wars abroad.

So we canvassed the Quincy Institute staff and asked them what questions should be asked tomorrow night (but probably won’t):

Andrew Bacevich, President: In its recently published official history of the Iraq War, the U.S. Army acknowledges “the failure of the United States to attain its strategic objectives in Iraq.” Do you agree with that judgment? If so, what are the implications of that failure for U.S. policy going forward?  If not — if you think that the war ended in something other than failure — how would you characterize the outcome? In either case, what lessons should the United States take from its war in Iraq?”

2) The United States has embarked upon a comprehensive program of modernizing its nuclear strike force — new strategic bombers, new ICBMs, new missile-launching submarines, new warheads. Estimated total costs exceed $1 trillion. The Obama administration initiated this project. The Trump administration has continued it. Seventy-five years after Hiroshima, why does the United States find it necessary to initiate a new nuclear arms race? Can you offer an alternative to doing so?

Lora Lumpe, CEO: The United States government has declared that we are in an existential struggle for survival with China, resulting in calls by U.S. politicians and defense analysts to contain Beijing by decoupling our economies and technology spheres and ramping up our defense posture in Asia to retain American dominance there. And yet none of our allies and friends have signed onto this zero-sum approach and the American public does not want to greatly increase defense spending, especially when we are facing so many challenges at home, nor to decouple from China. What in your view is the alternative strategy toward China that will keep America and the global commons safe, enhance our competitiveness, and defend our values?

Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President: The Middle East has progressively become more unstable and violent under American military hegemony. In 1998, the region suffered from five armed conflicts. By 2019, 22 violent struggles engulfed the area. This has made America less safe and cost countless American lives. America’s posture of military dominance in the Middle East is precisely why the US has become entangled in so many conflicts there, including the region’s endless wars. Will you commit to not only ending the endless wars but also ending the strategy that gave birth to these wars, by bringing U.S. troops home and ending our military hegemony of the Middle East?

Stephen Wertheim, Director, Deputy Director of Research & Policy: Under the Obama-Biden administration, the United States expanded its warfighting to seven countries officially acknowledged by the Department of Defense: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. President Trump, why haven’t you ended any of those wars, despite your objections to “endless wars”? Vice President Biden, which of these wars will you end, and why should we believe you given your record?

Jessica Lee, Senior Research Fellow, East Asia Program: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. A major hurdle to progress in nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea has been the lack of trust and atmosphere conducive to diplomacy stemming from both sides’ failure to make peace. If you were elected president, would you commit to declaring the Korean War over and pursue a permanent peace treaty that could lead to a less militarized U.S. posture on the peninsula?

Annelle Sheline, Research Fellow, Middle East Program: Yemenis refer to the air campaign against their country as the “Saudi-American war.” Continued American support for the war is often justified on the basis of preventing additional casualties, yet civilian casualties from targeted attacks exceed 13,500 people and American officials fear that they may face charges of war crimes for providing material support for the bombardment. The UAE pulled out last year. Why does the US continue to support Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign against Yemen? In what why does this serve US interests?

Rachel Esplin Odell, Research Fellow, East Asia Program: The coronavirus has revealed that having a globe-spanning dominant military force, with military spending greater than the next ten countries combined, does not help to keep Americans safe from the most pressing threats we face, such as pandemics and climate change. On the contrary, the U.S. military has a carbon footprint larger than 140 countries and is a major contributor to climate change. How can the United States rethink its approach to national security and shift our spending priorities in a way that better protects Americans?

Steven Simon, Senior Research Analyst, Middle East Program: The past three administrations did not make arms control a foreign policy priority. Each administration justified this decision on the basis of extenuating circumstances. The current administration has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, as well as the ‘Open Skies’ Treaty, and is close to letting the New START treaty expire without renewal. As a result, nuclear weapons and delivery systems are increasingly unconstrained. What priority will your administration accord this issue in the future?

Kelley Vlahos, Senior Advisor, U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated over the last four years, with multiple investigations and counter investigations into the scope of alleged meddling in the 2016 election. Meanwhile there have been heated confrontations between the U.S. and Russian military in Syria. Washington has Increased economic sanctions and withdrawn from critical nuclear treaties, but so far it has done little to achieve our desired outcomes from Moscow. While many among the establishment would like to continue on this status quo path — focused on Russia as an enemy and a geopolitical threat — others are pressing for a change, acknowledging that diplomacy, not military or economic warfare, is the path forward in a multipolar world. Where do each of you stand on the matter?

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