People watch the debate between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris outside a tavern in San Diego, California, U.S., October 7, 2020. REUTERS/ Mike Blake
Out-of-touch, incoherent foreign policy on display in Harris-Pence showdown

Anyone expecting to get a sense of where the vice presidential candidates stood on the most pressing national security and foreign policy issues of the day were left head shaking and empty handed last night, a testament to how low a priority our overseas wars have become — and how out of touch our elites are with the American people.

Shopworn tropes about President Trump not being nice “to our friends” (Kamala Harris) and boastful talking points like “we destroyed ISIS caliphate” (Mike Pence) prevailed over any serious discussion at the one and only vice presidential debate, and shows how ill-equipped the Trump or Biden campaigns are in talking about America’s role in the world.

Even worse, they quickly return to partisan form.

“At a time when the American people want to end endless war, it was disturbing that Harris and Pence spoke almost solely in aggressive terms toward other countries — with Harris emphasizing Russia and Pence decrying Iran and China,” complained Stephen Wertheim, Deputy Director of Research and Policy at the Quincy Institute and author of the new book, “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.” 

“How about peace and mutual coexistence, unless America’s vital interests are truly at stake?”

Certainly the moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page asked about what U.S. leadership should look like in her opening question on the topic. It’s just that, like most of the queries delivered last night on a range of topics, it was never truly answered. 

Harris responded by calling Trump “an isolationist.”

“You’ve gotta keep your word to your friends, you’ve got to be loyal to your friends. You’ve gotta know who your adversaries are,” she said, not expanding on who any of these said actors are, what damage has been done, or how a President Biden would be any different — other than than he would be more liked.

“Pew, a reputable research firm, has done an analysis that shows that leaders of all our formerly allied countries now hold in greater esteem and respect Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party president, than they do Donald Trump,” she said. 

She did name one enemy: Russia. Trump, she said, does not “care” about reports Russia had put “bounties on the heads of American soldiers” in Afghanistan and failed to confront Russian leader Vladimir Putin in six consecutive phone calls. Biden, on the other hand, would be “tough on Putin.”

The bounty story has yet to be confirmed of course, and does nothing but breathe stale air into Democrats’ domestic attacks on the president as a tool of Russia. It also “ignores (the) flawed policies that made them vulnerable to said bounties in the first place,” noted QI research fellow Adam Weinstein, pointing to the 19-year Afghanistan war. 

For his part, Pence discarded any of Trump’s stated desires to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East or push allies towards taking on more of their own defense responsibilities. Instead, he focused on China as an alleged world menace and boasted about the Trump assassination of Iranian general Qassam Soleimani, at one point hinting the administration had been waiting for the “opportunity” to kill the Iranian general.

“Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general, was responsible for the death of hundreds of American service members. When the opportunity came, we saw him headed to Baghdad to kill more Americans, President Trump didn’t hesitate and Qassem Soleimani is gone,” Pence said.

“But you deserve to know that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris actually criticized the decision to take out Qassem Soleimani. It’s really inexplicable,” he added.

Harris, rather than defend her earlier criticism of Soleimani’s killing as presidential overreach, decided to target the aftermath, scolding the president for calling mild brain injuries in the Iranian’s missile retaliation in early January, “headaches.”

Iran is where Harris might have distinguished herself, as Biden has pledged to get the United States back into the nuclear deal, the withdrawal from which has been a signature Trump measure, leading to myriad consequences for both Iran and for regional instability. But even here, she seemed restrained by the old Democratic fear of looking “soft” and indulging in counterproductive status quo narratives. In this case, the institutional belief that Iran is an enemy that if not restrained would build and likely threaten the U.S. and its allies with nuclear confrontation.

Trump, she said, put us “in a position where we are less safe because they are building up what might end up being a significant nuclear arsenal.”

“We were in that deal, guys,” she added. “We were in the Iran nuclear deal with friends and allies, and because of Donald Trump’s unilateral foreign policy, coupled with his isolationism, he pulled us out and has made America less safe.”

It is telling that both sides were playing to type last night. Harris, shifting from primary to general campaigning mode found her talking tough on Russia, avoiding any real critiques of U.S. interventionist policies overseas, and ignoring failed policies (many of which are holdovers from the previous Democratic administration). Pence went all-out hawk for the occasion, at one point swapping talk about his boss keeping his promises regarding Afghanistan withdrawal for Trump keeping his word to Israel.

“President Trump kept his word when we moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel,” Pence declared. “When Joe Biden was vice president, they promised to do that and they never did. We stood strong with our allies.”

Behind all of the rhetoric last night about representing and respecting the American people, it looks like party elites are as out of touch as they have ever been, pandering to the usual special interests and ignoring the mandates right in front of them. The result, an incoherent display that left no one enlightened, much less happy.

“How depressing that on the 19th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the war received no attention besides a passing reference,” Wertheim noted. “Three-quarters of Americans want our troops to come home. It should be a priority, and even a source of national unity when we need it most.”

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