Voters almost never decide a presidential election based on foreign policy. But in the 2016 race, most of the current candidates are taking that rule to an almost extreme conclusion: They’re hardly bothering to deal with it at all.
Among the five remaining candidates in the race, there’s one former secretary of state. But what about the rest? One has stocked his team with fringe anti-Islam elements and repeatedly invoked carpet-bombing in a nonsensical manner. One has premised his campaign on implausible walls, likely unconstitutional immigration measures, and illegal tariffs. One has made his work closing military bases in the 1990s a top credential. And the fifth has been pilloried for answers that were vague at best during an interview with the New York Daily News.
A group of Democratic foreign-policy figures has issued a letter (distributed by Hillary Clinton's campaign) criticizing Senator Bernie Sanders for that interview. They say they are “deeply troubled by his continued lack of interest in and knowledge of essential foreign policy and national security issues.” The letter continues:
Senator Sanders was asked specific—but not unexpected or unusual—questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He couldn’t answer, but said that if he 'had some paper' in front of him, he might be able to. He was asked his opinion on key parts of the Obama Administration’s counter-terrorism strategy. Again, he couldn’t answer … These were not 'gotcha' questions. As people who have advised presidents on critical issues like these, we know how important it is to have a Commander-in-Chief who has a deep grasp of them—or who, at the very least, takes them seriously enough to reach beyond the basics.
None of the names on the list will come as great surprises. They include, for example, Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff to Leon Panetta at the CIA and the Pentagon; retired Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a top State Department official; Philip Gordon, who worked for Clinton at State and then advised President Obama on the Middle East; and Tamara Wittes, who also worked on Middle Eastern affairs for Clinton at Foggy Bottom.
In short, these people are some of the leading lights of the centrist Democratic foreign-policy establishment. It’s no surprise that they would line up behind Clinton, for whom many of them once worked. Sanders and his backers can—and will—dismiss these comments as representative of the establishment groupthink that has led Democrats into unwise decisions in the last two decades, from the war in Iraq to the bombardment of Libya. As I have written elsewhere, Democratic voters face an unsavory choice between Clinton’s well-informed but often bad decisions and Sanders’s painfully ignorant but more prudent calls on Iraq and more.
But the Clinton backers do have a point: Sanders’s answers suggested a basic lack of interest. Pressed for details on a policy he had backed—pullback from West Bank settlements—he replied, “I'm not going to run the Israeli government. I've got enough problems trying to be a United States senator or maybe president of the United States.” Sanders has spoken in more detail about some other foreign-policy issues. He traveled to Nicaragua and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as a member of Congress visited more than 40 countries, and he’s been frank about his admiration for Scandinavian social democracies. And while he appears less engaged on current conflicts, he likes to point out that he is the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, handling their aftermath.
Not that Sanders’s detachment is unusual this cycle. He’s not even the first candidate to elicit such a letter. In March, a long list of Republican national-security figures condemned Donald Trump. They wrote:
Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world. Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.
Ted Cruz’s team hasn’t inspired much more confidence from the GOP establishment, either—not that they like anything else about him. He has stocked his kitchen cabinet with a motley mix of advisers, including Frank Gaffney, who boasts a long resume of Islamophobic comments, and Andrew McCarthy, who believes Obama is in league with Islamists to undermine America. (No, really.) Cruz’s national-security ideas aren’t entirely coherent: He has criticized neocon adventurism, but named Elliott Abrams, a leading light of that movement to his team. His military policies are fraught with contradiction.
As with Sanders on the Democratic side, Cruz and Trump may actually benefit, at least with primary voters, from being criticized by these figures. After all, their candidacies have risen on the strength of their willingness to thumb their noses at the party. But Kasich, who has tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to rally the party establishment around him, hasn’t really done anything to take advantage of his rivals’ incoherence and lack of interest in foreign policy. He, too, has mostly ignored it—maybe a wise decision, given his shaky answers during debates.
The indifference is all the more surprising because poll after poll shows that Americans put national security, terrorism, and foreign policy near the tops of their lists for the most crucial issues facing the nation in the 2016 contest. And two Republican contenders for president were arguably brought down in part by their foreign-policy weakness. The once-high flying candidacies of Scott Walker and Ben Carson were brought low in part by bad answers on global questions, though in each case there are plenty of other culprits. The most well-read Republican contender on foreign policy was likely Senator Marco Rubio. Democrats guffawed when he said so, pointing out that his resume amounted to one term on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but in comparative perspective, he wasn’t wrong. It also didn’t help him.
The four other candidates’ lack of interest in foreign policy isn’t necessarily good news for Hillary Clinton, who might wish to capitalize on her extensive foreign-policy resume. She’s still grappling with the legacies of the Iraq war and Libyan invasion. Detailed descriptions of how candidates intend to engage the government of Burma still just don’t excite many voters. When they rank issues like terror highly in polls, what they really mean is that they want to make sure that they, at home in the United States, remain safe. The bar, in other words, is pretty low—but even by those standards, most of this year’s presidential field is pushing its luck.