Foreign policy has been getting only a paltry amount of the airtime in the presidential debates over the last eight months, but evidence points to this issue as a critical one for American voters—just as it is for the commander in chief. Whoever ends up sitting in the Oval Office next January will be contending with a world constantly in flux and ripe with challenges and opportunities. Avoiding costly mistakes and strategic drift is a vital part of the job description.
The American people are hungry for an alternative to a foreign policy status-quo that produces little for American security and prosperity. A foreign policy driven by restraint is urgently required and would provide a long-overdue counterbalance to the current policy that depends on a military-first foreign policy.
After two decades of self-inflicted wounds in the Middle East—and short-sighted and expensive military engagements in countries from Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—the American people are searching for a smarter foreign policy from their leaders—a foreign policy that asks critical questions about the utility, costs, and effects of using military force before the trigger is pulled. They are also desperately in need of leadership that embraces realism, learns from the errors of the past, and takes pride in pragmatic diplomatic resolutions to international problems.
The polls have consistently demonstrated a dramatic shift over time in favor of a more humble U.S. foreign policy that pursues more realistic goals grounded in what is truly necessary to defend the United States and takes advantage of America’s entire foreign policy toolbox. Launching a few dozen tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian regime compound may be celebrated by the Beltway elite as the epitome of U.S. leadership, but Americans from coast-to-coast have a difficult time seeing the correlation. You can’t blame them for their skepticism.
The last 20 years of American foreign policy can be best described as a period when Washington ran up the score by kicking the ball into its own net. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, sold by “serious” national security professionals as the key to positively reordering the Middle East, instead upended the region into chaos and is now rightly condemned as the worst U.S. foreign policy disaster in half a century. The 2011 U.S. and NATO-led intervention in Libya against Muammar al-Qaddafi transformed this large and once-prosperous North African state into an arena for terrorists, foreign powers, and refugees bound for European shores. In Afghanistan, approximately 12,000 U.S. troops remain in the country more than 18 years after the first special operators landed on Afghan soil in pursuit of Al-Qaeda. Seven American soldiers have been killed since January, and more will suffer casualties for as long as they remain posted in the country. It’s no wonder why 58 percent of U.S. veterans and 59 percent of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.
This is not to forget the other examples of malpractice over the years, from allowing poor, corrupt, and geopolitically insignificant countries into the NATO alliance (in turn, further aggravating U.S.-Russia relations and enlarging Washington’s list of security dependents) to withdrawing from imperfect but effective agreements. Nor does it touch upon Washington’s addiction to economic sanctions, a tool already having drastic consequences on the power of the U.S.-dominated financial system.
The American people have been first-hand witnesses to the systemic errors and bad judgment exhibited by their policymakers for the last two decades. They are tired of living with a foreign policy status-quo that hasn’t made the United States any safer. Americans don’t want war with Iran, find it absurd that their sons and daughters in uniform are still dying in Afghanistan, and have no issue with negotiating peace—even if that entails diplomacy with adversaries like North Korea.
President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders are galaxies apart on most issues, but both understand that the American public is demanding a total change in how Washington conducts foreign policy in general. It makes sense that these two candidates—both of whom have critiqued policies of endless war—have become some of the most popular figures in American politics.
But change is only possible if those in positions of power set priorities, interact with the world with a greater degree of humility, and understand which problems are important to U.S. security interests—and which are distractions.
Americans want a new foreign policy that restrains the excesses of the old. When will Washington, D.C. get the message?