While the Obama administration has opened up or expanded (“saved and created,” if you will) conflict fronts around the world, leaving the next president with many decisions to make, the first two debates have been sorely lacking in substantive discussion of foreign policy. Hillary Clinton called at the second debate for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria in order to gain leverage against Russia, the two argued over who supported the Iraq war and the Libya intervention and when, although ignored the different positions the two held in the run up to U.S. involvement—Donald Trump was a reality television personality when he says he opposed the Iraq war and U.S. intervention in Libya, Hillary Clinton was a U.S senator when she was one of the leading Democratic proponents of authorizing the Bush administration to use military force in Iraq and was one of the architects within the Obama administration of the Libya intervention.
The U.S. has bases around the world but foreign countries the U.S. is involved in were rarely mentioned in the first two debates. Here’s a round-up of countries the candidates did bother to mention, and a few they certainly should have:
Afghanistan (1 mention, first debate, by Clinton)
The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now longer than World War I, World War II, and the American Civil War combined. “I regret there’s still real problems in Afghanistan,” Joe Biden explained on Meet the Press this weekend, puzzlingly using Afghanistan as an illustration of the abundance of regret on insufficient intervention when asked whether he’d regret not imposing a no-fly zone over Aleppo.
During President Obama’s first term, the U.S. instituted a troop surge, and Clinton, secretary of state at the time, oversaw a concomitant “diplomatic surge.” Bureaucratic infighting helped assure the mobilizations would produce no significant results. Fifteen years after the American invasion of Afghanistan, the country still doesn’t have a government that can function without U.S. military and economic aid. The Taliban continues to operate in the country, challenging the authority of the government, and ISIS has established a presence there as well.
The only mention of Afghanistan in either debate came from Hillary Clinton, who pointed out the only time NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter, which treats an attack on one country like an attack on the entire alliance, was after 9/11, “when the 28 nations of NATO said that they would go to Afghanistan with us to fight terrorism, something that they still are doing by our side.” NATO came up because Trump has been a clumsy critic of the alliance who has nevertheless challenged an often unquestioned status quo. Clinton’s example of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan as an argument in favor of the alliance would probably be an even stronger argument against the alliance had it been brought up by a European politician. There was no other mention of Afghanistan in either debate.
Canada (1 mention, second debate, Donald Trump)
Donald Trump claimed Hillary Clinton wanted to move the U.S. to a single payer system, which Trump said had been a disaster in Canada.
China (12 mentions at first debate, 4 at second debate)
Unsurprisingly, China received relatively more attention at the first two debates than other countries, yet the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” meant to contain China’s growing influence, and the administration’s subsequent befuddlement that the Chinese government has become more controversial, didn’t come up. Neither did the broader wisdom of asserting U.S. interests in a sphere of influence on the other side of the world.
Instead, debate viewers were subject to Trump bemoaning China’s currency devaluations. “We have a winning fight,” Trump said at the first debate. “Because they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.” Trump did not bring up that China holds more than 30 percent of the $4 trillion portion of the U.S. debt held by foreign countries. His infrastructure and other spending plans, like Clinton’s, would entail even more borrowing and unsustainable growth of the $19 trillion national debt. Trump also mentioned China while explaining it had “incredible airports” whereas the U.S. had “become a third world country.”
Later on in the first debate, Trump suggested China could be responsible for the DNC hack by way of pointing out it was far from certain the Russian government was responsible. Clinton joined in, lumping China in with Russia when declaring the U.S. was “not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information.” Finally, Trump insisted at the first debate China could “solve” the North Korea problem for the United States. “China should go into North Korea,” Trump declared. “China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”
For her part, Clinton took credit for a 50 percent increase in exports to China during his tenure as secretary of state. She did not explain why she was taking credit for the increase, and whether it meant she supported removing trade barriers or government meddling in trade or both. In the second debate, when China’s “steel dumping” came up, Clinton suggested a “trade prosecutor” to go after those practices. She also made sure to accuse Trump of purchasing Chinese steel and destroying American jobs (which she claims she creates), helping contribute to Americans’ economic illiteracy despite her more literate private position.
Dubai (1 mention, first debate, by Trump)
Trump compared the “incredible” airports in Dubai, along with airports in Qatar and China, to the “third world” situation with American airports.
Germany (1 mention, first debate, by Trump)
Trump mentioned Germany along with a number of other countries the U.S. was defending with “the nuclear” and insisted those countries should be paying the U.S. for the service, but did not broach the subject of withdrawing U.S. military forces from Germany now that World War II has ended more than 70 years ago.
Iran (24 mentions)
Iran was mostly mentioned as Clinton and Trump re-litigated the Iran nuclear deal. Trump also roped Iran in on North Korea, saying that because Iran was one of its biggest trading power it, like China, also had “power over North Korea.” Trump did not reject the idea of negotiating a nuclear deal, rather sticking to the talking point that it was poorly negotiated. Clinton also lumped Iran in with Russia and China when insisting she would not “sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information.”
At the second debate, Trump pointed out that the governments of Iran, Russia, and Syria were all lined up on targeting ISIS in Syria, questioning the wisdom of the U.S. supporting anti-Assad rebels it knew nothing about.
Iraq (24 mentions)
Iraq was mentioned a lot in the first two debates, but not much of it was substantive. The two argued over who supported the war in Iraq and when. While Clinton insisted Donald Trump supported the Iraq war (he says he opposed it based on critical comments he made early on in the war, but Clinton points to a Howard Stern interview on the one year anniversary of 9/11 where Trump seemed open to the prospect of war in Iraq as evidence he did not oppose it), she did not explain why she supported the war or why she says she believes it now to be a mistake, aside from the political benefit of saying so.
The two also brought up Iraq in the context of U.S. involvement in the campaign against ISIS. Here, too, neither candidate questioned the underlying assumption that U.S. involvement was necessary and beneficial. “We’re making progress, our military is assisting in Iraq,” Clinton said at the first debate. “And we’re hoping that within the year we’ll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria.”
The other recurring point about Iraq was in connecting the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to the rise of ISIS in the country. Neither Trump nor Clinton challenged that connection. Trump blamed Obama and Clinton for it while Clinton pointed out that the withdrawal from Iraq (for which Obama took credit in 2012) was negotiated by George W. Bush.
Israel (no mentions)
Israel is the largest single recipient of U.S. military and economic aid and the Obama administration has continued in the tradition of American presidents futilely inserting themselves into the Israeli-Arab peace process. Both Trump and Clinton have claimed to be close friends of Israel but neither brought the country up.
Japan (6 mentions at the first debate)
Japan came up a few times in the first debate. Twenty to thirty years ago, Japan was brought up by anti-free traders like Trump the way China is today, and at the first debate Trump didn’t stray from bemoaning Japan’s economic successes, although in the context of the U.S. defending Japan. “We can’t defend Japan, a behemoth, selling us cars by the million,” Trump explained. Later on in the first debate, Clinton insisted on assuring Japan, among other countries, that the U.S. would honor its mutual defense treaties. As has long been the theme of foreign policy in American politics, the underlying soundness of having such treaties was not investigated in any meaningful way. Clinton also brought up Japan in reference to previous Trump comments where he was open to seeing Japan and other countries acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Here too the point was mainly to ding Trump, not to draw some kind of meaningful lesson about U.S. foreign policy.
Kenya (1 mention, first debate, by Trump)
The debate moderators were bound to bring up the birther issue if the candidates themselves didn’t. Trump pointed out that Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal was among the first to suggest before the 2008 election that then-Senator Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya.
Libya (4 mentions)
Libya got scant mention at either debate. Trump brought it up as an example of Clinton’s reckless foreign policy, pointing out that the U.S.-backed intervention in the Libyan civil war helped open up Libyan oil fields to eventual exploitation by ISIS, while Clinton insisted Trump supported intervention in Libya in 2011, as if that were comparable to being the U.S. Secretary of State and a primary proponent and architect of the intervention.
Mexico (6 mentions, first debate, by Trump)
Donald Trump launched his presidential bid with a speech that included controversial comments about Mexico sending drug dealers and rapists across the border, and rose to the top of the Republican heap by promising to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Somewhat surprisingly, Trump didn’t mention the wall once, and Mexico came up only in Trump’s lamentation about the effect of free trade and his desire that factory jobs return to the United States. Trump, unusual for a Republican nominee, also used Mexico as an example of a place he might penalize an American company for moving to. Clinton ceded much of the philosophical ground on free trade, refusing to substantively defend NAFTA or the general trend toward free trade that has helped increase prosperity around the world.
Nigeria (no mentions)
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. military has expanded its presence across Africa, and particularly in West Africa, where the militant group Boko Haram, based in Nigeria, has terrorized that country and its neighbors. Boko Haram affiliated with ISIS, and last year Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Bahari, accused the U.S. of aiding and abetting the group by refusing to sell Nigeria more weapons. The U.S. has deployed military forces across the region, and in next door Niger is building a $100 million drone base. Nevertheless, the expansion of the U.S. war on terror to Nigeria and the rest of Africa was not mentioned by either candidate or any of the three debate moderators so far.
North Korea (5 mentions, first debate, by Trump)
Donald Trump brought North Korea up in the first debate while answering a question about nuclear armament. “I can’t take anything off the table,” Trump said after saying he wasn’t in favor of a nuclear first strike. “Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there.” From there, Trump suggested China should handle North Korea for the U.S. and, bringing up the Iran deal, said even Iran could do something about North Korea.
Pakistan (no mentions)
In 2008, then-candidate Obama promised he’d go into Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden if Pakistan refused. In 2011, that more or less happened, and Obama was able to use the killing of bin Laden to propel him to re-election the following year. America’s long drone war in Pakistan has helped to destabilize the country. After a hiatus, drone strikes resumed this year, targeting Taliban leaders who are, by and large, replaced by figures even more vicious. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan has receded from the mainstream political consciousness and the major party candidates don’t mind keeping it that way.
Qatar (1 mention, first debate, by Trump)
Trump noted Qatar’s airports, like Dubai’s and China’s, are far better than those in the U.S. He did not mention that the airports he so adores are mostly built by central governments in countries where the private sector is far from free.
Russia (39 mentions)
You’d be forgiven if you thought this election was happening in the Cold War era. Four years ago, Democrats mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia America’s number one geopolitical foe, with John Kerry quipping that the Republican nominee was getting his foreign policy ideas from Rocky IV. As I noted two years ago, Mitt Romney was half right. Russia was a geopolitical force, but necessarily a foe. The Obama administration, on the other hand, was wrong to marginalize the differences between what the U.S. and Russia consider their national security interests. That naiveté contributed to American blundering from Ukraine to Syria, with U.S. interests ill-defined except that they were opposed to Russia.
At the debates, Russia largely came up as a boogeyman. Clinton continued the push to tie Trump to Russia and continued to advocate taking a more confrontational stance vis a vis Russia, while Trump cautioned about the wisdom of being antagonistic with Russia, a 180 degree shift from the rhetoric in 2012. Clinton hardly sounded like the same person who brought Russian leaders a reset button in 2009, but did take credit for U.S. cooperation with Russia on Iran sanctions while advocating a largely harum-scarum posture toward Russia.
Saudi Arabia (4 mentions, first debate)
Saudi Arabia came up as one of the country’s Trump insisted is rich enough to pay the U.S. for defending it, and one of the countries with which he could negotiate a better trade deal. Saudi Arabia’s support for terrorism in the region did not come up, neither did the Clinton Foundation’s ties to Saudi Arabia. The assumption that the U.S. ought to back Saudi Arabia as a regional power in the Middle East was not questioned by either candidate.
Somalia (no mentions)
Somalia has been another locus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa. The U.S. stepped up involvement in Somalia at the tail end of the Bush administration, participating along with Ethiopia in a military campaign to install a transitional government in a country that hadn’t had an internationally recognized government since 1993. U.S. escalation in the country has continued since then, with an air strike killing 150 people the U.S. claimed posed an “imminent threat” to troops in the country as recently as March of this year. And even as his presidency comes to an end, Obama is still overseeing an expansion of the war in Somalia. It’s a topic the major party candidates are unlikely to bring up of their own free will.
South Korea (3 mentions, first debate)
South Korea was one of the countries Trump noted the U.S. defended without being paid for it. Trump called on those countries to pay the U.S. for defending them, but did not question whether the U.S. should be involved there in the first place or note how U.S. entanglements with South Korea and other regional allies might serve to increase tensions and make conflict resolution in the region more difficult.
Syria (17 mentions)
Syria was mentioned just once in the first debate, when Hillary Clinton suggested that after the U.S. helped expel ISIS from Iraq it could “really squeeze them in Syria.” In the second debate, Clinton suggested imposing a no-fly zone over Aleppo with the pretext of ending a humanitarian crisis but primarily to gain leverage over Russia and force them to the negotiating table. Clinton had previously in private admitted that the imposition of a no-fly zone would mean civilian casualties. Martha Raddatz, one of the moderators of the second debate, also jumped in to argue in favor of interventionism, briefly debating Donald Trump, who was unwilling to accept her assumptions about what U.S. intervention could accomplish in Syria. Trump also suggested the U.S. was misguided in opposing Syria President Bashar Assad, who he argued was fighting ISIS along with Russia and Iran. Clinton did not offer a substantive reason for U.S. opposition to Assad, and neither has the Obama administration up to this point, outside of generic concern about Assad being a human rights violator—he’s hardly the only head of state or government who is one.
Yemen (1 mention, first debate, by Trump)
Yemen came up at the debate just once, when Trump brought up how bad the Iran deal was and suggested Iran could do something about North Korea. “And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea,” Trump said. “And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places.”
In Yemen, rebels alleged to be backed by Iran toppled the U.S.-backed authoritarian regime in 2014, leading to eighteen months of war between the rebel government and the government in exile and its Saudi Arabian backers. The bombing of a funeral in Yemen attracted new attention to the long-standing conflict, with the White House promising an “immediate review.” Just weeks before that, a bipartisan effort in the Senate led by Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Fla.) to block a U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia failed to pass. Recent events, including missiles launched at a U.S. warship in the region and retaliatory U.S. missile strikes on radar sites in Yemen mean this conflict may not be ignored again in the final debate.
That final debate, which starts tonight at 9:00pm, is supposed to include a section on “foreign hot spots,” so watch for a follow-up post on countries mentioned in the third debate and what it means for U.S. foreign policy after the debate ends.