With luck, the results of the 2016 presidential election will be clear within 48 hours. The election cycle could be extended for a number of reasons—a close result could trigger a mandatory recount in some states, both major party candidate could fail to get to 270 votes, a candidate could decline to concede. These and other scenarios would provide the American media, political class, and public to continue ignoring serious issues at home and abroad. Ignoring the issues, however, is not making them go away nor even doing anything to delay them. Like an undiagnosed (or a diagnosed but untreated) case of cancer, America’s problems can get even worse.
Election campaigns often seem like fact free things. In 2012, President Obama was re-elected in part by insisting he had ended the Iraq war (he didn’t), while ignoring the lack of progress in Afghanistan as well as the expansion of the war on terror into new battlespaces like Yemen, Syria, and even Libya. The most remembered lines of the 2012 election remind us of how shallow it was—binders full of women, Big Bird, you didn’t build that. Democrats mocked GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his concern about Russia instead of explaining why they weren’t relevant. Today, Democrats and Republicans have basically flip-flopped with each other on the issue of Russia—keeping partisan rhetoric vague and untethered to reality makes this easy to do when politically convenient.
And while Russia got a lot of play this election cycle, little of it was substantive. The Donald Trump campaign helped keep a bellicose plank calling for sending arms to Ukraine out of the Republican platform. Many Democrats seized on this as evidence that Russia was “influencing” the Republican nominee’s campaign and the Republican Party. Yet the Democratic party platform did not call for the U.S. to arm Ukraine either. Such a position would be ridiculous to take. There are no identifiable U.S. national security interests in Ukraine. Insofar as there are national security interests for Europe, they ought to be hndled by the Europeans. The Republicans should be applauded for rejecting an unnecessarily antagonistic stance.
The Ukraine hubbub should’ve been a warning sign. By the time of the presidential debates, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was openly calling for a policy in Syria that would challenge Russia. She wanted a no-fly zone in Syria, she explained at the first debate, in order to build leverage to force Russia to the negotiating table. Here the U.S. has also failed to identify a clear national security interest in its insistence that Syria President Bashar Assad be removed from power as a precondition to a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Russia is likely prepared to join negotiations today—it is unwilling to sever its relationship with the Assad regime as part of those negotiations. Why would they? Russia has an interest in continuity in Syria in large part because of the naval base it operates there that provides Russia its only access to the Mediterranean. Far less clear are the motives for Clinton’s interest in taking an oppositional stance to Russia outside of an outdated Cold War mentality, one Clinton allies accused Romney of in 2012.
At least Russia was mentioned. Yemen wasn’t mentioned a single time at any of the presidential debates and has received virtually no attention from the candidates, major or minor, despite a year and a half long civil war in which US ally Saudi Arabia is involved that was a direct result of the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen. The U.S. war in Afghanistan, which has lasted longer than both world wars and the American civil war combined and where the U.S. is fighting the Taliban and ISIS, has also received little attention from the candidates. The U.S. has no pathway to an end of the war—the Obama administration has consistently delayed a withdrawal date, which now lies in 2017, when the U.S. will have a new president, one that has almost never mentioned the war or their views on its prosecution during the course of the campaign.
The threats to national security being produced and amplified by a reckless (bipartisan) U.S. foreign policy are complimented by out of control government spending and a ballooning national debt at home, something then Joint Chair of the Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen called the greatest threat to U.S. national security back in 2010, when the national debt as a paltry $14 trillion (it is now $19.5 trillion). At one debate, Clinton insisted her plans would not a “penny to the debt.” Donald Trump did not bat an eye to the outlandish claim. After all, the Republican nominee has criticized Clinton’s infrastructure plan for not spending enough money. In September, the Republican-controlled Congress once again kicked the can down the road, allowing government spending to continue to grow. Speaker Paul Ryan’s greatest legacy so far is taking the debt ceiling off the negotiation table and further normalizing an unsustainable pattern of growing government spending and national debt.
These threats did not go away just because the 2016 election offered enough entertaining distractions for the political class to largely ignore them. After 9/11, George Will wrote that the 1990s represented a “holiday from history” for the U.S., that the period between the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks saw the U.S. stumbling forward and looking inward at silly political distractions. I don’t agree. The U.S. spent the post-Cold War era ramping up its involvement overseas, from Haiti to Kosovo to Somalia to Iraq, carving out a place for itself in the international order as a kind of indispensable nation, offering to guarantee global security and stability.
Unsurprisingly, these machinations helped pave the way for 9/11. When Osama bin Laden declared war on the U.S., two of the three reasons he listed involved U.S. military operations in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, operations that were welcomed by regional governments looking for a powerful ally who could subsidize their own ambitions, but not the populations many of those governments were themselves expressing. It wasn’t a lack of U.S. involvement, but a lack of engagement of the underlying assumptions of a Cold War foreign policy in a post-Cold War world, that could best be characterized as a holiday from history, or even a holiday in history. Organizations like NATO were created in the aftermath of World War II, and were largely not revisited after the end of the Cold War. Policy makers largely remained staked in history, content to keep U.S. foreign policy on interventionist auto-pilot despite a rapidly decentralizing world that did not need a unipolar super power to hold it together.
The 2016 election, with its deeply flawed but highly entertaining candidates, may have offered the average American a respite from world affairs. But the consequences of a reckless U.S. foreign policy have continued to bear poisonous fruit, and the American political class’ unwillingness to rethink U.S. foreign policy aims, to critically engage them, or even to attempt to define them, will continue to produce awful and often unpredictable results.