Somewhat remarkably, foreign policy is a campaign issue in the 2016 presidential race. I say “remarkably” because Americans are generally inattentive to the world beyond their shores, and because there is usually little political benefit to being a foreign policy wonk on the campaign trail.
But President Obama’s foreign policy record, and Hillary Clinton’s as secretary of State, is so bad that the Republican candidates have an opportunity to score easy points. Crises abroad have come thick and fast. The rise of the Islamic State, China’s construction of new islands and military bases in the middle of the South China Sea, Iran’s outmaneuvering of the Obama administration in nuclear negotiations, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made Americans genuinely anxious and feeling (rightly, in my view) that the world is headed for trouble.
The candidates’ responses, so far, have been some variation of this: I promise to smash the Islamic State (without re-invading Iraq), reverse the nuclear deal with Iran, rebuild the U.S. military, talk like Reagan to China, and have a policy about Ukraine. Throw in some boilerplate about restoring American leadership, not leading from behind, showing strength and resolve, and that about exhausts most Republican candidates’ foreign policy talking points.
This is a pretty good summary of the foreign policy speech by Scott Walker last week, Rick Perry’s in June, and Marco Rubio’s recent article in Foreign Affairs. Jeb Bush gave a speech with similar themes but focusing narrowly on the Middle East a few weeks ago.
These are not bad talking points, so far as campaign rhetoric goes—i.e., understanding that they are simplified slogans rather than nuanced grand strategy. But the candidates are missing an opportunity. They should talk about the war in Afghanistan.
Why Afghanistan Is a Political Winner
Counterintuitively, the candidates can score some real political points by bringing up the unpopular war. It’s an easy way to sound tough on terrorism. It makes them look like they’re aware of what’s going on in the world. It is an easy way to launch broadsides at Obama and Clinton without repeating ad naseum the same stuff every candidate has already said about Iraq and Iran and China.
Further, while other candidates race to respond to the latest headline, the candidate who talks about Afghanistan will seem presidential by reminding the American people of an important crisis the media has criminally ignored.
Afghanistan is probably an easier and safer campaign issue than Iraq. Talking about Iraq is dangerous for candidates because the war was and remains divisive with the American people. Trying to re-litigate past arguments about Iraq could bore some voters and alienate others. But Americans have always been more unified about Afghanistan. Reminding them of what’s at stake, why America intervened, and why it is important to finish the job carries fewer risks than arguing for another messy intervention in Iraq or Syria.
Finally, there is the simple fact that if you’re running for commander in chief, you have an obligation to explain what you’re going to do when you inherit America’s longest war. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Republican candidates have, so far, had virtually nothing to say about it.
Obama and Iraq
The Republican candidates should highlight the astonishing fact that Obama is now repeating one of the worst mistakes of his presidency by withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite extraordinary similarities between Afghanistan in 2015 and Iraq in 2011.
President Obama’s signature foreign policy error was his precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. He talked repeatedly in 2008 about getting out of Iraq as responsibly as we got into it irresponsibly. He failed. His administration signaled its intent to extend the Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA) to allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011—then failed to do so. Whether from inattention or weak political will, Obama walked away from negotiations with the Iraqi government, let the SOFA lapse, and withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq.
Much as Obama’s critics predicted, the fallout since then has made it hard for even the most die-hard Obama supporter to argue the withdrawal was strategically sound. Al-Qaida in Iraq rebranded itself as the Islamic State, regrouped, and, in parallel with the civil war in Syria, launched a major offensive. The Iraqi army broke and fled. A terrorist state now exists in the heart of the Middle East. The region is in far worse shape than when Obama took office. The threat is so obvious that Obama, who campaigned on getting out of Iraq, got back in in 2014, essentially admitting his own failure.
If you like Iraq, you’re going to love Afghanistan.
Advice for Republicans Running for President
The Republican candidates have rightly hit Obama and Clinton hard for their catastrophic blunders in Iraq and Syria. They can go one step further: add Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to the list of foreign policy failures. They should say something like this.
The war in Afghanistan remains important to U.S. national security. Al-Qaida and their allies have not been defeated. They pose no less a danger to the United States than the Islamic State does.
President Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year endangers America’s security. The U.S.-trained Afghan army, like its Iraqi counterpart, can stand and fight with continued American support, but cannot yet stand on its own.
Iraq could hardly be a clearer cautionary tale. If the United States withdraws now, the Taliban, al-Qaida, or other militants will regain momentum and carve out a nascent terrorist state in South Asia, akin to the Islamic State in the Middle East.
Obama’s wartime leadership in Afghanistan was as bad as his leadership in Iraq. He undermined his own surge by announcing a withdrawal timeline in advance. Under Secretary Clinton’s leadership at the State Department, the administration reneged on its campaign promise to increase civilian aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion every year. Obama never gave our troops and diplomats in Afghanistan the time, resources, or commitment they needed to get the job done.
Obama’s withdrawal plan risks throwing away 14 years of American sacrifice and investment. It will be the final mistake in a disastrous eight years of American foreign policy. He should stop the withdrawal right now to give the next president maximum flexibility to address the crisis in South Asia.
Frankly, I don’t care which candidate brings Afghanistan up. The first one to do so will force the rest of the field to address it, and that will be good for American democracy.