In the most recent Iowa Fox News debate, Bret Baier asked this very good question of Ben Carson: “Dr. Carson, many experts believe Russian leader Vladimir Putin has greater ideas, bigger designs for the region beyond Russia’s actions inside Ukraine. Fast forward to February 2017 and it is President Carson, and Russian uniformed commandos cross the Estonian border and they occupy a city in Estonia. Estonia, a member of NATO, essentially invokes Article V, an attack on one is an attack on all. What do you do?”
Carson gave a ridiculously muddled answer – this was his “one horse country” moment – but the real problem here was that the question was directed solely at him, and no other candidate was asked to weigh in on the matter. It’s an important question because it actually reveals something about how the candidate thinks about the world on a topic which will almost certainly confront them once in office.
The possibility that Russia will attempt to repeat the Crimean invasion of 2014 at some point is hardly farfetched. Do the candidates believe the United States ought to be prepared to go to war with Russia — understanding that this could escalate, given Russian protocols, to nuclear war — over a small town in Estonia? But if we are not, does that not render Article V effectively meaningless?
Despite the fact that people are increasingly concerned about the state of the world, the number of questions that have been asked on key topics related to security and foreign policy have been surprisingly limited. We do not know at this stage what the majority of the remaining candidates think about a host of critical issues related to the military, to national security, or to the pressure of foreign entanglements.
Some of these questions should look backwards at prior conflicts: What do the candidates see as a bigger error – invading Iraq originally in 2003, or leaving it in 2011? What do the candidates believe should have been the U.S. policy in response to the Arab Spring in key nations? Do the candidates who supported the Iraq policy of Hillary Clinton, the Syria policy of Hillary Clinton, and the Libya policy of Hillary Clinton which led directly to the deaths at Benghazi believe they can effectively debate Hillary Clinton on those subjects? Why?
Some should look forward to future challenges: As president, would the candidates willingly support the Assad regime in Syria if it were the only compelling alternative to ISIS? The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq will shortly conduct an independence referendum that is strongly contested by the Baghdad government – do the candidates support or oppose Kurdish self-determination? And now that the Iran nuclear deal is done and, at least on the American side, largely implemented, what is the proper policy going forward on curbing Iranian nuclear, ballistic-missile, and terrorist activities? Is Turkey an ally of the United States?
Just as the Estonia question focuses on the potential flashpoint with Russia, there needs to be more of a focus on that potential regarding China: for all their “winning” deals with us, in Donald Trump’s phrasing, they are entering what appears to be a period of significant economic instability, increasing the likelihood that they lash out. How do the candidates believe we ought to respond to Chinese claims in the South China Sea islands? President Obama has said the U.S. would defend the Senkaku Islands – do the candidates share that view?
On military reform: What are the problems with the F-35 program, the fighter we are betting everything on to sustain American air power? How should they be fixed? Does military acquisition require reform? No American general has been relieved of command for poor performance in the lifetimes of multiple candidates – under what circumstances would the candidates relieve a general?
Finally, we need questions regarding the security of our southern border that actually speak to the violence there, not the typical demagoguery about wall-building: The past week has seen a brutal rise in gangland violence in Mexico, increasingly close to the American border. From slaughtering the participants in a quinceañera party to the shooting of a man, his wife, and their seven-month-old baby in Oaxaca, violence is exploding in Mexico to an incredible degree.
A Mexico City paper estimates that over the weekend, 61 people were executed in gangland hits. The security environment under Enrique Peña Nieto is rapidly deteriorating. The candidates need to answer: What is a more immediate threat to America’s homeland security: Mexican drug cartels, or ISIS? And if it is the former, what should our policy be toward them, and toward the Mexican government?
David Muir and Martha Raddatz are the moderators for tomorrow’s debate, though Mary Katharine Ham will get to ask a few questions. Raddatz’s background is in foreign policy. We will see how many of these questions, if any at all, get asked and answered.