In a discussion following NBC’s recent Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York, in which presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoke separately but successively on a range of foreign policy and veteran issues, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow gave the mic to Andrew Bacevich.
She asked the military historian and retired Army colonel to speak on the experience gap between civilians and members of the military—but Bacevich had other ideas. “As a discussion of national security issues and the sort of things we want to hear from a prospective Commander-in-Chief,” he said, the whole forum was a “missed opportunity.” Many of the questions that ought to have been asked were not—and when good questions were raised, the candidates typically avoided giving honest answers.
“Before we wrap things up tonight,” Bacevich continued, “it seems to me it would be useful to surface the things that ought to be discussed when we’re trying to understand the qualifications of somebody to be Commander-in-Chief.” Maddow suggested something as basic as “a specific plan on ISIS,” but Bacevich was thinking deeper:
What have you learned from our unsuccessful wars of the past couple of decades and how would you apply those lessons? How do you feel about the Obama Administration’s plan to spend a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons? How do you measure military power in a cyber age? Tell me what your understanding is of the complexities of the Syrian civil war.
“Those are the items that ought to be on a commander-in-chief’s agenda,” he concluded, “and they weren’t even asked.” Worse yet, Bacevich’s list is hardly all that was lacking from this pseudo-debate. As we get ready for the real deal in a few weeks, here are six more questions the candidates should be asked.
What is Congress’ role in foreign policy? What does “Commander-in-Chief” mean to you? The Constitution splits foreign policy authority between the legislative and executive branches, giving Congress the power to declare war and the president the power to direct it once begun. But in recent years, Congress has largely abdicated its responsibility as an imperial presidency claims the power to launch preventive wars of choice. What a candidate believes to be the president’s legal and appropriate role will reveal much about how they will govern.
Do you see any geographic or legal limits on the war on terror? For example, ISIS is reportedly attempting to build a Southeast Asian wing of its brutal organization. Should it succeed, would you consider military intervention in the Philippines part and parcel of the war on terror as it exists now? Would it be covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)? That’s the document which to date has provided (exceedingly thin) legal cover for the entire anti-ISIS campaign, even though ISIS didn’t exist when it originally passed Congress. How far a candidate is willing to stretch this AUMF is telling in the extreme.
How do you define boots on the ground, combat, nation-building, no-fly zones, and America’s vital national interest? This may seem over-simple, but the meaning we give these words and phrases can have massive policy implications. In Syria, for example, the Obama administration has set up what is to all appearances a limited no-fly zone—but to hear the Pentagon tell it, it’s actually just an area where Syrian planes “would be advised not to fly.”
Likewise, the question of what counts as ground troops is increasingly important as American presence in Iraq and Syria grows in response to the threat of ISIS. Clinton pledged during the NBC forum, “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria.” That’s a big promise, and a confusing one, since there are currently about 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and at least 300 more in Syria. Are they not ground troops? If we don’t define these terms, any pledge which uses them becomes virtually meaningless.
Afghanistan is now America’s longest war, and the Taliban is recently resurgent in southern areas of the country. Do you have an endgame in mind? If not, are you comfortable with the Obama and Bush Administrations’ characterization of Afghanistan as a “generational” commitment? Do you see a point of diminishing returns? What would Afghanistan have to look like for you to declare victory, and what would cause you to say, “Enough is enough”?
You both supported the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and intervention in Libya in 2011. Now, you both repudiate Iraq and Mr. Trump says Libya was a mistake. These are relatively recent failures of judgment that cannot be blamed on youthful ignorance and indiscretion. How can we be sure they won’t be repeated? Hindsight isn’t good enough when poor decisions will put Americans’ blood and treasure on the line.
Will you pledge to audit the Pentagon? The Pentagon budget currently sits around $600 billion, accounting for 54 percent of the federal government’s annual discretionary spending. A majority of Americans believe that budget includes fat we ought to trim, but because the Pentagon has never undergone a full audit, we don’t know where to cut—or, for that matter, where to grow.
As it is, the Department of Defense “has a long and inglorious history of book-cooking and accounting that alternates between the incompetent and the criminal,” as National Review’s Kevin Williamson has noted, “a half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts here; untold sums lost to outright theft and fraud there,” and all sorts of wasteful misappropriations which detract from American security. In that light, auditing the Pentagon should be the very baseline of a responsible presidential foreign policy.