The Election That Killed Foreign Policy

by Paul R. Pillar

The current election campaign has done more to set back U.S. foreign relations, and the cause of good foreign policy, than has any other American presidential election within memory.  One reason is the overall sordid image of American democracy in action that is being projected to people around the world, and to governments with an interest in exploiting that image.  The ugly picture includes the amount of attention given—unsurprisingly and necessarily so, given the character, comments, and conduct of Donald Trump—to such things as allegations of a candidate sexually assaulting women.

Even more damaging in terms of the picture being projected overseas is what Trump has done to the part of that picture involving the essential standards and practices that make American democracy work and keep the country politically stable.  What separates the United States in that respect from many supposed democracies that are far less stable are peaceful transitions of power and respect for the will of the people as expressed in elections.  This means that losers gracefully accept election outcomes, and that winners let losers walk away with freedom to campaign again another day.  That’s much different from countries where losers launch insurgencies or winners throw their opponents in jail.

Trump has attacked both of those American standards of behavior.  On the first, he has incessantly told his followers that if he loses it will be because of a rigged election, and the biggest headline coming from last night’s debate was his refusal to commit to accepting the election result.  On the second, he has led rallies at which the chants about Hillary Clinton have been “lock her up,” and in a previous debate he threatened to do exactly that if he wins.  Then last night, for good measure, he said that Clinton should not have been allowed to run for president in the first place.

The projection of this picture overseas sours millions on America and the American political system, and the United States loses some of its soft power as a result.  Many get soured on democracy in general.  And governments that have good reason to be defensive about their own political processes gleefully exploit the picture to divert attention from their own deficiencies and to accuse the United States of double standards.

Iran-watcher Robin Wright notes that “Iran’s media has generally been obsessed” with the U.S. election even more than with Iran’s own presidential election due next spring.  Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has tweeted, “US presidential race & issues two candidates raised is a typical result of lack of spirituality & faith among those in power.”  Wright reports that “Trump’s allegations that the U.S. election is rigged have particularly resonated across Iranian media,” partly in revenge for foreign allegations of election fraud when Mahmoud Admadinejad won the Iranian presidency in 2009.  And the hardline clerics on the Guardian Council, who have routinely disqualified presidential and parliamentary candidates whose politics they don’t happen to like, undoubtedly were smiling last night when Trump said Clinton should not have been allowed to run.

Another blow to well-formed foreign policy and a public that is well-informed about it has been the torrent of falsehoods, overwhelmingly from Trump, that has encouraged not just ignorance but firmly embedded misbeliefs about important foreign policy issues.  In last night’s debate, for example, Trump repeated a previous blurt about how the nuclear agreement with Iran, which closed previously open pathways to a nuclear weapon and subjects Iran to the most severe restrictions and monitoring of a nuclear program that any country has ever accepted, supposedly would guarantee that Iran would get the bomb.  Amid the umpteenth claim by Trump about opposing the Iraq War and all the other charges being hurled across the stage, Clinton never got back to commenting on that subject herself.  And so not just a mistaken, but a completely upside-down, notion of what the agreement with Iran is all about has been further cemented in the minds of many Americans and especially Trump’s followers.

Such problems are related to the overall low amount of time and attention devoted to foreign policy in this campaign, except insofar as it involves immigration, trade, or terrorism.  In some previous elections, an entire presidential candidates’ debate was devoted to foreign and security policy.  This year the pattern was exemplified by last night’s debate, in which just one of six issue areas identified by moderator Chris Wallace was “global hot spots,” which translated more narrowly into a question about Aleppo and U.S. troops in Iraq.  Even the Iraq-Syria theater got nowhere the attention it needs.  When Clinton talked about her backing for a no-fly zone in Syria, Wallace appropriately challenged her to justify that position given that the incumbent president and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff have resisted creating such a zone, but Clinton deflected the challenge with a non-answer.  And so an important question, one that will face the new president early and on which there are legitimate arguments on each side, was left unexamined.

The damage to U.S. foreign relations, foreign policy, and public understanding of foreign policy that has already been done in this campaign will persist past the campaign’s end.  Still more damage probably is yet to come.  How a losing Donald Trump reacts on election night will partly determine that, but there are additional ways in which venomous domestic politics have repercussions beyond U.S. borders.

If Hillary Clinton is victorious next month, she will be the first non-incumbent Democrat to win an election to succeed another Democrat since James Buchanan won in 1856.  Buchanan also was the last previous president to have been secretary of state.  But however well that experience may have equipped him to formulate and conduct foreign policy, domestic divisions overwhelmed everything else during his single term of office.  The slavery issue, with war drums of the coming Civil War already being heard, sapped energy from other initiatives.  Buchanan’s foreign policy, which was centered mainly on Latin America, was as undistinguished as the rest of his presidency.

Even if a reprise of the Civil War is unlikely, poisonous and divisive domestic politics are likely to be at least as big a challenge to a President Hillary Clinton in trying to sustain a coherent and effective foreign policy as will be any threats overseas.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest. Picture of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

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  1. The previous 2 elections haven’t been good for our foreign policy, with Obama and Hillary working to overthrow and destroy the previously prosperous countries of Libya and Syria, creating a destabilizing wave of refugees into Europe, etc.

  2. A strangely unsatisfying analysis. E.g., not a mention of the “neocon” aka Zionist chokehold on US foreign policy that precludes rational (sane) debate and policy formulation. Even AIPAC’s so-termed “defeat” on the Iran nuclear agreement was merely a temporary setback, with Plan B steadily underway to undermine the agreement, ultimately to make Iran pay via “regime change,” and continue the dismemberment of the entire Middle East region for the interests of USrael. In all this, Trump is clueless; and Clinton will get to Iran by way of Syria or another devious detour connived by her puppetmasters.

  3. Interesting that you should mention James Buchanan. It is an apt reference, since HFC’s experience, just like Buchanan’s were touted as making them eminently qualified without assessing the true nature their respective records. In Hillary’s case it has been horrendous, unless, like the neocons in Washington (and their handlers in Tel Aviv), you favor the death and destruction in the Middle East that have resulted from those policies. Buchanan’s Presidency also drove the country to the cliff, if not off of it, re: slavery. He is universally rated as our country’s worst President, though HRC’s husband would have us believe that a similar resume makes his wife the most qualified candidate in this country’s history (though some might argue that Herbert Hoover was the most qualified (perhaps he was). (I wonder if GW- the real one- is grinding his wooden teeth, or FDR and Fala are chuckling over that one.)

    As for foreign policy generally, some of what Trump is advocating is not unlike what a high percentage of the electorate were expecting from Obama in 2009, namely a reversal of the Bush war policies (and that meant clandestine as well as overt wars).

    On the question of borders and immigration, Trump has been blunt to the extreme, but raising those questions is precisely what the country and Congress need to address and resolve these questions sensibly.

    The best part of Trump’s message is the recognition that we must be working with Russia instead of creating more conflict around the world that is preventing us from addressing our own problems. Unfortunately, like Hillary, Trump is also beholden to Israeli interests and would incite more problems with Iran, to the extent of trying to undo the JCPOA. (Whether he would make an exception to his ‘no new wars’ policy, is open question given the influence of his handlers.)

    Re: election rigging and accepting its results, either Prof. Pillar is blind to what happened during the Democratic primaries- where, e.g., in New York City (mostly in Brooklyn, I believe- the borough where HRC’s own headquarters were located) 200,000 people were mysteriously removed from the voter rolls- and what what is contained the DNC and Clinton campaign emails- it is enough to support multiple charges of conspiracy to commit felony, or he just doesn’t care. And, why, in advance, would anyone concede to an electoral result, if abuses were to occur that could and should be challenged. I doubt there were any Democrats, this reader included, who
    were opposed to challenging the Florida results, though that challenge was seriously bungled by Boies and his boys.

    Furthermore, there is a widespread belief, not unsupported by our nation’s experience over the past fifteen or more years, that the institutions of our country – including the Courts- have been highjacked by the special interests and the rich and powerful, or that our civil liberties have been eviscerated, or that both Parties have been behind it all. This is not unlike the message from Sanders that resonated so strongly even as he was being pilloried by the DNC Clintonistas, until he himself was highjacked.

    Finally, if you think Clinton’s foreign policy will be coherent and constructive, then you are ignoring her record and experience in public life, and the damage that her Establishment handlers have created over the past few decades- unless ‘coherent and constructive’ are more of the same.

    Unfortunately, this is an election between two crooks one of whom is a serial war criminal who should be sitting in Spandau, and the other who, ‘gilt or no gilt’, s/b condemned to build affordable housing in our inner cities and those countries we have so blithely destroyed.

  4. Hillary’s deflection of the no-fly zone issue was perhaps the most disturbing thing about the “debate.” Indeed, this article should be required reading for anyone needing to understand the recently created context into which a President Clinton will be inserting herself. I somehow doubt she realizes how this bizarre campaign is urgently calling on her to rethink the anti-Putin propaganda narrative both Trump and Obama, in their very different ways, have obligingly begun for her — a not very credible narrative that Hillary is already deeply invested in. And we all know that it doesn’t take much narrative credibility to get the support of most of the American public for military action.

    It’s not just Trump who’s entertaining fantasies of “making America great again.”

  5. Excellent set of comments. Yes indeed James Buchanan was the USA’s worst president. Hopefully the USA will never again face such a crisis as secession.

    I recall Hillary saying at one of the debates “We are going to take Mosul” – note the “We” – and that “We should arm the Kurds.” Both statements I am sure were discussed more thoroughly in the Middle East than in the USA, where they have not come up again to my knowledge.

    Here in Florida Sen.Marco Rubio has run ads attacking his Dem opponent Patrick Murphy as being weak on Iran, with no response from the Murphy campaign that I am aware of. My Democratic Congresswoman, Gwen Graham, is rumored to be thinking of a run for governor as she retires from her redistricted congressional seat. She already voted with the GOP on resolutions which attack the Iran nuclear deal, though. Is the consensus in both parties that continued conflict with Iran is in Florida’s interest?

    I recall Trump attacking Rubio as “Little Marco” as a moneyless man willing to do the bidding of whoever will pay his bills. For all Trump’s lies, he certainly told the truth often enough in the course of winning the Republican primaries.

    Florida’s interest is to deal with a worsening environmental crisis brought on by inappropriate development, a fast-growing population, water pollution and water shortages, and sea level rise caused by global warming which the state’s establishment shows little will to confront.

    Is there irony in putting Iran front and center in Florida’s politics? The 1953 coup in Iran was brought about at the instigation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. That hugely destructive act has set the stage not only for continued USA-Iran conflict but for continued domination of American politics by global oil and gas corporations.

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