Why Foreign Policy questions have no place in the Presidential Debate

By James Mellen

The South Carolina presidential Debate aired the night before I am writing this, this debate was nearly unwatchable, it devolved into a presidential screaming match. One feature this debate had that has stuck with me is the emphasis on foreign policy questions, questions ranging from whether or not Xi Xingping is a dictator, to the Syrian Civil War. There was a separate foreign policy question for 5 out of the 6 continents that people live on.  

These types of questions should for the most part be cut out of the debates. Certainly, there are parts of the world where a candidates foreign policy matters immensely. For example, where a candidate stands on the presence of United States troops in Iraq (especially after the country requested that all foreign troops leave) should be a main issue for voters.  

However Iraq is the exception, not the rule, and for the most part these foreign policy questions don’t do anything to educate voters. This is for two reasons: 1. The average voter doesn’t know nearly enough about foreign policy to follow the debates 2. I’m not entirely sure if the candidates know about all of these issues, and 3. These candidates don’t realistically need to know exact policies on every individual world issue, they just need to be able to appoint advisors who share their viewpoint. (That being said, Amy Klobachar should know the name of Andrés Manuel López Obrador) 

The first point may seem slightly pretentious, but most Americans can’t identify countries on a map, do you think they can identify the difference between Ughyers and Idlib? (for anyone wondering one is an ethnic group in China and the other is a city in northwest Syria). Honestly, the average American shouldn’t really be expected to understand the politics of a dozen different countries, they should be expected to understand the politics of one country. It would certainly be ideal that American voters knew that Sanders voted for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1996, (which supported America overthrowing Saddam Hussein), but it is necessary that they know that Sanders voted against the Iraq war in 2003. 

Second, I’m unconvinced these candidates even know the specifics of every country they are talking about. A prime example of this was Elizabeth Warren’s answer to the question about Idlib, she said this is “about working with our allies, it is about standing with people who are under enormous pressure, this is recognizing the box that Donald Trump has put us in around the world”.  

At first glance this seems like a perfectly fine answer to the question, but the reason it’s a perfectly fine answer is because it’s vague enough to answer any foreign policy question that Warren could have been asked. Moreover, it’s not a perfectly fine answer to the question of U.S involvement in Syria because it’s unclear who the “allies” Warren is talking about are. America has been aligned with the Syrian resistance army, as well as the Syrian Kurds, and America is currently a NATO ally with Turkey. I don’t actually know anything about Warren’s potential Syria policy after her answer to this question, which leads me to believe that she probably doesn’t have one (because if she did she would have explained it). This isn’t to say that Warren is ignorant to foreign policy, it’s just to say that updates on Idlib are coming in on the hour, and the idea that Warren has come up with a complex policy on Idlib while it is still unfolding (while she is on the campaign trail) is pretty absurd. 

Finally, the president is going to appoint multiple ambassadors and foreign policy advisors as well as be in charge of multiple generals. Realistically, these are the people who are going to be the most prevalent influence on their foreign policy actions. What I as a voter need to know is the general philosophy on foreign policy that these candidates have. I know that Bernie Sanders is going to be hesitant to send troops into a foreign war because he voted against Iraq. In defence to Warren’s Idlib answer, it does tell voters that she doesn’t want to use military intervention if it can be avoided. 

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