The Five Foreign Policy Questions Every Candidate Should Be Asked

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The Five Foreign Policy Questions Every Candidate Should Be Asked

Libya, Yemen, drones and more: why are presidential hopefuls being let off the hook on these critical challenges?

Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the central city of Taiz, Yemen, 11 March 2016. (Photo: EPA)

It’s amazing that with almost two presidential debates every week, many critical foreign policy questions have gone unasked and unanswered - even while the television networks spend entire hours discussing when and where the US should bomb next.

These topics that will be crucial for the next president, yet are rarely if ever brought up. Why aren’t they being raised at every opportunity?

The Libya catastophe

By all accounts, Libya is currently a cesspool for terrorism. Filling the vacuum created by the chaos after the US helped depose Gaddafi in 2011, Isis fighters are reportedly telling their followers to go to Libya to train and fight instead of Syria - which leads the the obvious question: why did we make such a catastrophic mistake of once again overthrowing a country’s leader?

Instead of asking about the scandal that is the Libyan invasion, this week’s debate moderator Jorge Ramos decided to ask Hillary Clinton about the other Libyan controversy, Benghazi, which she has answered for in detail over and over. This yet again allowed Clinton to reel off a practiced answer while avoiding the real issue

The New York Times wrote a huge two-part series on Clinton’s leading role in the intervention in Libya and its subsequent descent into chaos, yet there was barely a blip on the radar when it came to questions on the campaign trail or on television. Clinton has skated through the entire election cycle while only getting a handful of questions about the catastrophe, while continuing to call for more military intervention elsewhere.

But it’s not just Clinton. Republicans have never been pinned down on Libya either, and now, are of course all in favor of us sending our drones and special forces in yet again.

Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen

If there is any central US ally that has been outright ignored during this election season – as usual – it’s Saudi Arabia. Currently Saudi Arabia is engaged in an indiscriminate bombing campaign in one of the world’s poorest countries, Yemen, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths and millions of people being displaced.

While the media has been focused on the violence Syria and Iraq, they’ve virtually ignored Yemen - and the United States plays central role in facilitating the war. The US has sold billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Saudis – including cluster bombs banned by most countries in the world – that they’ve used to bomb schools, hospitals, and civilian centers (many of these weapons deals were facilitated by Clinton when she was Secretary of State). The US has also provided with intelligence for their airstrikes, and even flown surveillance drone flights for them. Far from doing anything to stop the carnage, they’ve encouraged it.

Where do the presidential candidates stand on this appalling war? Will they continue to help Saudi Arabia fight it, thereby creating another generation of terrorrists in Yemen? Or will they stand up to the Saudi monarchy to try to put an end to it?

War powers

We are currently engaged in an indefinite war with Isis spanning multiple countries which many legal experts across the political spectrum consider illegal – yet the presidential candidates are almost never asked about why congress has not authorized the military action like the constitution requires.

Regardles of whether they think this war is just, what do the candidates think about the executive branch’s powers to unilaterally start a war without congressional debate? We have no idea. The only journalist who has tried to ask is New York Times national security reporter Charlie Savage, who sent a questionnaire about executive power, and was ignored by every major presidential candidate. Why has no debate moderator asked about this important issue? They have no problem bringing up Isis at every possible opportunity.

Nuclear weapons

While an enormous amount of time during this campaign has focused around the Iran nuclear deal, almost no attention has been given to any country that actually has nuclear weapons and what they plan to do with them over the coming years and decades. Six years after supposedly making nuclear non-proliferation a priority, the Obama administration has done a 180 and is now in the process of spending trillions of dollars over a 10 year period to “modernize” our nuclear weapons instead of destroy them. No progress has been made on a new, more substantial nuclear reduction treaty with Russia and US allies Pakistan and India continue their weapons program unabated.

Given that many analysts think a nuclear explosion – either by accident or on purpose – is dangerously likely, it sure would be nice to see where the candidates stand on ridding the world of these awful mass killing devices.

Drones

The largest drone strike in history was announced by the US last week. One hundred and fifty people were reportedly killed in Somalia at an al-Shabaab training site. While the US claims no civilians were hit this time, their definition of who counts as a “civilian” has drawn widespread condemnation. Drone strikes have provoked anger from Yemen to Pakistan. Many human rights organizations have called them illegal, and retired military leaders have said they backfire, creating more terrorists than they kill. While it seems that many if not all of the candidates support drone strikes, despite these obvious problems, we have no idea what they’ll do with the CIA drone program once they become president. Will they be more transparent than the Obama administration? Will they acquiesce to limits imposed by congress, or expand the program?

Given that we have flying robots killing people in multiple countries where we are not at war, and other countries are starting to build them too, you’d think this would be a critical issue to debate. Instead: crickets.

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm

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