from The Water's Edge

Campaign 2016 Weekly Foreign Policy Roundup: 9/11, Afghanistan, and Benghazi

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, October 22, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, October 22, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

October 23, 2015

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, October 22, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, October 22, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Campaign 2016 didn’t generate a lot of foreign policy news this week. To the extent it did, the candidates were rehashing the past rather than laying out what they would do in the future. Most of the candidates looked to the past by choice. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, looked to the past because she had to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. In other news, the campaign trail bid farewell, at least for now, to two Democratic candidates, former Senator Jim Webb and former Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee. Neither man was expected to fare well in the race, and neither did. As for Joe Biden, after much speculation that he might join the race, he decided not to. For those of you keeping count, the race is now down to eighteen major party candidates, three Democrats and fifteen Republicans.

9/11 and Afghanistan

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Elections and Voting

Donald Trump grabbed headlines late last week for remarks that some took to mean he was blaming President George W. Bush for 9/11:

When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time.

When the interviewer challenged Trump, he responded:

He was president, OK? Don’t blame him or don’t blame him, but he was president. The World Trade Center came down during his reign.

Jeb Bush not surprisingly took offense, saying:

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Elections and Voting

Look, my brother responded to a crisis, and he did it as you would hope a president would do. He united the country, he organized our country and he kept us safe. And there’s no denying that. The great majority of Americans believe that. And I don’t know why he keeps bringing this up. It’s–it doesn’t show that he’s a serious person as it relates to being commander in chief and being the architect of a foreign policy. Across the spectrum of foreign policy, Mr. Trump talks about things that–as though he’s still on The Apprentice.

Bush’s criticism of Trump’s fitness to be president came after the Bush campaign posted a campaign video on the web entitled “Judgment.” It begins with a reminder that the president is “in control of 4,650 nuclear warheads.” It then switches to a series of clips intended to put Trump in an unflattering light:

Bush followed up on the video in an interview on Sunday, saying he has “grave doubts” that Trump is fit to be in charge of the U.S. nuclear codes. In all, it doesn’t sound like a Trump-Bush (or Bush-Trump) ticket is in the offing.

Ben Carson, who trails Trump by three percentage points in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, weighed in to say that it was “ridiculous” to blame George W. Bush for 9/11, but that he didn’t think that was what Trump was saying. Carson also reiterated his view that if he had been president in the aftermath of 9/11, Osama bin Laden would have been handed over to him within two weeks:

Well, I think they would have been extremely concerned if we had declared—and we were serious about it—that we were going to become petroleum independent, because it would have had a major impact on their finances.

And I think that probably would have trumped any loyalty they had to—to people like Osama bin Laden.

One problem with this claim is that it would take years to achieve petroleum independence, and any oil producing country would have had good reason to doubt that any president could make it happen. Another problem is that bin Laden was holed up in Afghanistan, which isn’t a major oil exporter, and he was a sworn enemy of countries, like Saudi Arabia, that are. When it was pointed out to Carson that the Saudi government wasn’t in a position to hand over bin Laden, he disagreed:

Well, you may not think that they had any loyalty to him, but I believe otherwise.

Should Carson make it to the Oval Office, it will be interesting to see what kind of policy he pursues toward the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


Trump generated additional headlines when he said that while going into Iraq was a bad idea, he thinks that going into Afghanistan was a good one.

So I said the other day, because somebody brought up that statement. And I said in an interview, that you know, how can you say you were safe under his brother when we just had the worst attack in the history of our country? You can’t say you were safe. You can say, yes, we did well after but then we also made mistakes there, because yes, were safe in a sense, but we went into Iraq, which was a disastrous decision.

Not Afghanistan, because that's probably where we should have gone in the first place. But Iraq was a disastrous decision.

Trump hasn’t always held this position. Consider this January 2013 tweet:

Carson said he thinks Obama’s decision to keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016 is a good one and he would continue it:

Yes, I would. I think we saw what happened in Iraq when we precipitously withdrew. I don’t think that we want to make that mistake again. And I’m very happy to see that we have a learning curve there.

Bernie Sanders also endorsed Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. Although he refused to say how many troops he thought should be in Afghanistan, he said:

Clearly, we do not want to see the Taliban gain more power and I think we need a certain nucleus of American troops present in Afghanistan to try to provide the training and support the Afghan Army needs.

Sanders then shifted gears to criticize George W. Bush for invading Iraq:

Bush’s decision to get us into a war in Iraq unilaterally was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of the United States. It destabilized the entire region, and led us, in many respects, to where we are today.

Sanders also declined to identify the conditions under which he thought that unilateral U.S. military action might make sense, preferring to return the conversation to past interventions:

Well, of course, you know, I’m not saying, you know, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals. I didn’t say in all circumstances. But I do believe, number one, and I think that there’s a lesson to be learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, then what a great military power like the United States is about is trying to use diplomacy before war and working with other countries rather than doing it.

As for GOP candidate Ted Cruz, he hedged on whether he would maintain a U.S. deployment in Afghanistan if he is elected. He explained:

It will depend on the mission. I don’t believe we should be engaged in nation building. I don’t believe we should be trying to transform foreign countries into democratic utopias, trying to turn Iraq into Switzerland. But I do think it is the job of our military to protect this country, to hunt down and kill jihadists who would murder us.

As is all too common in these interviews, the interviewer moved on to the next question rather than ask how those broad criteria translated into specific policy choices in Afghanistan.


Secretary Clinton testified for eleven hours before the House Select Committee on Benghazi yesterday. Whether the hearing was necessary or not, who looked good and who looked bad, and what it all means for the future of U.S. foreign policy no doubt lies in the eyes of the beholder. So here are links to the lead stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News.

Looking Ahead

Republicans will hold their third presidential debate next Wednesday, October 28. There will actually be two debates. Candidates who are averaging at least three percent in the national polls will get a spot in the primetime debate, which will begin at 8 p.m. Candidates who don’t hit the three percent mark but register at least one percent in at least one recent major poll will get to participate in a 6 p.m. debate. CNBC will carry the debates live from Boulder, Colorado. Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, and John Harwood will moderate. Donald Trump, who is leading in the polls, is expected to get the prized center-stage spot in the main debate. Check out a list of qualifiers for each debate.

In Case You Missed It

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that Americans see Russia and Syria as looming threats. CFR’s Adam Segal explains Jeb Bush on cybersecurity. The New York Times assembled an infographic that explains where the candidates stand on a no-fly zone in Syria. Our neighbors to the north are done with their national election, having surprised most commentators by giving Justin Trudeau a smashing victory.

Elise Ghattas assisted in the preparation of this post.