from The Water's Edge

Campaign 2016 Weekly Foreign Policy Roundup: Afghanistan, the Democratic Debate, and Syria

Democratic U.S. Presidential Candidates (Reuters)

October 16, 2015

Democratic U.S. Presidential Candidates (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.

A bit of bipartisanship blossomed this week when Republican presidential candidates voiced support for President Obama’s plan to keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016. Of course, that support came as the president was reversed himself on one of his signature policy commitments. Meanwhile, the Democratic debate was relatively quiet when it came to foreign policy, and candidates in both parties continued to disagree on what to do about Syria.


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Elections and Voting

GOP candidates had a lot to say about Obama’s new policy for Afghanistan. Most of them endorsed the move. Jeb Bush, for example, said:

I’m pleased the president has not worried about a campaign promise six years ago. Conditions change. And I think he made the right decision to keep troops on the ground.

Chris Christie concurred, saying, “I think it’s the right thing to do.” Rick Santorum tweeted,

Carly Fiorina echoed that position, saying, “I certainly support his (Obama’s) recognition of reality.” She added, however, “I think we were naïve when we engaged in nation building in Afghanistan.”

Marco Rubio also endorsed Obama’s plan, but added a caveat:

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Elections and Voting

I welcome President Obama’s decision to maintain the current level of U.S. forces in Afghanistan through the end of 2016. I do not agree, however, with his decision to prematurely announce a further drawdown before he leaves office. Our presence in Afghanistan should be dictated by battlefield conditions, which are impossible to predict more than a year in advance.

Lindsey Graham wants the president to go further:

As always, President Obama, through stubbornness and a general lack of appreciation for what is necessary to win a war, is putting our gains in Afghanistan in jeopardy by insisting on a withdrawal down to 5,500 U.S. troops.  President Obama is implementing a policy that will require our men and women in uniform to accept an incredibly high risk, with little support, simply because he’s the president who promised to end wars.

President Obama does not follow sound military advice. He seems to have learned nothing from his past mistakes. As president, I will follow the advice of my commanders and require a conditions-based withdrawal - not an artificial timeline.

Mike Huckabee tweeted his criticisms of Obama’s handling of policy toward Afghanistan, including:

Huckabee didn’t tweet how he would do things differently.

Rand Paul was the one GOP presidential candidate to object to the new Afghan policy.

I think it’s a mistake. It’s also not what our founding fathers intended.


I don't know what our mission is. I would have voted for the original mission to go after Bin Laden and those who attacked us on 9/11. We have Bin Laden. We have people who attacked us on 9/11. What is our mission? To build a nation? Well frankly we're not very good at building nations and I'm not for having our military stay indefinitely in Afghanistan to build a nation.

As for the Democrats? So far they have been quiet about the president’s change of plans.

The Democratic Debate

The Democratic debate didn’t generate much foreign policy news. That’s not surprising given that the candidates themselves largely agree on most of the issues. That includes trade. On that score, Hillary Clinton seized the opportunity to explain what has been called her “flip-flop” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

Like most human beings–including those of us who run for office–I do absorb new information…you know, take the trade deal. I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards. My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘this will help raise your wages.’ and I concluded I could not.

Bernie Sanders took the opportunity to stress how much he dislikes U.S. trade policies. On the list of things he’d like to talk about other than Secretary Clinton’s emails, he included “our trade policies [which] have cost us millions of decent jobs.”

The one area where the candidates disagreed was Syria. Secretary Clinton favors establishing both a "safe zone" and a "no-fly zone" in Syria:

What I believe and why I have advocated that the no-fly zone–which of course would be in a coalition–be put on the table is because I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table. You know, diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution. It’s about how you balance the risks.

She also favors taking a tougher line with Vladimir Putin:

We have to stand up to his bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important–and I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict. And, to–provide safe zones so that people are not going to have to be flooding out of Syria at the rate they are.

Neither Sanders nor Martin O’Malley favors creating a no fly-zone. Sanders worries that doing so would create “a very dangerous situation.” O’Malley shares that fear:

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

Rand Paul expressed similar fears last week about the possibility of inciting WW III.

Jim Webb took the Syria conversation in different direction entirely. He says Washington is focused on the wrong place:

If you want a place where we need to be in terms of our national strategy, a focus, the greatest strategic threat that we have right now is resolving our relationship with China. To the unelected, authoritarian government of China: You do not own the South China Sea. You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of American citizens. And in a Webb administration, we will do something about that.

On that score, the Democratic candidates were asked to name the greatest threat to national security. Here’s a brief summary of how they answered:

Chafee: It’s certainly the chaos in the Middle East.

Clinton: I think it has to be [the] continued spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material falling in the wrong hands."

O'Malley: I believe that nuclear Iran remains the biggest threat, along with the threat of ISIL.

Sanders: The global crisis of climate change.

Webb: Our greatest long-term strategic challenge is our relation with China. Our greatest day-to-day threat is cyber warfare against this country. Our greatest military-operational threat is resolving the situations in the Middle East.

That’s a good question that generated some significant variation.


The question of what to do about Syria doesn’t just divide Democrats. Last week Donald Trump said he opposed creating a no-fly zone in Syria. This week he says, “I love a safe zone for people.” Did the GOP frontrunner change his mind? Nope. He wants other countries to make the safe zone:

What they should do is, the countries should all get together, including the Gulf States, who have nothing but money, they should get together and they should take a big swathe of land in Syria and…do a safe zone for people…where they could to (sic) live, and then ultimately go back to their country.

While Trump is looking elsewhere for leadership, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and Bobby Jindal want Washington to lead in creating a no-fly zone. Christie struck a belligerent note in how he would react if Russia tried to get in his way. He would call Putin:

And I’d say to him, “Listen. We’re enforcing this no-fly zone, and I mean we’re enforcing it. Against anyone. Including you. So don’t try me. Don’t. Try me. ’Cause I’ll do it."

Carson, who is departing the campaign trail for two weeks to focus on fundraising and promoting his new book, A More Perfect Union, argued for a similarly hard line in dealing with the Russian president:

We should be resisting all of Putin’s efforts. When his generals say, “We don’t want you guys flying here,” we should say, “Take a flying leap.” We should establish our own no-fly zone, and we should enforce it.

Ted Cruz penned an op-ed on “How U.S. Must Push Back Putin in Syria.” He didn’t say anything about creating any zones in Syria; he instead stressed using U.S. airpower against the Islamic State and supporting friendly countries fighting on the front line. He also favors putting more pressure on Moscow by intensifying sanctions against Russian officials accused of human rights abuses and resurrecting plans to place missile defense interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Looking Ahead

Canadians go to the polls on Monday, 78 days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper called for national elections. In comparison, we Americans are still 108 days from the first nominating event and 389 days out from Election Day. The Republicans will debate next, on October 28th. Mark November 7th in your calendars as well. That’s when Donald Trump is slated to host SNL.

In Case You Missed It

Former senator and Democratic presidential candidate Jim Webb stopped by CFR’s New York office to discuss his foreign policy views. (Senator Rubio spoke at CFR back in May.) Jeremy Shapiro explores “What the Democratic Debate Was Missing on Foreign Policy.” ABC explains “5 Ways the First Democratic Debate Changed the 2016 Presidential Race.” The Washington Post profiles Jim Webb, the “wild card candidate [who] steps into the spotlight.”  The New York Times offers a few “Apps to Organize and Quell the Political Onslaught.”

Elise Ghattas and Christina Almonte assisted in the preparation of this post.