By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have directed their venom at each other. Neither candidate has provided substantive policy on what she or he would do as president. One area where the candidates’ proposed guidance is sorely lacking is foreign policy.
Multiple Conflicts Will Affect New President’s Foreign Policies
Regardless of who assumes the presidency in January, he or she will face the fact that the United States is engaged in military conflict in the Middle East and North Africa — such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — as well as the continued conflict in Afghanistan.
ISIS is the primary threat to Iraq, Syria and Libya. But the Islamic State also threatens the stability of the Middle East and North Africa, and the conflict further complicates U.S. strategic interests.
In the commentary “U.S. Wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen: What Are The Endstates?”, military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies notes the lack of a solid political strategy from Trump and Clinton. He comments, “Neither Trump nor Clinton have seriously addressed U.S. policy for any of these five wars, and the Obama Administration has not publically stated its grand strategy for any conflict. For the first time in its national history, the United States may get through a presidential campaign amidst multiple wars without seriously debating or discussing where any of its wars are going, or what their longer-term impact will be.”
This assessment differs from Vice President Joseph Biden. In a Foreign Affairs article, “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration,” Biden commented, “It is also the case that despite the proliferation of threats and challenges — some old, some new — by almost any measure, we are stronger and more secure today than when President Barack Obama and I took office in January 2009. Because of our investments at home and engagement overseas, the United States is primed to remain the world’s preeminent power for decades to come. In more than 40 years of public service, I have never been more optimistic about America’s future — if only we continue to lead.”
This rosy assessment by the Vice President seems stark in contrast to the chaotic climate across the globe that will be the responsibility of the next president. The Middle East, for example, is a tumultuous situation.
Russian Military Activity Increasing in Middle East
Just this month, Russian bombers flying from Iranian airbases attacked U.S.-backed Syrian rebel positions inside Syria. Now we are beginning to see a Russia-Iran alliance dictating events on the ground in the Middle East. Moscow is firmly back in the region for the first time in decades.
The nuclear agreement signed last year between the United States and Iran was supposed to signify a new era of cooperation and understanding between the two countries. As soon as the U.S. lifted sanctions against Iran, Russia swooped in and secured major weapons deals with Tehran, including sending a shipment of S-300 ground-to-air missiles.
Moscow has also utilized Iranian air bases. The Russian military has not been in Iran since the end of World War II, when it was forced to withdraw from Iran by the Truman administration.
This new alliance with Iran allowed Russia to fly its bombers across Iraqi airspace. The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country would have been unimaginable if the United States still had a presence inside Iraq.
Terrorist Organizations Gaining Traction in Syria and Iraq
With the withdrawal by the United States, Iraq has descended into an Iranian proxy state. According to U.S. military officials, there are now 100,000 Iranian-backed Shiite militias operating in Iraq.
Chaos has not only spread to Iraq. Since 2011 and the onset of the “Arab Spring” revolution, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war. The U.S. has dithered, stood by, issued “redlines” and failed to act decisively.
This unfocused strategy by the U.S. has further entrenched ISIS inside Syria and Iraq. Even after military operations began to reclaim territory from the Islamic State, the world has seen ISIS spread to other countries across the Middle East region and North Africa.
Lack of Decisive Leadership Creates Opportunities for Russia and China
The lack of U.S. strategy and its “lead from behind” approach left a power vacuum, which authoritarian nations such as Russia and China have filled. Russia has been busy in Crimea and Ukraine. Now, many experts speculate that Moscow will send military forces into the Ukraine.
China has been equally bold, moving vigorously into the South China Sea.
The biggest challenge that both Clinton and Trump face as president will be the defeat of ISIS. So far, both candidates have only spoken in generic terms without fully understanding the region and the current situation in the Middle East.
Candidates Share Similar Goals without Defining Specific Policies
The two approaches by Clinton and Trump to defeat ISIS have similar goals, but use very different methods for accomplishing those goals. Trump stated, “My administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation to cut off their funding, expanded intelligence-sharing, and cyber-warfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting.” Trump coupled this statement with a description of extreme screening of refugees coming to the U.S. from ISIS-friendly regions, but he never articulated how this vetting would be accomplished.
Clinton’s approach would include an international coalition with local forces on the ground. She noted, “We should be honest about the fact that, to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS. Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East.”
Donald Trump’s approach is muddled and never the same when he discusses his strategy. Clinton mentions the use of our Arab allies and local forces.
Both candidates fail to understand the situation on the ground. Both know that the defeat of ISIS is necessary, but that is where the agreement ends. Neither candidate has articulated a grand strategic vision for defeating ISIS and for the broader Middle East.
Candidates’ Vague Foreign Policy Raises Troubling Questions
The situation in the Middle East is complicated and becomes more so with each passing day. Both candidates seem to speak in one-dimensional terms and do not factor the other political complexities that have to be discussed in regard to defeating ISIS.
First, who or what entity replaces ISIS inside Syria? Will it be the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated group? What about the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad?
Five years ago, President Obama stated that Assad must step aside. After that, the U.S. drew a “redline” regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syria and then failed to follow up on it when the Assad regime used them.
Secondly, what about Iraq? Far too often, we heard the Obama administration speak of a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
But how is that goal being accomplished? President Obama consistently speaks of ISIS losing ground. However, the U.S. utilized Shiite militias to orchestrate the loss of Ramadi, Fallujah and other sites.
How should the Sunni minorities react when ISIS, a Sunni terror group, is ultimately defeated? What happens to these minority populations? No one expects the Shiite-dominated Iranian backed government in Baghdad to become more inclusive.
What about the U.S.-backed Kurds in the north? They have endured battles and gained ground against ISIS. How does this development affect our longtime ally and NATO member, Turkey? Turkey has a long-simmering hatred for the Kurds and don’t want the Kurds to have anything to do with a homeland of their own.
How do the other regional powers such as Turkey and Russia factor into this equation? Russia has conducted military operations inside Syria to keep Assad in power and attacking the very rebel groups we support.
What about the Sunni Arabs who feel Washington is cultivating a new relationship with Tehran? Saudi Arabia fears Iranian encirclement as it sees Iran become involved in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank through Iran’s proxy forces of Hezbollah and Hamas.
The entire Iran nuclear agreement has angered and alienated our traditional Arab allies, including Israel. Currently, they see Iran expanding throughout the region and creating provocative incidents, only to see the U.S. back down each and every time.
Saudi Leaders Have Priorities Sharply Different from US
Saudi Arabia views things differently than Washington, according to expert F. Gregory Gause III in a “Foreign Affairs” article, “The Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations: The Kingdom and the Power.” Saudi Arabia’s priorities are almost exactly the opposite to ours.
Saudi kings rarely set out their foreign policy priorities in speeches or published national security strategies. But the regime’s actions make clear that its top priority is to roll back Iranian influence across the region.
In Syria, the Saudis direct their financial, intelligence and diplomatic resources not against ISIS, but against the Assad regime. The Saudi air force, which initially joined the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in 2014, has turned its attention to Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Even our closest ally in the region, Israel, views ISIS as a significant threat, but not as dangerous as Hezbollah. With the Iran nuclear agreement that President Obama championed, he alienated the Middle Eastern allies we need to defeat the Islamic State.
Candidates Need to Prepare for Chaotic World Problems
The next president will need to deal with the Middle East, a resurgent Russia and an aggressive China. Without a clearly defined foreign policy, how will a Trump or Clinton administration deal with the leadership of these regions?
Right now, our enemies don’t fear us. Our allies have no confidence that we will be there when they need us. This situation makes for a dangerous world.