Tonight is the third and final presidential debate of the general election, which means sweet relief is nearly at hand.
What may not be at hand, however, is any substantive discussion of the fact that the United States is actively at war in at least five countries (depending on how you count them) and that those conflicts have no foreseeable end in sight.
My colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, explains the situation well:
In an election flush with conspiracy theories, here’s one that’s real: Both major party nominees, as well as the journalists who cover the election and moderate the debates, are actively conspiring to avoid talking about the fact that the United States is waging war in at least five countries simultaneously: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia.
In the first two presidential debates, our involvement in the Syrian civil war was briefly discussed, as was ISIS in vague terms, and the Iran nuclear deal, and Russia’s mischief-making in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and Libya, though mostly in the past tense, focused on our 2011 intervention to depose Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent attack on American government facilities in Benghazi a year later.
But our role in “advising” the Iraqi army “a few miles behind the front lines” as it works to take back territory from ISIS? Our “secret war” against Shabab militants in Somalia? Our support for Saudi Arabia’s bloody assault on Houthi rebels in Yemen? Our air strikes pounding positions in and around the city of Sirte on the Libyan coast?
Nada. Zip. Nothing.
In fact, in addition to writing here at Rare, I’m also a fellow at a foreign policy outfit, Defense Priorities. After the first debate but before the second one, I was discussing with my editor there whether I’d write about the candidates’ foreign policy comments at the next debate.
Then the next debate happened…and there were no real foreign policy comments. There was nothing of substance for me to write about.
I’d been thinking there might be an entire debate (or at least a large chunk of a debate) exclusively devoted to foreign policy. After all, it’s a big—in my view, the single most important—part of what a president does. Instead, we’ve gotten near-radio silence.
As Linker argues, there are plenty of obvious reasons for that. Republicans don’t want to talk foreign policy because doing so would require admitting President Obama has not been the pacifist they make him out to be—and actually has generally continued the policies of George W. Bush. Democrats similarly want to avoid Obama-Bush comparisons (let alone highlighting how Clinton’s hawkishness exceeds Obama’s). Congress wants to avoid calling attention to its own unconstitutional fecklessness, and the media has plenty of simpler and less ethically complicated topics it can address instead.
“And so,” Linker concludes, “the wars drag on and multiply, fought by an all-volunteer army thousands of miles away, barely touching the lives and thoughts of the vast majority of voters.”
Except, in at least one big way, they do affect us: price.
Harvard’s Linda Bilmes covers this at The Boston Globe:
This October marks 15 years since American troops entered Afghanistan. It was a precursor to the occupation of Iraq and is the longest military conflict in US history. Yet the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in these wars have rated barely a mention in the presidential campaign.
Yet the cost seems invisible to politicians and the public alike. The reason is that almost all of the spending has been financed through borrowing — selling US Treasury Bonds around the world — leaving our children to pick up the tab. Consequently, the wars have had little impact on our pocketbooks.
Little impact now—but it’s coming. In fact, by one estimate, the long-term price tag of Iraq and Afghanistan (including health care costs for veterans and the interest on all that debt) will top $12 trillion.
That’s an awfully big government program to ignore. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask would-be presidents to discuss it at some length.
If these foreign policy topics aren’t amply covered in tonight’s debate, we may confidently assume neither presidential candidate will significantly change the course of American foreign policy, and that neither has a motivating passion to lessen the obscene costs in blood and treasure that policy has exacted.