War Stories

Five Minutes to Explain the World

Foreign policy is often the most important and difficult part of a president’s job. So why don’t the debates spend more time on it?

Democratic presidential hopefuls Tulsi Gabbard and Joe Biden.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Tulsi Gabbard and Joe Biden. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images and Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

In the 230 years since the founding of our nation, there have been only 19 years when American troops were not engaged in military operations abroad. This has been true for just five of the years since World War II, and the most recent of those rare moments of calm took place 40 years ago, in 1979.

To put it another way, the next president will almost certainly oversee—perhaps even send—U.S. armed forces into combat. And he or she will be almost exclusively responsible for their fate, as the use of force is one realm where presidents have near-unfettered freedom to do as they please.

Yet, in Wednesday night’s 2½-hour debate of the Democratic presidential candidates, just five minutes were devoted to issues of war and peace—even less than the paltry 12 minutes spent on the topic in the debate the night before.

During those five minutes, the moderator asked just two questions: whether the candidates would withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and what they think in retrospect about the invasion of Iraq. Nothing was asked or answered about tensions with Iran, Syria, North Korea, Turkey, or Venezuela. Nothing about how to deal with terrorism. Nothing about the $750 billion defense budget. Nothing about relations with China (except one question about trade) or Russia (except one comment about the Mueller investigation).

Nothing, in short, about the single largest account in the federal budget or the clashes of American interests and global crises that could set off a major war.

As all the presidents of the past 75 years have quickly learned upon taking office, thinking and acting about war and peace is a never-ending aspect of the job. (It’s one reason their hair always turns gray so quickly.)

If anything, the statistics on the sparse number of years when presidents don’t deal with armed conflicts—summarized in a report last month by the Congressional Research Service—understate the persistence of these issues. Even in those five years since World War II when U.S. troops were not fighting in foreign lands, presidents faced major threats or opportunities. In 1947, the Cold War formally began, with President Harry Truman declaring the Truman Doctrine, pledging U.S. support for anti-Communist causes worldwide. In 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, hinting at an ability to build intercontinental ballistic missiles and setting off fears (untrue, it turned out) of a “missile gap.” In 1961, President John F. Kennedy faced down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to grab West Berlin. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution broke out and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

Again, those were the years when U.S. troops were not involved in military operations. (The study, by the way, excludes covert operations; had it included them, every year since WWII would have been portrayed as rife with action.)

The study notes that in many of the militarily active years, especially before the 20th century, U.S. troops were sent abroad to protect or rescue American citizens, in some cases from pirates. Even since that time, several of the operations were fairly small and not particularly deadly. But every armed intervention can escalate to something larger. (Many self-confident officials and analysts thought that invading Iraq, in 2003, would be a “cakewalk.”) So, each of these decisions weighs heavily—or should—on the commander in chief.

It is a bit unfair to expect presidential candidates to hit the campaign trail with fully thought-out ideas about the various global hot spots. Nothing in their lives has quite prepared them for the shitstorms about to hit them once they step into the Oval Office. Some of them wind up changing their minds, on matters big and small, once they confront the crises for real.

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Still, it would be useful to know the candidates’ broad views on America’s place in the world and the use of force—the lessons they’ve drawn from history, from their travels around the globe, or from decisions they’ve made or witnessed in their own lives’ personal or professional crises.

We know quite a bit about Joe Biden’s views, given his 36 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, and, as might be expected from anyone with such a long record, it’s a mixed bag. Mayor Pete Buttigieg served as a Navy reservist in Afghanistan; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard served as an Army medical specialist in Iraq; it’s interesting that, in answers to one of the very few questions on the subject, they both said they’d pull out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in their first year as president.

As for the others: Sen. Bernie Sanders has given two speeches on foreign policy; Sen. Elizabeth Warren has given one; a few of the others have made remarks here and there. It isn’t enough. Five minutes in a debate doesn’t offer the slightest chance of learning anything more, and restricting candidates’ answers to one minute turns the whole exercise into a joke.

This is a big deal, probably the biggest deal that the next president—and presidents beyond—will have to deal with. Those covering and shaping the election should act accordingly.