Forget the old jokes, foreign policy was the real debate horror

Two major wars and not a serious or even coherent conversation to be had — we may be in trouble

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos

If one was hoping to distinguish how the two major presidential candidates view the most critical foreign policy issues of our time, the debate last night was a shattering disappointment.

If one’s expectations were so low as to believe nothing but second-hand embarrassment would be gained from the exchanges last night, then maybe not so much.

On Ukraine and Israel, President Biden and former President Trump inflated, conflated, and bloviated their way through 11 minutes of foreign policy discussion, only turning back to the topics in fleeting moments of taunting incoherence during the rest of the time on the stage.

For Trump, it was surface-level attacks on how, to his mind, Biden’s weakness and lack of leadership in the “disgraceful” Afghanistan withdrawal in September 2021 encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine, and Hamas to attack Israel (he repeated this numerous times during the 90-minute debate, which took place in Atlanta and without a live audience).

Biden retorted by saying Trump openly encouraged Putin to invade in February 2022 and repeated that if not stopped, the Russian president would rampage across Europe to re-establish the “Soviet Empire.” As for Israel, he boasted about a White House ceasefire deal that no one, not Hamas nor Israel, has seen fit to seriously engage in weeks.

“Neither candidate put forth a vision of how the U.S. can positively engage with the world in a manner that advances American interests and addresses the shared existential threats posed by climate change, nuclear proliferation and growing great power tensions,” quipped the Quincy Institute’s Eli Clifton.

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That is an understatement. With the immense gravity of two major wars bearing down on the planet simultaneously, the two men vying for the job of commander in chief seemed intent only to talk about these issues within the narrow band of their own choosing. Trump was slightly more expansive — invoking the cost of blood and treasure and the need to end, particularly, the war in Ukraine, while blaming Europe for what he called freeloading. But his boast of being able to end the war in Ukraine while still president-elect was backed up by nothing but his sheer insistence that it would happen.

For his part, Biden made statements that did not comport with current geopolitical reality, but harkened back to the time of D-Day and the Greatest Generation, saying at one point that “we are the most admired country in the world.” His attempt to suggest he is holding back 2,000-pound dumb bombs from Israel for humanitarian reasons was quickly undermined by his assurance that the U.S. was giving Israel everything it wanted and saying the quiet part out loud, that we “are the biggest producer of support for Israel in the world.”

By the end of the debate when Trump was saying Biden “will drive us into World War Three,” the audience was likely too dulled to react. In the morning the spin from both sides will cherry pick and likely dwell on other things: fact-checking Trump, Biden’s age and performance, the cringey exchange over who is a better golf player, and the ongoing disputes over the 2020 election and January 6.

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So it is best to put these exchanges out there verbatim, to give folks something to really worry about. This was pretty much all of the foreign policy last night; but answers have been edited a bit for repetition and length (you’ll thank us).

CNN Host Dana Bash to Trump: President Vladimir Putin says he’ll only end this war if Russia keeps the Ukrainian territory it has already claimed, and Ukraine abandons its bid to join NATO. Are Putin’s terms acceptable to you?

Trump: First of all, our veterans and our soldiers can’t stand this guy (Biden). They can’t stand him. They think he’s the worst commander in chief, if that’s what you call him, that we’ve ever had. They can’t stand him, so let’s get that straight. And they like me more than just about any of them, and that’s based on every single bit of information. As far as Russia and Ukraine. If we had a real president, the president that knew, that was respected by Putin, he would have never, he would have never invaded Ukraine. A lot of people are dead right now, much more than people know. You know they talk about numbers. You can double those numbers, maybe triple those numbers. He did nothing to stop it. In fact, I think (Biden) encouraged Russia going in. I tell you what happened. He was so bad with Afghanistan. It was such a horrible embarrassment, most embarrassing moment in the history of our country, that when Putin watched that, and he saw the incompetence …

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