It's hard to tell what exactly is going to be discussed at tonight's presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. The topics were announced as "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity" and "Securing America." Those aren't exactly topics as much as themes you might see at a convention or on a campaign website. Given that the debate commission is a collaboration of the Democratic and Republican parties, that should not come as a surprise. The "topics" do a good job revealing how shallow much of American politics is despite the pretensions some have about their candidate being the "serious" one.
That's unfortunate. There are a plethora of substantive issues the next president will have to address that have been largely ignored in the general election cycle so far, not least of which are the United States' many foreign entanglements and interventions. Such interventions say a lot about "America's direction," are often launched under the pretext of "securing America" but actually prevent it from "achieving prosperity." Despite that, I would be surprised if a significant amount of time was spent on issues of foreign affairs, particularly in the absence of candidates like Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson or Green party nominee Jill Stein who at least offer critiques of U.S. military intervention abroad.
Syria – Syria has gotten more play in the general election cycle than some of the other countries the U.S. is involved in, via the issue of refugees (which until last year the Obama administration accepted virtually none of) as well as military action against ISIS. Trump's success in the Republican party was due in part on a strong anti-immigration anti-refugee stance, which he's only reinforced since winning the nomination. He's proposed suspending immigration from countries compromised by terrorism but hasn't specified which countries that would apply to. Depending on the definition you use, it's not just countries like Syria that have been compromised by terrorism but countries like France as well. Hillary Clinton says she supports admitting more Syrian refugees into the United States, though she did not work toward that when she served as Secretary of State, the latter part of which coincided with the first few years of the Syrian civil war.
When it comes to military action against ISIS in Syria, however, the differences between Trump and Clinton are largely rhetorical. While Trump is likely to call Obama weak (an old Republican talking point about the Obama administration's foreign policy) and say the U.S. needs to do more to combat ISIS in Syria, Clinton is likely to say Obama has done the right thing, and say the U.S. needs to do more to combat ISIS in Syria. Neither has offered many details on what exactly "more" entails outside of boilerplate pronouncements about increased cooperation with regional allies.
Libya – Libya has also gotten play in the election cycle so far. Since the U.S.-backed and Clinton-advocated 2011 intervention in the civil war, the security situation in Libya has only deteriorated. U.S. ground troops are now in Libya because of the rise of ISIS there since the intervention. Even President Obama has admitted failure to plan for the aftermath in Libya was the biggest mistake of his presidency, yet Clinton has insisted it was "too soon to tell" what the effect of the U.S. intervention has been. Trump may claim he was against the intervention in Libya from the beginning, but is unlikely to be able to articulate the principles that led to that opposition or that would lead to opposition to interventions in the future. Clinton may play "traffic cop" and insist Trump did not oppose the Libya intervention from the beginning. But she, too, is unlikely to articulate any kind of principles that might keep the U.S. out of future interventions that invite ISIS into countries in which it is not yet operating.
Iraq – During the Republican primary, Donald Trump got a lot of mileage out of his early opposition to Iraq war. In South Carolina, he called President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq possibly one of the "worst decisions" in the history of the American presidency. He won that primary despite many observers believing the critique of Bush would not go over well among South Carolina Republican voters, who are considered heavily "pro-military." Hillary Clinton voted for the authorization to use military force in Iraq in 2002, but by the time of her first presidential campaign, in the 2008 cycle, she announced she had regretted that decision, yet interventionism has been a consistent position for her. She may insist Donald Trump was also supportive of the Iraq war in its run up, but neither nominee has a substantive critique of the decision to go to war that would inform them in a non-interventionist direction in the future.
Both Clinton and Trump have accepted the premise that the U.S. ought to do something about ISIS, which operates in Iraq as well as Syria, called for more U.S. action in that regard but declined to define that intervention in a specific way. Additionally, despite claiming to be an opponent of the Iraq war and claiming to support the withdrawal, Trump has also parroted the conservative critique that the withdrawal from Iraq enabled ISIS, even insisting he wasn't being hyperbolic when he called President Obama a "founder" of ISIS.
Afghanistan – The war in Afghanistan, in its 15th year, barely got any attention in the last cycle and neither candidate has addressed it substantively this time. The U.S. helped local forces oust the Taliban government in Kabul relatively quickly but has been dealing with a Taliban insurgency ever since, one local forces seem unwilling or unable to fight against themselves. And in recent years, ISIS has set up shop in an unstable Afghanistan as well. Neither candidate has offered anything substantive about the war. As secretary of state, Clinton was responsible for a "diplomatic surge" in Afghanistan that came along with the troop surge. In fact, Clinton was among a number of high-level officials whose personal quibbles with each other thwarted any possibility of the surge actually having some kind of positive effect toward ending the war.
Yemen – Saudia Arabia has been waging a war in Yemen for the last year and a half that has been a sort of proxy war between the U.S., which funds Saudi efforts, and Iran, which allegedly backs rebels that overthrew the U.S. backed government. This war has gotten virtually no attention from the major party nominees and very little attention from the mainstream media. Barring Lester Holt bringing it up, it will almost certainly not be a topic tonight, even though it encapsulates many of the problems of U.S. intervention. An extended counterterrorism campaign by the U.S. that relied on information from the authoritarian government used to be touted by the White House as an example of a successful counterterrorism strategy has, since the collapse of the government and outbreak of war, been largely memory holed.