By Daniel DePetris
The first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump was promoted by the networks as a Super Bowl-like affair — a cultural event in American society among two heavyweights who not only despise one another on a personal level, but differ substantially on policy and which direction they would like to take the country. The debate played out as expected: more than 80 million Americans reportedly tuned in to a rhetorical slugfest. For the television networks, the debate was great for their bottom lines, but for our servicemen and women, the first presidential debate didn’t live up to their expectations.
What tens of millions of Americans were afforded this week was a battle over personalities, temperament, and personal characteristics — qualities that are undoubtedly important for a president, but a barometer that doesn’t apply to the American voter and the American service member concerned about the vast number of international and domestic crises that the United States is facing at any given moment.
NBC’s Lester Holt, the man in charge of picking the topics and moderating the debate, decided to leave national security questions towards the very end of the discussion — a point in time where viewership typically drops off. In fact, only one forward-leaning national security question was asked by Holt, and that was whether the U.S. should adopt a no first-use policy on nuclear weapons.
The whole rationale for debates is to encourage the candidates to confront one other on their vision of U.S. foreign policy going into the next four years. And yet Clinton and Trump used the debate - perhaps predictably - to highlight one another’s personal qualities and decision making acumen. Regardless of which candidate one supports, there is something distressing about the presidential nominees of the two major parties opting to delve into what the other may have said or done in the 1970’s rather than what they plan to do for America’s national security over the next four years. Lester Holt failed to steer the conversation back to the issues, which only compounded the insults.
None of this would be troubling if it weren’t for the fact that U.S. soldiers, sailors, airman, and marines are engaged overseas in a number of international conflicts as we speak.
Afghanistan came up only once during 90 minutes of the debate, and that was only mentioned in relation to NATO allies invoking Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks. There was no discussion at all about what each nominee believes the United States should do in Afghanistan after 15 years of being militarily engaged in that country.
Whoever gets elected in November will enter the White House with 8,400 U.S. military personnel continuing to perform advise and assist missions, special operations raids, and air strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in partnership with the Afghan national security forces. It’s not unreasonable for U.S. soldiers deployed in that war zone — or in the pipeline for deployment — to want to know what the next Commander-in-Chief’s military and political strategy would be.
The same goes for the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. Air Force has conducted more than 11,000 airstrikes on ISIS positions during the last two years and deployed roughly 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in an advisory capacity at a tune of $12 million a day — $9 billion since the campaign began.
The battle against ISIS rightly was included as a topic during the debate, but most of the time allocated was spent by the nominees either bashing one another’s record. Explaining how Washington’s strategy toward the war could be improved and how U.S. national security interests could best be met with the military resources the country currently possesses were left behind. For the U.S. soldier in Iraq today preparing to backup the Iraqi army in their operation to retake the city of Mosul, it would have been nice for the discussion to delve deeper than talking points and rhetorical barbs.
Thankfully, the second presidential debate in early October will deal with more foreign policy issues. It is critical at that time to hear detailed policies and proposals to deal with the pressing national security problems that are turning some regions of the world into cauldrons of instability, from the civil war in Syria’s devastating impact on Middle East stability to North Korea’s challenge to the non-proliferation regime. Because, if we are going to perfectly honest, it is unlikely that the soldier defending America and the taxpayer funding America’s armed forces were satisfied with the questions that were asked this week to the candidates. It's not a stretch to assume that they impressed with answers they got either.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The National Review on September 30, 2016. Read more HERE.