7 foreign policy questions that won’t be asked in the last presidential debate

This is one of the last chances Clinton and Trump have to offer the American public their foreign policy visions.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The United States bombed Yemen last week. North Korea is testing ballistic missiles. Haiti is devastated from the effects of Hurricane Matthew. And the Syrian and Libyan civil wars are stretching into their sixth year, creating an unprecedented refugee crisis.

The last presidential debate on Wednesday includes “foreign hot spots” as a debate topic, and it’s one of the last chances Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have to offer the American public their foreign policy visions.

What will the U.S. role in the rest of the world be under the next Commander-in-Chief? How will they deal with some of the most pressing conflicts today?

Here are seven foreign policy questions that should be asked in the debate — but probably won’t be.

1. Should the United States play a role in resolving the Syrian Civil War? If so, what should it be?

There are no easy answers as to how to solve the Syrian Civil War, now entering its sixth year.

Clinton has advocated for a no-fly zone to stop the bombardment of Aleppo. So has Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN), but Trump has alternately argued for sending ground troops to Syria and for not entering the conflict at all and letting Russia fight ISIS.


Syrian activists, aid workers, and many experts studying the intricacies of the war have also called for a no-fly zone in Syria. But beyond a no-fly zone, neither candidate has fully outlined a solution for helping to wind down the war.

Recent U.S. attempts to coordinate ceasefires in Syria with Russia — an actor widely viewed as an aggressor by Syrian people on the receiving end of airstrikes that target hospitals, marketplaces, and other civilian-heavy areas — means the next administration will have a role to play in the conflict. As long as the war continues, the death toll in Syria will continue to increase, and more Syrians will be added to the nearly 5 million refugees abroad and 11 million displaced.

2. As the next Commander-in-Chief, what would be your plan for bringing the conflict in Yemen to an end?

Over 9,000 people have died in the Yemen conflict, ongoing since March 2015, and now the United States has entered the fighting.

Last week, the United States launched missiles into Yemen, attacking three Houthi-controlled radar sites along the coast of the country. The attack came just days after the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen bombed a funeral in the capital city of Sana’a, killing over 140 people— and hours later, a missile from the territory tried to hit U.S. ships in the Red Sea. Three times in the past week, missiles have tried to hit U.S. ships.


A 72-hour ceasefire between warring parties began Wednesday, but a lot of questions remain about U.S. involvement in Yemen — and what the goal even is. Details about U.S. drone strikes in the country since 2002 still remain unclear, including the number of civilians who have been killed.

The United States has also been accused of alleged war crimes in Yemen, for assisting the Saudi-led coalition by providing arms and intelligence to the Saudis. Last month, a bipartisan effort in Congress to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia was unsuccessful.

Shortly after the funeral attack last week, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the United States is “prepared to adjust our support so as to better align [the Saudi-led coalition] with U.S. principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”

But what are U.S. interests in the conflict? And what will they be under the next Commander-in-Chief? Neither candidate has outlined a serious plan for Yemen.

3. As the next president, what will be your approach to international aid in Haiti, if any?

Hurricane Matthew made a direct hit on Haiti early October, creating the largest humanitarian crisis in the country since the 2010 earthquake. Many towns were wiped away, leaving as many as 546 people dead, 438 injured, and 128 people missing. More than 61,000 people are currently displaced. At least 1.4 million people are in immediate need of assistance, with some towns dealing with little to no access to food, water, and medical supplies.


Humanitarian aid is desperately needed in the country, where damage to infrastructure has hampered rescue efforts and some organizations have reported increased insecurity in certain areas where they face roadblocks to deliver aid. Only $15 million of of the U.N.’s emergency appeal of $120 million in aid has been committed as of earlier this week to meet the needs of 750,000 people over the next three months.

Yet continued development investments to the region as well as other countries may be stalled if the next president chooses to decrease international aid. Soon after President Obama pledged $7 billion to support electric power grids investments in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, Trump tweeted, “Every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen — corruption is rampant!” He also chided Obama for spending taxpayer money on a trip to Africa at the time.

Clinton, who has been criticized for her role in Haitian politics while she was Secretary of State, has been deeply involved in the country’s development through the Clinton Foundation. But a series of email exchanges between the U.S. Department of State and top Clinton Foundation officials appear to show that the State Department “at times prioritized — and, some argue, benefited — people with close ties to the Clintons,” ABC News reported last week.

4. Would U.S. involvement in Libya change if you become Commander-in-Chief? If so, how?

The United States carried out 36 airstrikes in Libya last weekend, but all we’ve heard about Libya in this election is about Benghazi.

Libya has been divided since the overthrow of former dictator Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011, and it’s another country where American bombs are falling. The United States is currently trying to help Libyan government forces take the city of Sirte back from ISIS through airstrikes special forces on the ground.

“The Misrata forces leading the Sirte campaign back a U.N.-supported government in Tripoli that is trying to bring the rival factions together,” Reuters reported Monday. “But the Sirte campaign has also prompted moves by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, who rejects the Tripoli government, to extend his influence.”

As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, many foreign fighters have turned their focus to Libya. ISIS draws many fighters from Tunisia, which shares a border with Libya, and President Obama warned of an ISIS influx in February. But now ISIS could be on its last legs, not only in Mosul and Iraq, but in Libya too. The next president should address how they would deal with Libya — either in regard to how they would continue to fight ISIS or in a post-ISIS landscape.

5. What do you see as the key issues in Mexico-U.S. relations today? Would they change significantly under your administration?

Trump has brought up Mexico a lot throughout his campaign — and might again on Wednesday. During his campaign announcement last June, Trump labeled Mexican immigrants rapists, criminals, and drug dealers. He has repeatedly promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border on Mexico’s dime — something Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has firmly rejected.

Beyond that, he hasn’t had a lot of serious policy proposals on U.S.-Mexico relations, related to immigration or otherwise.

Trump has claimed that NAFTA, the free trade deal between Canada, the United States, and Mexico has “destroyed our country.” By some estimates, five million manufacturing jobs were lost between 1997 and 2014, in part because of growing trade deficits. Yet some experts believe that these jobs would have been lost even without NAFTA. He has promised to toss or renegotiate the deal, but hasn’t said much more than that he intends to get “a better deal for our workers.”

Taking away trade agreements could be “economically disastrous for the United States,” Michael Werz, senior fellow specializing in national security at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. Werz explained that collaboration between the United States and Mexico in fields like IT programming and aeronautical markets “is so deep that to even start thinking of reversing that” would ignore the reliance both countries have on each other.

Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the southern U.S. border doesn’t explain the source of its funding, but also fails to take into account America’s 76.4 million Baby Boomers retiring from a workforce that won’t be able to churn out labor force participation fast enough with younger workers. A 2013 Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) report predicted a shortfall of five million workers with postsecondary education and training.

“We should be under no illusion that within a few years or a decade or two, we will desperately need skilled and unskilled labor to maintain our economy as well as to serve the retiring Baby Boomers,” Werz added. “We might find ourselves in a situation where we start chopping holes in that wall and dragging people over because there’s a need for a young labor force in the United States.”

6. As president, would your approach to North Korea differ from that of the current administration? If so, how?

For decades, the U.S. government has worked to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the globe for fear that arsenals could wind up in the wrong hands. To that end, North Korea has faced harsh U.N. sanctions since 2006 because of its nuclear weapons program and frequent threats of nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea.

But in the last year alone, North Korea has held seven Musadan missile tests, most recently on Saturday, alarming international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, which called the latest test “deeply troubling” and “regrettable.”

Presidential candidate Donald Trump really does not have a plan for what to do with North Korea. He has said that he would be open to meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jung Un to help stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program, said he isn’t worried about a nuclear arms race on the Korean peninsula at all, called for China to invade North Korea, and even suggested that Japan and South Korea could get nuclear weapons to defend themselves.

After North Korea launched a nuclear test in September, Clinton — who supports the Obama administration’s sanctions on the country — condemned the action as “outrageous and unacceptable.” against the country. In September, she suggested that she would expand sanctions on North Korea, though she resisted employing a full embargo on the country. She also supported a collaborative missile defense system with South Korea.

7. Given the possibility of a growing alliance between the Philippines and China, how would you address regional tension in the South China Sea?

The Philippines have been in the headlines a lot this year following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte. Though he has only been in office seven months, Duterte has already overseen a crackdown on the nation’s drug trade that has cost more than 3,000 lives and roused the concern of numerous human rights organizations. Duterte’s lack of regard for international censure has been very clear — he has dismissed criticism from the United Nations and called Obama a “son of a whore” in September, prompting the latter to cancel a planned meeting with the Filipino leader. But while this pattern of behavior bodes ill for any hope of influencing Duterte more generally, it also raises concerns on a key issue: the South China Sea.

The area has become the center of a heated feud between China and several of its southeast Asian neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines. While the United States has avoided declaring an allegiance, the Obama administration has made it clear that Chinese aggression in shared waters isn’t ideal. A strong military alliance between the Philippines and the United States has been key to this stance, and the two countries carry out 28 joint military exercises per year. However, Duterte has indicated he will put a halt to the exercises, signalling a shift away from an American alliance and towards an embrace of China. Duterte will be testing out ties with China from October 19 to 21 — and if all goes well with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a dramatic change in regional relations could be coming. This alteration could have serious implications for U.S. interests in the region, and will certainly become an issue for the next president.