Critical Foreign Policy Questions

We won't likely hear these questions asked in the final presidential debate, but their answers are critical to our democratic future.


As we gear up for the last presidential debate, we know that many important questions are not being answered. “Presidential foreign policy discussions, for example, are now basically limited to who hates ISIS more, who said what 13 years ago, and who believes Vladimir Putin is in charge of a roomful of hackers … It’s not enough,” as a recent Guardian article titled “The US just bombed Yemen, and no one’s talking about it” put it.

Our current posture, which reflects our military-industrial complex and corporate interests, has dramatically escalated conflict abroad (even in the past few months). This posture is being codified and implemented in a way that is not easily reversible. New trade deals, military bases, armed attacks, aggressive war games, and continued climate change threaten our national and international security. The violence may feel natural as it is omnipresent in our entertainment, gun homicides, and global military attacks. Yet we make disastrous choices when we provoke escalation, rather than connecting to work together for peace, sustainability, and justice. We sell short our capability to radically imagine a world of human rights and human dignity.

It’s time for a reset.

The questions below on our foreign policy likely won’t be heard during the empty spectacle of the presidential race. They follow my earlier articles on “21 Questions for Would be Presidents” (some overtaken by events) and commentary on “The New York Times’ False Foreign Policy Narratives.” They look at revisiting our past, empathizing with those with whom we share the world, and questioning our core values. The real possibility of a corporate-dictated future — with higher profits coming from rising inequality, poverty, and pain — and possibly a Third World War is an unacceptable choice.

1. Keep It in the Ground (or Pipeline Protests)  The greatest threat to national security has been described as climate change, which is less an issue than a reality that will shape virtually every policy area. The Dakota Access pipeline construction highlights central issues.

  • While we can focus on delivering renewable energy, it won’t matter if the critical corollary to keep grounded 80 percent of identified fossil fuels reserves is not met. Yet it is needed to meet a 2-degree target, the less ambitious of the two Paris goals. How will you #keepitintheground?
  • What is your position on the continued construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which would be used to transport dirty fossil fuels abroad? What is your position on actions to protect the land and water from pollution?
  • Those covering the protests included award-wining Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, actress Shailene Woodley and documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg. They have faced arrests, bizarre charges, and/or long prison terms. What is your view on the role of the citizen, alternative and mainstream media in covering this and similar protests?

2. Refugees and Displaced

  • How many of the 65 million refugees, which have overwhelmed a number of Middle East states, should be allowed in the United States?
  • Many of these refugees have fled after we have destabilized and armed the Middle East. Will you ensure their basic needs are met and, if so, how?
  • The US is participating in an offensive to retake Mosul that the UN warns may displace one million people. Do you believe this attack should occur and, if it does, what should the US do to assist those who are displaced?

3. Brazil

  • On September 22, Brazilian President Michel Temer told business and foreign policy leaders that he “worked to impeach [former President Dilma] Rousseff after she refused to implement his party’s economic plan, which included cuts to health, education and welfare spending.” He is now the subject of a corruption investigation by the nation’s Supreme Court. How do you respond to that statement and the situation, widely regarded as a coup?
  • How do you respond to PEC 241 (condemned by Roussef) which will limit public and social spending – given that had it been in place for a decade it would have halved the healthcare budget, brought education down 2/3, and the minimum wage by one-half –  even as we champion such increased investment in our citizens? 

4. Russian and Chinese Provocation — For perspective: Russia lost in World War II an estimated 27 million, the equivalent of experiencing a 9-11 every day for 24 years. Now in nearby Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the US is providing combat troops, heavy weapons, and tanks and the US, after NATO expansion to Russia’s border, is now executing war scenarios.

  • ABC’s Martha Raddatz flew with the US Air Force on a military exercise on the Russian border last month, even as NATO continues such war games. As these surely would not be tolerated by the US, why are we doing them, particularly after we ended the ceasefire in Syria through brutal and misguided action?
  • The US is placing bases, ballistic missiles, and nuclear-armed bombers around China, with China building airstrips in the South China Sea. In 2015, “the US and Australia staged the biggest single air-sea military exercise in recent history, known as Talisman Sabre. Its aim was to rehearse an Air-Sea Battle Plan, blocking sea lanes, such as the Straits of Malacca and the Lombok Straits, that cutoff China’s access to oil, gas and other vital raw materials from the Middle East and Africa” (from the same article). How would we respond to similar military positioning and exercises? Do you plan to take steps to de-escalate the situation and, if so, how?


  • Is there any international law, in your opinion, that would keep another nation from mounting a drone strike on the US, should it believe the US is harboring a terrorist, e.g. as was asserted by Turkey earlier this year?
  • Given that drones may be able to be outfitted with WMDs and hacked, will you permit them in American airspace, and what restrictions would you impose?
  • Will you continue the drone program as-is or make changes, given the unanimous condemnation it has received from legislative bodies of nations who have been attacked, and the serious questions raised by the United Nations and nonprofit human rights groups?

6. Somalia

  • Specifically address the March strike which killed an estimated 150 people in light of the fact: 1. We are not at war with Somalia, 2. There are many compelling reasons to doubt the US government’s description of those we kill, 3. There is a lack of a rationale for troops there, and 4. The reality is it is not viewed as acceptable for other countries to drop bombs on countries with whom they are not at war (Glenn Greenwald, the Intercept).
  • Although Somalia was ironically cited as a success by President Obama, it was the place in which the United States “made the very force they claimed to be trying to fight”, according to “The World is Our Battlefield” author and director Jeremy Scahill. We are now doing “self-defense strikes” which some analysts say are a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. “It is only because American forces are now being deployed on the front lines in Somalia that they face imminent threats from the Shabab,” according to that New York Times article. What is your view on Somali strikes, given our failed past and current provocation in Somalia, and will you continue them?

7. Syria

  • Do you support what may be a de-facto “no fly zone” as is, or the imposition of an actual no-fly zone, given opposition by foreign nations and the military? Do you believe it could lead to a dramatic escalation of hostilities, as do many political actors?
  • Was it acceptable for the US to break the Syrian ceasefire (with airstrikes that ironically helped ISIS), thus preventing a Joint Implementation Center from being formed and a potential start to US-Russian cooperation in that war-ravaged nation?It’s been said that the Syria and Russia believe there will be a Syria campaign if Hillary is elected. Will there be one if you are elected president?
  • Would you renegotiate a ceasefire and/or support the withdrawal of troops and arms from the area?

8. Yemen — The United States has armed the Saudis, who have indiscriminately and incompetently bombed Yemen, creating a situation where a majority of the country faces food insecurity, and millions of children are malnourished. Congressman Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and former military prosecutor, has called the situation “untenable,” and Human Rights Watch has pointed to an “apparent war crime,” although the US government is concerned there may be many more for which the US can be held accountable.

  • The United States is proceeding with a $1.3 billion arms sale. In the last year and a half since the Saudis started bombing Yemen, $22 billion have been provided, with $110 billion since Obama assumed office. Some government officials believe that such US action may lead to the US being implicated in war crimes that stem from the Saudi bombing which has killed thousands of civilians. Officials are also concerned that Saudis could destroy critical infrastructure that would hamper a Yemeni recovery and could make US a war “co-belligerent,” per international law. Will you continue to sell these arms and why?
  • About 10 days ago, roughly 140 mourners in Sana’a, Yemen, were killed when Saudi forces used American munitions. Human Rights Watch calling it a “likely war crime” and Reuters reported that United States officials are concerned about US war crimes. How do you recommend proceeding?
  • “U.S. refueling and logistical support of Riyadh’s air force — even more than the arms sales — risked making the United States a party to the Yemen conflict under international law,” three officials said (see link above). Will you continue such participation in hostilities?
  • The Saudis have hit infrastructure on the US-compiled “no-strike” list and two Doctors Without Borders hospitals have been bombed. Should the US push for accountability in such cases and how?
  • How does this play against a large contingent of House members signing on to a letter to block Saudi arms sales and the recent overwhelming override of the President’s veto to potentially hold Saudis accountable for 9-11?
  • The US has just bombed Yemen directly (although, like Libya, virtually no one is talking about it) with a US navy ship firing on three sites. This action “has the potential to drag the US straight into a protracted and escalating conflict. And, as everyone knows, America has an uncanny ability to enter protracted and escalating military conflict,” according to the Guardian article. What is your response?

9. Afghanistan

  • It’s just over a year after US troops bombed the Kunduz hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 and injuring 37, in a protracted attack on a facility who had repeatedly provided coordinates. The story changed four times. Will you support an independent and impartial investigation (which none of the existing are), under the Geneva Conventions, as has been called for by the director of Doctors Without Borders? Do you support criminal prosecution of those involved? Will you support investigation under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (which is not possible without US consent because countries were forced to sign “bilateral immunity agreements” to keep foreign aid)?
  • The longest war in American history has now entered its 15th year, with opium a key economic pillar, and the Taliban controlling extensive territory. It has spent $800 billion, including $115 billion on reconstruction. The New York Times has called for a “top to bottom review” which would include whether to fight there, given the Taliban’s ambitions are limited to the region, and address whether the US can even end the conflict. What is your plan for Afghanistan?

10. Libya

  • The weekend after the Democratic National Convention President Obama began a new campaign of bombing Libya which received little attention. The UK has recently released a scathing report documenting the failed intelligence and transformation from a “no-fly zone” into a regime change approach, and President Obama has referred to the intervention as a “shit show.” Explain your view on what is happening in Libya and how you will proceed.

11. Israel

  • Several studies point to the dire straits Gaza is in after the Israeli offensive of 2014, with two United Nations-commissioned studies finding Gaza is projected to be rebuilt in either 20 years and never, and another study predicting it could be uninhabitable by 2020. What will you do to promote the reconstruction of occupied Gaza?
  • Will you do anything to halt the almost $4 billion in US military aid, most on arms sales, given serious concerns about ongoing human rights violations?
  • What will you do to promote peace in that part of the Middle East?

12. War authorization

  • The Authorization for Military Force which passed three days after 9-11 addresses action against those responsible for the attacks of that day, yet has been used to justify attacks on many countries (at least seven this year), many on groups that did not even exist at that time. How will you address our inapplicable and invalid war authorization?

13. Military spending and bases

  • The United States maintains about 800 bases at a cost of about $156 billion, with all other nations maintaining about 30. Billions have been spent recently as a result of the “Pacific pivot” and on Middle East bases. These bases have often faced harsh opposition from local residents, have led to attacks on US soil that stem from the military presence, have been tied to prostitution and sexual violence, to environmental damage and displacement, and have provided little benefit to local economies. (They were even used as an al Qaeda recruiting tool and provided partial motivation for 9-11.) They are used to launch interventions and drone strikes which often amplify terrorism, create new US targets, and encourage an arms race. What will you do about US bases?
  • With an estimated $829 billion in defense (with few wanting to cut veteran’s benefits, but many questioning other expenses), with schools run down, with speculation that infrastructure spending could come from a giant wet kiss to corporations of a 10 percent tax holiday, and underinvestment contributing to the rise of the right wing, should we not cut military expenditures?
  • Do you support a nuclear weapon modernization program that is estimated to cost $1 trillion over 30 years? It will, according to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Cartwright, make these weapons’ use “more thinkable,” and globally is expected to lead to a nuclear arms race.
  • Should we stop arming the Middle East?

14. Trans-Pacific Partnership

  • How will you fight the TPP and TiSA in the lame duck session and beyond?
  • Are you concerned about the extension of arbitration dispute settlement — often biased to the wealthy and corporations — to over 9000 firms, including hundreds of fossil fuel companies? Does this raise concerns, given the 700 cases against 100 governments resulting from past similar trade provisions which include a challenging moratorium on fracking in Quebec, restrictions on coal-fired plants, and the seeking of $15 billion from the US government for the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline?
  • Given “national security” has been used to justify the greatest errors and most sudden acts in American history, what is the total criteria for an acceptable trade deal?
  • Does the TPP not create the opportunity for companies from partner companies that provide services (the sector of most workers) to potentially challenge limits to bringing in foreign employees, through often-biased ISDS arbitration panels? Won’t this potentially further undermine good jobs for American workers and their ability to organize and collectively bargain?
  • Will such an assault on the climate and labor potentially weaken individual security, and thus contribute to the rise of the right wing and violence within our nation?

The intense hypermasculinity and violence we see in our society and in Trump’s rise is mirrored in our aggressive posture. Just as routinely, if more quietly, it seeks to deprive individuals — more often dark-skinned ones, but all of us — of their fundamental human rights. It has been presented by a recipe for so-called security, even while demonstrating in almost every situation how it has escalated violence and failed to meet its goals.

But we do have the opportunity, particularly with national elections, to push the reset button. We can build a world based on democracy, human rights, and reciprocal respect. It will take discipline, and an orientation foreign to whoever is elected. But their pledge to an approach of public interest, human rights, and political reconciliation represents the only sane path forward.

Tell Congress to Block the TPP


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