In 2020, Will Candidates Campaign on Foreign Policy?

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After two years in office, President Trump finally made his first trip to visit U.S. forces in the field in Iraq. Having announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and a drawdown in Afghanistan, going to Iraq—where he is likely to maintain a U.S. military presence—probably made political sense. But, by visiting troops, what he plans to bring home is also a politically astute move, a fact that likely will not be lost on Trump's challengers in 2020.

Indeed, the future of the United States’ role in Afghanistan—now America’s longest war at 17 years and still counting—will likely be a major issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign. By now dragging on 10 years longer than our second longest war in Vietnam, it appears to have come to a similarly inconclusive stalemate: Our adversaries (the Taliban) cannot win while American troops are on the ground, but our efforts to Afghanize the war and rebuild the Afghan government and nation have also come to naught.

This situation is strikingly similar to that facing the United States in 1952 in Korea.  There, military stalemate settled in with the frontlines roughly tracing the original dividing line between North and South Korea. The American public, scarcely recovered from the titanic efforts of the Second World, quickly tired of the frozen quagmire on the 38th Parallel.  Senior civilian and leaders in Washington were plagued by a gnawing fear that Korea might be “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy,” in Chief of Staff of the Army General Omar Bradley’s alliterative phrase.

Into that strategic morass stepped another distinguished former soldier, General Dwight Eisenhower, who campaigned for the Republican nomination and then the presidency on a platform that included ending the Korean War.

In what many presidential scholars regard as one of the most decisive presidential campaign speeches ever delivered, on October 24, 1952, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe pledged that if elected, he would go to Korea himself to end the fighting and start bringing U.S. forces home. Ten days later, Ike defeated Democratic nominee Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, whose campaign team grudgingly admitted that the old solder’s “I Shall Go to Korea” speech helped to turn the electoral tide.

Today, almost 60 percent of Americans and nearly 70 percent of veterans are similarly frustrated with the situation in a long, indeed seemingly endless, American war according to a recent YouGov poll, that they support reducing the U.S. military presence there. Overwhelming public support for the initial military operations to oust the Taliban —the protectors of the al Qaeda architects of the 9/11 attacks—has turned to frustration with the lack of progress in Afghanistan despite surges of troops and changes of strategy. It is easy to imagine a presidential candidate in 2020 acknowledging that we have done what we can for Afghanistan and it is time to go to Afghanistan to bring our armed forces home.

Here are some key themes such campaign speech might highlight cribbing from candidate Eisenhower’s stunningly successful 1952 speech:

It ought to begin, unlike Ike who placed the blame for the Korean War squarely on the Truman Administration, by acknowledging the bi-partisan mistakes by both the Clinton and the George W. Bush Administrations. Ignoring the mounting body of evidence beginning with embassy bombings in Africa and an attack on an American warship in Yemen was a grave and growing threat from al Qaeda to the American homeland.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it would recognize, as Ike did, that America “did what it always has done in all its times of peril. It appealed to the heroism of its youth.” It would acknowledge that given the attack on the United States by a group the Taliban had given aid and comfort to, the United States had no choice but to respond with military force to drive it from power. It would also praise “the sheer valor” and sacrifice of the more than 2,200 American troops who died or over 20,000 who were wounded in combat on the Afghan mountainsides.

But it would then pivot by noting that our “utterly right and utterly inescapable war” in Afghanistan was transformed from a limited operation to unseat the Taliban into an open-ended commitment to nation-building in a country which had never really been a nation in any meaningful sense in the first place. And at the same time, we were expanding our ambitions in Afghanistan. We were also planning for another war of choice in Iraq. Neither has ended well for us.

And so in the run-up to the 2020 election, we will again be facing an “anxious autumn” in which our heroic men and women in uniform, many of whom have endured multiple deployments in harm’s way, ask like their forbearers in Korea, without a “whine, no whimpering plea, “ but still insistently: “Where do we go from here? When comes the end? Is there an end?”

As Eisenhower admitted, “these questions touch all of us. They demand truthful answers.” An Eisenhower-esque speech in 2020 that declared an end to an American role in Afghanistan would be both a relief but also an inspiration for a war-weary country deeply committed to honoring it soldiers. That is why it would commit the President to bring the war they have fought so heroically to a belated but “honorable end” and welcome America’s soldiers home as well.

One of America’s greatest warriors had the courage to go to Korea in 1953 to end that war; America is looking for a candidate like Ike in 2020 who has the courage to do the same in Afghanistan.


Michael C. Desch is the Packey J. Dee Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center.



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