Even though the economy, prescription drug addiction and wages have dominated TV advertising in the race, the United States continues to grope its way through a turbulent world seemingly more fraught with danger than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
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Lawmakers will grapple with these questions when many Americans, discouraged by lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are weary of an extensive U.S. role internationally, with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump questioning the very purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Since U.S. forces first intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, nearly 7,000 American soldiers have lost their lives while both wars have drained more than $1.5 trillion from the federal treasury.
Portman, a former U.S. trade representative who has traveled widely abroad, has endorsed Trump. But he has distanced himself from Trump’s isolationist views, particularly in Eastern Europe where Portman has urged the Obama administration to supply Ukraine with military equipment to deter attacks in Eastern Ukraine from Russian-backed forces.
And even though Strickland in 2002 voted against using military force to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — “the most important vote I have ever cast,” he says now — as a member of Congress he was not averse to supporting the use of force, voting in 1999 to approve U.S. air strikes to defeat the Serbians in Kosovo and in 2001 to launch attacks against al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
“I would describe myself as a hard-nosed pragmatist,” Strickland said. “It’s always preferable to have a diplomatic solution as opposed to military solutions, but we live in a very dangerous world and we need to take actions are necessary to protect our people.”
Strickland has linked Portman to Trump as much as possible, hoping to cash in on the doubts many people have about his ability to lead the country.
“Mr. Trump is dangerous and I see him as woefully uninformed or misinformed,” said Strickland, specifically mentioning statements Trump has made suggesting he wouldn’t take any nuclear option off the table, including using them in Europe.
But Portman said it is President Obama who is to blame for some of the world’s unrest. “One of my concerns is this administration and President Obama (likes to say the U.S.) leads from behind and that has created more problems and more vacuums in the South China Sea, the Middle East and Ukraine,” he said.
Among the major issues they will face:
No foreign policy issue since the Vietnam War has so thoroughly divided Americans than the war in Iraq and the ongoing ISIS insurgency. Strickland said Portman’s vote in 2002 to approve the use of force against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “does have relevance today because I am convinced that much of what we are dealing with in the Middle East today is a direct result of the decision to go into Iraq 14 years ago.”
While acknowledging he voted for the war, Portman pointed out that as members of the Senate in 2002, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voted to authorize attacks on Iraq “because the information we had at the time” suggested Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction.
“In retrospect, could the U.S. military and administration have handled Iraq better? Yes they could,” Portman said. “But the way President Obama pulled out precipitously without leaving any trainers or intelligence or special forces in the region was a huge mistake. It created a big vacuum and into that vacuum entered ISIS.”
Portman was referring Obama’s decision to remove all U.S. forces in 2011. Although former President George W. Bush originally proposed the deadline, by 2011 the military wanted to keep some forces in Iraq to stabilize the fragile government and prevent the majority Shiites from pushing the Sunnis aside.
Portman said Trump’s claim that Obama is the “founder of ISIS goes too far; it is not helpful.” But Portman said Obama and Clinton, who was secretary of state in Obama’s first term, “created the conditions for ISIS to expand and metastases in that part of the world.”
Last year, a coalition of the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany concluded a pact with Iran aimed at preventing Tehran from building a nuclear bomb for at least 15 years. Because Iran’s apparent willingness to remain a signatory to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty means Iran will be subject to rigorous international inspections for decades.
“The agreement keeps our country safer and keeps Israel safer,” Strickland said. “We had a choice between a diplomatic solution and the potential for major military conflict and we were successful in getting other countries to join us to place sanctions on Iran that brought them to the negotiating table.”
By contrast, Portman flatly asserted “this deal is not in our interests,” adding he has a “strong disagreement with Ted Strickland on the agreement. It was a bad agreement for our national security.”
Following the collapse in 2014 of a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin used troops to seize Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine and whose key port of Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Russia then backed an insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, including using some of its own forces.
Portman has been among the most outspoken lawmakers in supporting military assistance to Ukraine, saying last year it was “unconscionable” that the Obama administration would not ship arms to Ukraine.
“If Ted Strickland agrees they ought to get lethal defensive weapons, then he ought to criticize the Obama administration for not doing it,” Portman said. “It is outrageous that the administration Ted Strickland supports and the candidate (Clinton) he supports refuses to allow freedom-loving people in Ukraine to chart their own destiny.”
Strickland said “Putin is a thug. He has violated international law by annexing Crimea. I support the fact (the European Union and U.S.) have imposed sanctions on Russia. I support the continuation of those sanctions as long as Putin continues to violate international law.
“I do support assistance to Ukraine,” Strickland said. “Certainly that would not involve troops on the ground, but obviously technical support and training support.”