Campaign Consequences Could Come Early This Year

As U.S. presidential candidates talk tough on ISIS and blast Obama for the Iran deal, their grandstanding on international politics could have real-world repercussions -- and soon.

Real estate tycoon Donald Trump (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (L) arrive on stage for the Republican presidential primary debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Real estate tycoon Donald Trump (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (L) arrive on stage for the Republican presidential primary debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Ach, we are already in election campaign season. A time when reason and realism fly out the window, leaving behind a disorderly cacophony of rhetoric, much of which is aimed at positioning a candidate. The foreign-policy and national security rhetoric in this campaign season, largely on the Republican side, is an obvious appeal for primary votes, but it has little to do with explaining global realities or real foreign-policy and national security challenges and opportunities.

It will be a hard chore to sort through this rhetorical swamp for the next 18 months, until the next president is inaugurated. Most of it needs to be drained into the septic tank of history — that is to say, ignored. But that will be hard. Position papers will fly; surrogate representatives for the candidates will pontificate at issue fora; accusations and debate points will be scored.

Hopefully, the rest of the world will patiently stand by until the election is sorted out, understanding that it is the normal American political circus, and some kind of reason will reassert itself in January 2017. But there is grave risk for our national security posed by the rhetoric that will fly over the next year and a half, and a severe, even tragic downside if that rhetoric ever became policy.

For example: Donald Trump gets popular resonance when he describes Mexican immigrants as “killers and rapists,” while at the same time calling their government “much smarter, much sharper, [and] much more cunning” than ours, thereby both demeaning and glorifying our neighbor. Not only are Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States insulted, but also relations with the Mexican government have then become more difficult, as the Mexican people react to these caricatures.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz says that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is talking “nonsense” — when Dempsey argued that the ultimate solution to the war the Islamic State has started in the Middle East is not a military one, but a political and economic one — revealing Cruz’s strategic ignorance about the nature of the relationship between military, political, and economic capabilities and insulting the chairman at the same time. The consequence in this case would be that tension and hostility toward the United States increases in the region; actually sending large ground forces to the region would amplify the existing regional blowback against the United States.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), God bless him, in what Defense One referred to as “straight talk,” is calling for the deployment of 20,000 American troops to Iraq and Syria in order to defeat the Islamic State. A plan which amply demonstrates his ignorance of what happened the last time a large number of American troops went into the Middle East — I’m thinking back to when troops were sent to Iraq in 2003, which stimulated terrorist recruitment and chaos in that country.

Former governor Jeb Bush says that the rise of the Islamic State is President Barack Obama’s fault (ignoring his brother’s key role in fostering instability in Iraq), and argues that the Iran nuclear deal should be rejected to assist the fight against the Islamic State, exposing how little he understands the anti-Islamic State role being played by Iran. The Iranian reaction could well be more confrontational, jeopardizing the recent nuclear accord; ending the agreement could lead directly to a military conflict the United States would want to avoid.

Most of the current crop of Republicans in the electoral clown car are clueless about the underlying dynamics of change in the international system, which will bedevil whichever one of them ends up as president. But the underlying changes in the global system are rapidly making this kind of electoral rhetoric not only potentially dangerous, but seriously counterproductive. (Frankly, Clinton’s foreign-policy positions, to the degree they are known, are nearly as clueless.)

There is a kind of nugatory electoral huddle emerging in this campaign season, with candidates of both parties pushing to the center right on foreign policy, all trying to argue that U.S. leadership needs to be “restored,” that Obama’s foreign policy is “weak and ineffectual,” and that the result has been “a perceived global power vacuum” that has been “rapidly filled by bad actors” like China, Russia, and the Islamic State. Even experienced foreign-policy hands like former Secretary of Defense William Cohen are saying that the United States is not exercising leadership in the Middle East and “sounding an uncertain trumpet” globally. The only apparent outliers in the foreign-policy arena seem to be Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (to some extent) and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who both appear to share (accidentally) a more constrained view about the level of U.S. international engagement.

There is more than political rhetoric behind this cluelessness, though political campaigning will make it hard to detect the underlying reality. At the root of this world view is the continuing inability of U.S. policymakers to deal with the reality that the global power balance is inevitably shifting and the United States can no longer, as Cassius put it in Julius Caesar, “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.” The hardest myth to fall in American statecraft is, and may always be, the illusion that when the United States says “frog,” the rest of the world must, inevitably, jump.

This expectation is seen everywhere; it is a hardy illusion. Every Republican but Rand Paul wants to expand the military and raise its budget. Richard Allen, former national security advisor to Ronald Reagan, briefed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a rising Republican candidate, that the Navy must expand to at least 350 ships because “the United States needs to project power very quickly to virtually every point on the globe.” Kasich agreed, arguing that “we are a light for the whole world.”

Republican candidates are not alone in making this argument; the disease of “global leadership” is widespread in American statecraft. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has been clear: “Everything that I have done and seen has convinced me that America remains the ‘indispensable nation.’” Dempsey put a military point to that view, asserting in the recently released National Military Strategy that America’s military needed to be “globally engaged to shape the security environment.”

The global leadership, global military presence, and even the “toughness” arguments seem to trip off the tongue, without thinking. And yet, this is not the same globe, the same international system, as the one the Cold War presented to the United States. I have been arguing in this column for some time that the global system is shifting; the balance of power is changing; and the need for the United States to adapt to that change is compelling.

Like the Edwardian era before World War I, the dominant power (it was powers, then) does not easily abandon its habits, assumptions, and definition of what leadership means. The consequences of the failure to adapt can be tragic. There is change aplenty in the system today, with a reassertive Russia arming itself, a rising China putting its national security money where its economic mouth was, and turmoil in the Middle East.

While most of the Republican candidates want to assert that all these changes are the result of weak and feckless American leadership — aka: an Obama “retreat”– America’s absolute power is relatively static. The United States still has the largest economy, a huge proportion of international trade, a powerful magnet for overseas capital, and by far the world’s dominant military (despite the desire of Republican candidates to say we need to “rebuild” our military), both technologically and numerically.

The global reality is that these economic and military assets no longer buy the United States the same kind of influence as they have in the past. It was very well and good for the United States to drive the international economic and security agenda in the 1940s and 1950s, when no other country had either the economic or military assets the Americans did. A weak China looked to the United States for a relationship in the 1970s to balance out the Soviet Union, giving the United States some sway in Asia. Russia simply stood by as the United States and its security instrument — NATO — added the former Warsaw Pact countries to the alliance.

But the rebalancing of the international system today has systematically eroded the ability of the United States to play the “exceptional” nation or to reassert its global “leadership.” This tectonic change is not the result of failed U.S. leadership or a U.S. withdrawal from the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin was determined to restore what he could of Russian greatness, regardless of what Washington did. China’s rise is inevitable, and, unless the United States wanted to go to war, its plan to reshape its ocean perimeter was well-announced in advance. The erosion of the 100-year-old boundaries in the Middle East was likely, at some point, as was an explosion of Sunni-Shiite tension.

The experience of the last 15 years amply demonstrates the dangers inherent in trying to “restore” U.S. primacy. U.S. policies, described as “leadership,” have actually accelerated the rebalancing of the system. Invading Iraq as an assertion of global primacy, thereby disrupting the regional balance in the Middle East, contributed significantly to religious and ethnic strife that weakened the existing architecture in the Middle East and to a more assertive Iran, as well as growing negative feelings about the United States. Claiming victory in the Cold War and inserting Central European countries into the U.S. security system, which made sense to many, directly contributed to the desire in Moscow to reassert Russian greatness.

Demanding a reassertion of something that is largely dead and gone, as most of the Republican candidates are doing, is a trap. American “leadership” over the past 15 years has helped stimulate the very disintegration of the old system the politicians now decry. Doubling down by regressing to archaic formulae and language is a high-risk proposition. In the near term, campaign rhetoric is likely to accelerate even more the trend in other countries — Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Germany, China — to step back from instantly jumping when America says “frog.”

Were almost any of these candidates to arrive in office and act on their rhetoric by demanding leadership for the United States, demanding that others follow, increasing the U.S. defense budget even more (all but Sanders and Paul seem to favor this), sending significant ground forces to the Middle East, deploying a larger Navy around the world, and maintaining special operations forces in 150 countries to “build partner capacity,” it could become a strategic tragedy.

By tragedy, I mean that the outcome of such actions, which seem to be driven by “good intentions” but are based on a fundamental ignorance of global realities, could have the exact opposite consequences. Rather like Oedipus leaving his mother and father to avoid a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, only to kill his father and marry his mother without knowing he was doing it. Demanding American leadership may lead to the death of that leadership. It provokes the very hostility it is intended to prevent. Candidates and policymakers today walk blindly toward that horizon, thinking it good politics to do so. They are clueless about the impact of their words in a rebalancing global system. The rhetoric today is not helping; the outcome of trying to hold back the global tide could be fatal to American national security after the election.


Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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