What the Presidential Candidates Get Wrong About the Middle East

In a nutshell: everything.


John Kasich will likely never be the Republican nominee for president. There are many reasons for that, including the fact that he can’t get himself to go along with the inanities that his fellow candidates tend to proffer during debates.

“I gotta tell you, this is just crazy, huh? This is just nuts, OK?” he said in exasperation during the CBS News debate in South Carolina, when Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were in the middle of a heated argument about the Iraq War and things got very personal. Bush complained that Trump had gone after his mother, Barbara Bush, who he described as “the strongest person I know.” The billionaire replied that perhaps then she should run for president instead.

I’ve been covering the campaign trail, trekking in the snow from Iowa to New Hampshire, then to the warmer climes of South Carolina and Nevada, and I’ve watched the spectacle of the GOP race with occasional bewilderment. When I listen to most of the American presidential candidates, including the Democrats, speak about the Middle East, it also makes me deeply anxious about the future of my region.

From promises to make the desert sand glow in the dark and ban all Muslims from entering the United States to uninformed proposals suggesting that sworn enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia fight together against the so-called Islamic State, the region is the part of the world both most talked about and least understood.

Of course, being a scholar of Arab history is not a prerequisite for running for president of the United States, and any candidate who reaches the White House will surround himself or herself with knowledgeable advisors.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the Middle East’s many conflicts will present the next president with a key challenge. These struggles are reconfiguring the balance of power between countries in the region and international players, such as Russia. And so far, most of the candidates have shown little understanding of what’s at stake.

Donald Trump is, of course, the one making most of the headlines, starting with his statement about banning all Muslims from entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.”

That second half of the statement is what intrigues me most: What is going on, beyond a complicated conflict that is spiraling out of control? Trump’s anti-Muslim statement alludes to a conspiracy of sorts, some secret plan by Muslims of the world to take over the United States. Trump appears prone to such conspiracy thinking on other issues as well, and he feeds that tendency in his supporters.

He has been right on one count. “Iraq is a disaster.… Libya is not even a country,” Trump said during an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press. “You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it’s a mess. If you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it’s a mess.”

Well, it is a mess. The war in Iraq and the demons it unleashed contributed to the rise of the Islamic State more than a decade later. But Trump’s solution seems to be to maintain strongmen in power and encourage brute force, including by U.S. forces. He praised Saddam Hussein for “kill[ing] terrorists,” and his campaign manager suggested President Bashar al-Assad is keeping things in check in Syria — though the country has been unraveling at breakneck speed. Meanwhile, Trump has come out in support of torture, saying that he would bring back waterboarding, and even “approve more than that.”

Trump frames everything as a business deal — and for him, the money that Washington pours into maintaining bases and supporting allies around the world gets America nothing in return. As Thomas Wright from the Brookings Institution recently wrote, Trump believes that “America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II” and points out that Trump believes the United States should in effect make its allies pay for protection.

That’s an interesting business proposition, but it overlooks the intricate balance of benefits and costs that is involved in building alliances.

Marco Rubio is the GOP candidate who speaks with the most fluency about the Middle East, and he’s also the only candidate who has outlined a plan to fight the Islamic State — though it is actually fairly close to President Barack Obama’s current strategy. At first glance, the Florida senator sounds measured — but if you listen closely, he feeds fear and anti-Muslim sentiments.

On Christmas Eve, for instance, Rubio bought a gun, invoking the threat posed by foreign jihadis as his reason for needing it. “If ISIS were to visit us or our communities at any moment, the last line of defense between ISIS and my family is the ability that I have to protect my family from them or from a criminal or anyone else who seeks to do us harm,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “Millions of Americans feel that way.”

If Obama gets criticized for understating the threat and downplaying people’s fears, Rubio is overplaying it — manipulating people’s fears by giving them the impression that the Islamic State is at the gates.

When Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore earlier this month, his first visit to a mosque in the United States, in an effort to promote inclusion and reject anti-Muslim bigotry, Rubio accused the president of “always pitting people against each other.”

His objection was that Obama sought to draw attention to discrimination against Muslims at home, rather than focusing exclusively on the threat posed by extremists.

“Look at today: He gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims,” Rubio said. “Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam.”

Ted Cruz’s positions, meanwhile, can be summed up in three points: He is an advocate of carpet-bombing (which will apparently make the sand glow); he told Arab Christians that their best ally is Israel and was subsequently booed off the stage at an event in Washington; and he has huge plans to expand the military. This sounds like a recipe for Bush-era interventionism, on steroids.

The Democrats fare much better in their debates. Whether you support Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy views or not, her knowledge of the issues, the players, and the stakes is unparalleled. Clinton no longer makes bombastic, sweeping statements like the one she made in 2008, when she promised to “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel.

But Clinton has also failed to address a few thorny questions about her record head-on. She has stood by her support for the Libyan intervention in 2011 and rightly pointed out that in the year that followed the war, and her last year in office, Libya held successful democratic elections.

But as the United States struggles to contain the growing threat of the Islamic State in Libya, she will have to better explain the unraveling and why she still believes her decision was the right one — a tough task, if she wants to avoid criticizing the president and his handling of the Middle East since she left the State Department.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has been criticized repeatedly for his limited knowledge of foreign policy and his lack of foreign-policy advisors, so he clearly read up on the issues before the last debate in Milwaukee and delivered a typical liberal lecture about the evils of U.S. interventions overseas.

“This has gone on 50 or 60 years where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments,” he said, citing the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. “As a result of that, the shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator. The result of that, you had the Iranian revolution coming in, and that is where we are today. Unintended consequence.”

Sanders has a point when he warns about the unintended consequences of American actions overseas — but the world, and the United States, has changed tremendously since the 1980s, seemingly the last time Sanders took an interest in foreign affairs.

Of course, it’s not just the candidates who get the Middle East wrong. Even President Barack Obama has been guilty of glib pronouncements — such as in this year’s State of the Union address, when he said: “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

This is not only factually incorrect, but it takes U.S. foreign policy in a risky direction. First, it signals that what happens in the Middle East is out of America’s control, even though the United States is in fact a key player in the region. Secondly, it perpetuates the myth that the Middle East is condemned to be a mess because of its incomprehensible politics and religious rivalries.

But is the Middle East really more complicated than Asia, where today’s tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands, go back to 1885? Or Europe, where Belfast still has walls separating Protestant and Catholic communities and Brussels faces tensions between the Walloon and Flemish communities that recently left the country without a government for more than a year?

I’ll be the first to admit the Middle East’s conflicts all seem to be erupting at the same time, but it’s too facile to dismiss the region as a hellhole that the United States just needs to stay out of or bomb to smithereens.

Whoever becomes America’s 45th president simply can’t afford to remain ignorant about the Middle East. Divorcing the United States from its problems is not an option — not when the region is imploding and seems to be taking part of the world down with it. Just ask Europe, where the refugee crisis is now being described as an existential threat. The next president of the United States, whoever he or she is, needs to start reading up.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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