It is crunch time for the U.S presidential candidates hoping to win big in the primaries and forge ahead toward their respective parties’ nominating conventions. As usual, this scramble to the finish line is coupled with an abundance of mudslinging, fear mongering, and inflamed rhetoric about which candidate is the other’s “worst nightmare,” or who among them is “unhinged.”
While this style of politicking is an inevitable part of the process, it creates a false sense of polarization. This is particularly true in debates and discussions on U.S. foreign policy. In reality, the candidates’ stances on foreign policy issues do not diverge along party lines as much as they would like you to believe. The foreign policy debate in this election cycle, rather, is between establishment candidates advocating more or less for continuity, and disproportionately vocal fringe candidates.
To observe this dynamic, look no further than presidential candidates’ statements and plans to address global terrorism, especially in the broader Middle East region.
“The foreign policy debate in this election cycle, rather, is between establishment candidates advocating more or less for continuity, and disproportionately vocal fringe candidates.”
In mid-November 2015, current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations detailing her proposals on national security and defeating the Islamic State (or ISIS). In her speech, Clinton called for an intensification and acceleration of Obama’s current strategy. “A more effective coalition air campaign is necessary, but not sufficient,” said Clinton, “and we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS.” Later, Clinton emphasized the importance of a coalition-backed no-fly zone in northern Syria, affirmed the United States should only send special operations forces—not ground troops—to fight ISIS, and urged the U.S. Congress to pass an updated Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). She also argued that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could only be removed from power through a political, not military process.
Clinton’s counterterrorism strategy is by no means exclusively held or unanimously endorsed within the Democratic Party. In fact, Clinton’s ISIS strategy more closely resembles the plans suggested by some Republican candidates than it does the proposals of her Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), for example, proposes building “a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria with embedded U.S. forces and U.S. logistical and intelligence support to aid local fighters on the ground in destroying ISIS safe havens.” He, like Clinton, supports expanding airstrikes, coordinating with the Iraqi government and other regional allies, training Syrian rebels, and is requesting a no-fly zone and an “unconditional” AUMF against ISIS. Perhaps the most notable difference between Clinton and Rubio is Rubio’s vague assertion that it is currently favorable to develop a military plan to remove Assad.
Many of Clinton and Rubio’s points are echoed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Support Iraqi and Kurdish forces? Check. Provide U.S. air power to local ground forces? Check. Develop a diplomatic strategy for regional stability? Check. Backing and training Syrian opposition forces? Check. Establishing a no-fly zone in Syria? Check.
Now, compare these glaring bipartisan similarities to some of the statements and proposals put forth by candidates on the ideological fringes of both parties. On the Democratic side, Sanders has come out against establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. During the Democratic presidential debate on December 19, Sanders was highly critical of Clinton’s history supporting regime change—implying she would take the same approach against Assad in Syria.
On the Republican side, former candidate Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) offers a much starker contrast to rivals Rubio and Bush than Clinton does. Paul, a libertarian and isolationist, staunchly opposes U.S. troops on the ground in the fight against ISIS. He also opposes a no-fly zone, and views the AUMF as unconstitutional—advocating instead for a Congressional declaration of war to precede any U.S. military involvement.
Elsewhere in the Republican field, other candidates like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump have raised eyebrows with blustery headline-grabbing statements. Beyond threatening to seize oil fields and target ISIS families, Trump has offered few policy specifics, opting instead to label ISIS as “insane people” and threaten to “bomb the shit out of them.” Meanwhile, Cruz has advocated “carpet [bombing] them into oblivion” to find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”
“So, if our politics are dominated by a broad consensus, and the government is guided by a massive, entrenched bureaucracy that resists change, does this mean that there is no real point to debating foreign policy? Should we stop voting for a presidential candidate based on their foreign policy prescriptions? The answer is no.”
To be sure, combating terrorism is only one element of foreign policy. The broader world of U.S. foreign policy is made up of many other topics that less frequently make breaking news headlines and presidential election debate stages. Negotiations over trade, energy, global finance, diplomacy, aid, development, human rights, and intelligence, among other things, are constantly evolving. As the debate over terrorism shows, however, real policy differences cannot simply be divided along party lines.
The narrow scope and consistency of U.S. foreign policy is driven by the electability of establishment politicians in both parties and also by unelected actors. Tens of thousands of career bureaucrats, diplomats, and military and intelligence operatives populate the State Department, Pentagon, Congressional offices, and numerous intelligence and federal agencies. As administrations change and presidents and their top-level cabinet appointees come and go, these operatives remain in place, advocating on behalf of the institutions they represent and influencing policy. They are the ones who gather the intelligence, conduct the research, and draft the memos that ultimately make their way up the chain of command to the president’s desk. Michael J. Glennon examines this network in his book, National Security and Double Government, and describes the consistency of U.S. national security policy through the lens of the George W. Bush and Obama eras.
So, if our politics are dominated by a broad consensus, and the government is guided by a massive, entrenched bureaucracy that resists change, does this mean that there is no real point to debating foreign policy? Should we stop voting for a presidential candidate based on their foreign policy prescriptions? The answer is no. The challenge, then, for politicians, lawmakers, the media, and the voting public is to look past the divisive rhetoric that dominates foreign policy debates. These discussions would be much more substantive if they focused more on nuance, both between establishment candidates’ proposals and between the real ideological differences that presently struggle for oxygen on the political fringes.
Image: The current living presidents (left to right): George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.
Edward Mahabir an Intern at the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Cuba Program. He previously served as a Legislative Intern for U.S. Senator Angus S. King, Jr. of Maine. As a Program Intern at World Learning, he provided administrative support for the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where he double majored in history and eastern European studies, and minored in government. His honors thesis, “Imagery and Empire: Visual Representation and Political Authority in Imperial Russia, 1762–1917” was awarded the Dr. Samuel and Rose A. Bernstein Prize for Excellence in European History.