The Debate We Have, the Debate We Need

Since the end of the Vietnam War, every US president has been consumed with and defined by events in the Middle East. During all this time, we spent more money, sent more troops, fought more wars, lost more lives, and expended more political capital in that region than anywhere else in the world.  And yet despite this, we continue to suffer from two disturbing maladies: a profound ignorance or, in some instances, a willed ignorance about the Middle East and its peoples, and a failure to engage in reasoned discourse about how we can constructively engage a range of critical problems we face across that region.

I have been following presidential debates for decades now, hoping against hope that either the candidates or the media personalities who question them would provoke a serious discussion about key Middle East issues. Most often, I am disappointed since these matters are either ignored or addressed in glib generalities, which describes perfectly how they were handled in first two Republican debates. When foreign policy was discussed at all, it was limited to either exaggerated expressions of love for Israel or contempt for Barack Obama’s “weakness” and what was mistakenly referred to as “his” Iran deal. Carly Fiorina, for example, pledged that "on day one in the Oval Office, [her first phone call will be] to my good friend Bibi to reassure him that we will stand with the State of Israel", while Ted Cruz promised "to cancel the Iran deal and move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem".  Others denounced President Obama's "weakness" and pledged their support for a tougher approach in Syria, with Jeb Bush holding up as an example his brother's "forceful" response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which he bizarrely claimed had made America safer and more respected in the world.

While the two GOP debates were disturbing and empty, this week's Democratic presidential debate was a bit more promising, featuring a significant discussion as to whether the use of force by the US in Iraq, Syria, and Libya was warranted and effective.

Four of the Democratic contenders vigorously challenged Hillary Clinton's full-throated support of and vote for George Bush's war in Iraq. Bernie Sanders went so far as to refer to the Iraq war as "the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country", with Lincoln Chafee asking whether Clinton's vote for the war called into question her judgment and her fitness to serve as Commander in Chief. Questions were also raised about the role Clinton played in encouraging Obama to use military force in Libya, and her support for US air power to create no-fly "safe zones" in Syria.

These substantive challenges were grounded in an understanding shared by most Democrats that the war in Iraq had been a devastating failure - based on a lie and resulting in regional instability, an emboldened Iran, a weakening of the US military, and a tarnished US image.

As encouraging as these thoughtful challenges were, I was troubled by Clinton's hollow responses and the fact that they went unchallenged by the mainstream media. For example, she dismissed the charge that she had failed to demonstrate good judgment in Iraq, glibly suggesting that when Obama appointed her as Secretary of State, he had, in effect, absolved her of bad judgment. She defended her role in Libya calling it "smart power at its best" and claiming that it resulted in "free elections" in which "moderates" won with the hope of creating a democracy - ignoring the chaos and bloody conflict that soon followed. She also made the evidence-free claim that using military force to create no-fly "safe zones" in Syria would "get the Russians to the table" and would not, as critics charge, simply be pouring more gasoline on the Syrian fire.          

The Democratic debate was a good start and I can hope for more, but fear that more may not come for three reasons. It will not come from Republicans, since party has become captive of neo-conservatives and the Evangelical right. These movements have substituted facts with ideology.  They see the world through a primitive lens of good and evil and have replaced diplomacy with the simplistic use of force. Added to this, too many Republicans have become xenophobic, demonizing Arabs and Muslims, in addition to Hispanics. Today's GOP is not the party of George HW Bush and James Baker.

But Democrats also have a problem. For too long its political leaders have ignored dealing with the uncomfortable complexities of the Middle East because it simply didn't serve any political advantage to know about Arabs and Muslims. All they had to know was that we had an "unbreakable bond with Israel". Seeing the Arab World through this lens led too many politicians to either remain ignorant of Middle East realities or, if they did know, to fail to shy away from elevating these issues into the national debate. As a result, Democrats can debate the use of military force, but are either uncomfortable with or averse to questioning Israeli policies or the treatment of Palestinians, or discussing the political dynamics that shape Arab political realities, or identifying the root causes of conflict in Syria or Iraq.   

Finally there is the role played by the media and their paid commentators who are all too often mere purveyors of conventional wisdom. Because they frequently know less than the candidates they are covering, they are ill equipped to challenge them or to report on their dangerous and/or trite responses to critical foreign policy questions.

As a result, while I'm pleased that we are seeing at least Democrats having a substantive discussion on the use of force in Middle East conflicts, it’s still not the serious and comprehensive discussion about US policy in the Middle East we so desperately need.


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