GOP primaries and the use of force

An article discusses the GOP primaries, “With memories of the San Bernardino and Paris massacres still fresh, Republican presidential candidates have been lambasting the White House for what they deem as the administration’s foreign policy failures. They criticise President Barack Obama for weakening the United States, undermining its leadership and credibility, and allowing its adversaries — from the Islamic State (IS), to Russia, to China — to become more menacing. To restore America’s strength, alliances, global standing, and leadership, the candidates have all, by and large (with the exception of Sen. Rand Paul), advocated greater use of force against IS, and an increased U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria. More broadly, almost all have called for a major priming of the Pentagon pump with billions of additional dollars to restore what they describe as our sapped military strength”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “Americans seem to be on their side. Recent polling shows that national security and terrorism concerns have become the most important election issue in the mind of the American public, rising from 21 percent in April to 40 percent in December, replacing jobs and the economy (which declined from 29 percent to 23 percent). According to a December 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the public disapproves of Obama’s foreign policy by a ratio of 57 to 37 percent. Even before Paris and San Bernadino, Americans saw the GOP as more able to “protect the country from international terrorism and military threats,” by an advantage of 52 to 36 percent. Internationally, the world’s problems seem to reinforce the Republican solution: toughness, bluster, and force. The globe seems messier and scarier today than it was in 2008, after all. Order in the Middle East has given way to chaos and conflict, as the region has devolved into a petri dish for breeding global jihadists. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive behaviour in eastern Ukraine pose a threat to the norms underpinning global order. China is increasingly assertive in challenging U.S. interests. The Ghani government in Afghanistan is hanging on by a thread. A two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is on life-support. And refugees fleeing the misery of the Middle East and North Africa are placing a crushing burden on Europe”.

The writer notes that these problems are fodder for GOP position on greater use of force, yet the author adds “Policies and public expenditures in pursuit of this muscular mantra would not only fail, but would also systematically weaken U.S. leadership and influence. The Republican jeremiads are wildly off base, reflecting an atavistic attachment to the world of the 1990s, when we emerged from the Cold War as the last superpower left standing. And they are grounded in several misconceptions about the nature of the world and the sources and limits of American power, resulting in magical thinking about the capacity, will, and means at our disposal to bend an increasingly unruly world to our preferences”.

Part of this analysis may be true, it is certainly no longer the 1990s but when so much of the Middle East is wrong under Obama’s inaction some use of force should be considered.

The author notes that “Republican rhetoric is replete with calls to restore the leadership of the United States, as the most powerful, indispensable, and exceptional nation. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) captures this view well, though he is not alone. For Rubio, the United States is the natural, inevitable, and indispensable leader. “America plays a part on the world stage for which there is no understudy. When we fail to lead with strength and principle, no other country, friend or foe, is willing or able to take our place. And the result is chaos,” Rubio says on his campaign website”.

The writer adds correctly, that “The call to restore American leadership and its dominant international role is a consistent theme for Republican presidential candidates. It is a dangerous one, because the world has changed in a fundamental way. The United States is simply no longer a global goliath bestriding a unipolar world. Turkey no longer jumps when America says frog. Putin is unmoved by U.S. demands. China is clearly expanding its own role, creating international economic organisations that include most of its closest allies but not the United States. The raw measures of military and economic power that are typically invoked to rebut the relative change in global power are not easily converted into the currency of diplomatic leverage”.

He notes that power is about coalitions, yet this was always the case even in the heady days of the 1990s, “Insisting that the United States take the lead in international events, crises, and conflicts, would be counter-productive. An elusive quest to restore a unipolar world order run from Washington leads to behavior at odds with the requirements of effective diplomacy in a rebalanced, multipolar world”.

The piece goes on to mention that “asserting U.S. control, as the GOP field suggests, vastly overstates the degree to which we are responsible for or could change global realities and problems. To recognise this reality is not declinism or abandoning the field, as Rubio suggests — it is realism”.

Certainly this is true and the GOP would do well to recognise this. However, the utility of well placed and well planned power should not be forgotten either, as Obama seems to have done.

Correctly he does write that “The argument that U.S. military power has declined and that its revival is the key to restoring our global leadership is  false. This is because this idea deliberately understates current U.S. military capabilities. The Republicans conveniently avoid the reality that U.S. defence spending is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next eight countries with the highest levels of defence spending”.

He makes the point that “The Republican argument is also misleading. It substitutes measures of military capability and the assertive use of military force for sound foreign policy judgment. U.S. military power is useful and necessary for many good things: it can help maintain a favourable balance of global power, support freedom of navigation, deter aggression against allies and friends, demonstrate the credibility of U.S. security commitments, respond to humanitarian disasters, provide critical support for American diplomacy, and, embedded in a broader policy context, contribute to the struggle with terrorist organisations”.

Yet the key to a successful foreign policy is not sound judgement or force but sound judgement when using force! It is not an either/or decision but both are needed. Obama has strayed too far from this balance.

We cannot solve everything

He does correctly write that the US cannot “solve everything”, “Chest-thumping over American leadership, decline, and military power makes for good Republican primary politics. Doing so preserves the illusion that the United States is omnipotent and can fix everything. But it will make terrible policy, frustrating international success and breeding international mistrust and wariness — the opposite of what we need to play an appropriate leadership role”.

He ends “No Republican candidate is running clearly against this rhetorical tide (and even the leading Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton embraces many of the flawed assumptions underlying the GOP foreign policy doctrine described here). Rand Paul appeared to try, but his message is being drowned out, as his polling numbers reveal. Bernie Sanders has a different message, but it is likely to fail. The real debate about how the United States should engage with the world will probably have to wait for the general election, and even then, a full debate is not certain. In the meantime, prepare for a tidal wave of empty, dangerous bluster and belligerent rhetoric instead of thoughtful proposals for how we should engage in the restructured world of global relations”.



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