The long shadow of the Middle East in US elections

Friday 01/01/2016
Playing it safe. Democratic presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and Hillary Clinton take part in a presidential debate in Las Vegas, last October.

Washington - Although the famous mantra from the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign — “It’s the economy, stupid!” — has become a staple of US presidential campaign politics, occasionally for­eign policy issues have risen to the forefront. The 2016 elections are likely to be one of those times.
Some of this focus is because of developments in the Middle East — the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian refugee crisis, the Iran nuclear deal and sporadic violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But some of this atten­tion is because of the outrageous comments by a leading Republi­can presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who has played on Ameri­can public fears of Middle East-in­spired terrorism at home.
Trump’s demagoguery, such as his comments that all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States, that American Mus­lims should have special identifica­tion cards noting their religion and that many mosques in the United States should be shut down, con­sumed the news spotlight in late 2015 and will likely carry on into 2016.
His Republican presidential ri­vals have been forced to react to him. Although most denounced his comment that Muslims should be barred from entering the Unit­ed States, they equivocated on his earlier anti-Muslim diatribes. And his current leading rival, US Sena­tor Ted Cruz, R-Texas, when asked about Trump’s comments on de­nying entry to Muslims, only said those “are not my views”.
Because nearly half of Republican primary voters support Trump’s anti-Muslim views, according to recent polls, his Republican rivals are trying to be careful not to alien­ate his angry base. These rivals are all hoping Trump will fade but as the American author Mark Twain once quipped: “News of my death is greatly exaggerated.” Another terrorist attack in the United States would likely bolster Trump’s sup­port.
Trump is likely to capture a sub­stantial number of Republican Party delegates leading up to the party’s nominating convention next summer and he will do so by making more outrageous com­ments. Republican officials are talk­ing about a “brokered” convention, in which they hope to stop Trump from winning by coalescing around another candidate. Because a ma­jority of Americans do not agree with Trump, Republican Party of­ficials fear a Trump candidacy will make it easier for leading Demo­cratic candidate Hillary Clinton to win the presidency.
Clinton has denounced Trump’s anti-Muslim views as being against American values but she has also taken a hawkish stance on the Is­lamic State (ISIS) by supporting a no-fly zone in Syria. Clinton seems to believe that the foreign policy debate in 2016 will focus on how to defeat ISIS and she has staked out a more aggressive position than President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have fallen on this issue.
Although most Republican presi­dential candidates will continue to attack Clinton for serving in a “weak” Obama administration, she is hoping that her position on Syria will protect her right flank in a gen­eral election.
Her two Democratic rivals are try­ing to paint her as irresponsible for advocating a more robust US mili­tary intervention in Syria but she has only been gaining in the polls. This may be in part because ISIS’s attacks in Paris and the apparently ISIS-inspired attack in California have shifted the public’s position: Half of all Americans now support sending US combat troops to help defeat ISIS.
So far, only former presidential candidate Senator Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, has consistently called for 10,000 US ground troops to fight ISIS. All of the other Repub­lican candidates say that Obama should do more but have been vague on offering alternatives. It is possible that before the campaign is over, other Republican candi­dates will join Graham in calling for ground troops.
On Iran, the Republican candi­dates will continue to criticise both Obama and Clinton on the nuclear deal (Obama for negotiating it and Clinton for supporting it) but it is doubtful that this issue will surpass the Muslim/refugee and ISIS issues as a top priority for the American public. While most Americans re­main distrustful of Iran, most also do not want to go to war with it. If Iran fulfils its promises on the nu­clear deal, the issue will likely fade.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict, Republican candidates will continue to pander to the Christian fundamentalist wing of the party and Jewish Republicans by stak­ing out a position in favour of Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Ne­tanyahu’s hawkish positions. But unqualified support for Israel is a thing of the past, as many Demo­crats are openly critical of Netan­yahu’s policies. Clinton will play it safe by being wholeheartedly sup­portive of Israel but not necessarily of Netanyahu.