Following a series of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and France, national security has become a vital issue in the continuing contest between the Democratic and Republican parties for the hearts and minds of the American voters. Americans were particularly shocked by the Paris attacks, in a city seemingly far removed from the conflict zone of the Middle East, and especially considering the long and close relationship between the US and France. Reacting with an almost post-911 frenzy, American pundits and social media commentators ratcheted up the panic level to maximum. Seemingly reading the temperature of frightened Americans, the US House of Representatives pushed through House bill 4038, restricting the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the US. Numerous state governments also issued arguably illegal restrictions of refugees to their own states as well, ignoring increasing evidence that refugees in France were not involved in the attacks (perpetrated by French and Belgian nationals), and contradicting France’s own immediate response of welcoming even more refugees. As the election year draws ever closer, American voters will consider the two major parties’ (and their candidates’) responses to terror and their positions on national security policy.
First on the radar screen at the moment is Daesh (or the Islamic State; the author prefers the former term particularly as the group finds that term to be offensive to their image), the group behind last week’s terror. Sadly, neither party has a cohesive plan (let alone an exit strategy) for pursuing war, with both parties apparently employing a “one-piece-at-a-time” chess-game strategy. Candidates from both parties are reluctant to engage in another seemingly indefinite ground war, and the complexities of the Syrian civil war perplex the candidates on all sides. Trump, Cruz, Bush and Christie (and Clinton on the Democratic stage) all urge a greater use of US airpower (most unrealistic is Trump’s focus on destroying oil facilities, which are of only minimal value in petroleum-poor Syria). Trump and Carson both urge a greater ground effort in Iraq (containing Daesh to Syria, though neither candidate is willing to use the term “containment” to describe their strategy). Bush has, since the latest wave of attacks, begun to favor the use of ground forces, but has not specified where or how, or how many, or with what objectives. Paul wavers indecisively between calling the use of ground forces “unconstitutional,” and stating that he would use “…overwhelming force. I wouldn’t mess around.” He is as devoid of details as Bush, however. Kasich favors invoking Article V of the NATO agreement, to “take care of business and come home,” but also has not said how either the deployment or the coming home would actually work. Finally, Sanders, still trying to maintain relevance against Clinton’s rising popularity among Democrats, calls for a new, greater coalition (including Russia as well as the Muslim states of the Middle East). Sanders, however, has not been able to explain how to defuse the increasing hostility and suspicion between the US and Russia. With Russia bombing anti-Assad groups who have been aided by the US, there is much to do if Russia and the US are to work together instead of seeing the war as a zero-sum conflict between themselves. No one on either side of the partisan divide has successfully addressed that issue.
Another issue of the Syrian war is the status of refugees seeking to escape the war zone. On this issue, the parties have spelt out their differences far more prominently. Republicans pushed through the House bill, and most of the state efforts to restrict refugees have come from Republican governors. Republican candidates have said little to oppose restrictions, and have even called for “religious tests” denying Muslims refuge in favor of Christians. Trump has even echoed Nazi racial programs by calling for the “registration” of Muslim refugees. Sanders and Clinton have both (in league with President Obama) attacked such as un-American and un-Christian; and that argument has resonated with the evangelical community (normally a Republican stronghold). Various commentators have linked Republican language of restrictions to Daesh’s specific goal of dividing America from the Muslim community, calling the Republicans out for surrendering in one fell swoop the terrorists’ most immediate political objective.
Taking the bipartisan confusion about the Syrian war together with the clear partisan divergence on the greater philosophy of conflict and engagement, we can define a reluctant tendency of a few Republican hotheads to push for a greater “imperial overreach,” while most candidates agree that a new war may simply not be in our national interest. The Democrats, while being only slightly more (but questionably) reasoned and willing to lean on allies and other powers, see a clear link between the pursuit of war policy in the Middle East and maintaining our “shining City on a Hill” through one of our most American and liberal values, the compassion for refugees seeking a better life in a civil society. Republicans are more willing to sink to the lowest common denominator of popular suspicion and resentment of the “Other,” and choose to empower themselves in a confusing conflict by taking power from those seeking asylum. As with so many other issues, the Democrats’ approach seeks to build the City on a Hill; whereas the Republicans want only to wave the flag while denying its true meaning and value. The Democrats’ approach also de-emphasizes the military aspect of the conflict in favor of the greater political conflict, while the Republicans confusedly wallow in the mud over tactical military problems without a greater appreciation of the politics driving the issue.
Iran is another issue more cohesively dividing the parties, both as an actor in the Syrian war, and as a power seeking a greater role in regional affairs. All candidates recognize that Iran and Daesh are inherently opposed to each other, but they also fear what an increased role for Iran in Syria would mean for Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and other regional states and issues. Clearly as the US looks to regional states to step up and defeat Daesh, Iran’s massive and well-equipped military poses as a major potential ally; but a sudden US-Iran relationship could not be formed from that foundation alone, particularly as long as Iran and Israel both remain inherently hostile to each other. As with Russia, Iran shows something of a zero-sum game approach to the conflict, with an Iranian defeat of Daesh as not necessarily in the strategic interest of the US (and with Iran viewing a potential US defeat of Daesh through a similar lens). Neither US political party has developed a viable pathway to a US-Iran partnership on Syria.
Iran’s search for greater regional power and relevance further conflicts with American security policy on the nuclear weapons issue. Flanked by a hostile, nuclear-armed Israel to one side, and a hostile, nuclear-armed Pakistan to the other, and faced continuously by US naval forces in the Persian Gulf (themselves obviously backed by a massive nuclear deterrent), Iran has obvious motivations for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Such a capability would force the US to use greater reflection before employing its military forces against Iran, and could theoretically increase Iranian prestige in the region (albeit also triggering a regional arms race, as Iran’s other regional rivals would seek to acquire their own nuclear deterrents). The US, wishing to keep its military options on the table (and also fearing a potential Israeli-Iranian nuclear exchange), wishes also to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. This issue has driven the past year’s antagonistic partisan debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and related agreements, by which Iran has agreed to surrender the vast majority of its nuclear weapons production potential (in both its on-hand materials and its processing capacity). Republicans responded to their growing irrelevance in international politics with alarmist misrepresentations of the agreement (relying on their supporters’ reluctance to read 160-page technical agreements). The Democrats, on the other hand, were able to brush aside Republican arguments, although they did face some difficulties over Republican accusations regarding “secret language” in the Additional Protocols. Nevertheless, the Democrats secured a victory both internationally as well as domestically, in first pushing Iran to the peace table (through Clinton’s construction, as Secretary of State, of a rigid international sanctions environment), and second in getting the agreement approved over the opposition of the conservatives of both nations.
Another major security problem for the US is Russian expansionism. Republicans have scored points by recalling Obama’s 2012 criticism of Mitt Romney, telling the governor that US-Russian conflict was a thing of the past. Sanders hopes in effect to prove Obama right by developing a more productive relationship with Russia; but has not indicated how he would make that happen. The Republicans dither between Trump and Fiorina imagining themselves using their corporate boardroom experience to build a better relationship (disregarding the historic lack of success that American business leaders have had in using business strategy in international politics), and Carson’s details-free “position of strength” exhortations. Clinton is the only candidate with actual experience in negotiating with Russia and Putin; although her track record there is a combination of both successes and failures. Otherwise, Republicans do not actually say what they would do differently from each other, or from Obama. They attack Obama as somehow impotent in the face of Russian expansion into the Ukraine and Syria; but they ignore their own party’s failure in preventing or halting an actual outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. They have offered no actual solutions not already explored or implemented, only insisting that their sheer Republicanness would somehow force Putin to back down (despite the fact that that did not work the last time they tried it). The Democrats, with Sanders’ vague intent to partner with Russia, and Clinton’s actual experience in doing so, therefore show a modest superiority over the Republicans, who seem more confused and torn over what to do (and over how to frame a campaign statement about it).
Finally, the Democrats claim a right to a major national security interest that the Republicans have traditionally denied en masse: the threat posed by climate change. A few of the current flock of “clown car” candidates, however, see the issue as an arena in which to grab moderate American voters, and so the GOP’s diversity on that issue has grown. Trump, Huckabee, Cruz, and Carson are still flatly in denial; while Fiorina, Rubio, and Paul are willing to concede that something freaky is happening, but all demonstrably oppose any government action to limit or reverse the process. Kasich, Christie, and Bush all recognize climate change as the real result of human actions; but they only see the need for the most limited of government action to curtail the problem. Clinton can also be shown as having only limited commitment, having (while serving as Secretary of State) pushed fossil-fuels development as a key to foreign states’ overall energy independence; but her language is far more hawkish and she supports the president’s Clean Power Plan. She may well have been steered to the left by Sanders’ more inflammatory language (describing climate change, at least before the recent wave of attacks, as the greatest threat to the US). Martin O’Malley has fought for relevance from his single-digit approval ratings by in part pushing a far more detailed and comprehensive Clean Energy plan than have either of his Democratic rivals. Both parties have therefore used the issue not merely to hammer the other party, but as an in-party arena to attract different political constituencies. However, across the board, the Democrats have called unapologetically for greater action, while the Republicans’ most “radical” elements call simply for limited action at best, preferring to rely on private corporations’ good will to accomplish energy transformation and ecological protections. The most popular Republican candidates fall on the flat denial side (although collectively those “most popular candidates” still poll at less than half among total Republican supporters). Overall, the Democrats continue to be the party most willing to pursue actual reform on environmental and energy policy.
The Democrats can lay claim, therefore to being the US’s “National Security Party,” having by far the more coherent view of American security interests, as well as potential solutions to current problems. Neither party really has much of a vision for Syria; but the Republican “fire and forget” military strategy applied in Iraq (and which created the Daesh problem in the first place) still remains their preferred alternative. The Democrats see the need for a more philosophically consistent political conflict, between the American City on a Hill and an extremist, deliberately antidemocratic way of life, using our nation’s greatest assets and the power of modern information systems to push Daesh into irrelevance while using limited military efforts to neutralize physical targets as they manifest themselves. The Democrats also have a far better plan (and history) of dealing with Iran, although there, too, both parties suffer from strategic myopia. Even more short-sightedness is evident on the Russian front; but the Democrats have the greater experience and willingness not just to talk but also to listen, a fundamental step to repairing relationships. Finally, on climate change, the Democrats have a much clearer vision of both the scope of the problem and the venue for solutions, a vision far more consistent with the actual data acquired by climate scientists. As we near the start of the election year, the Democrats have demonstrated themselves as the party most capable of facing and solving our most vital national security problems.