The United States presidential elections have entered a new phase, as Republicans and Democrats begin choosing who will be their candidate. After the February 1 Iowa caucus, there are two Democrats left — former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders — and nine Republicans. For Republicans, the current leading contenders are Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio.
In an election campaign, it is difficult to sort out which promises represent potential future policies and which are nothing more than election rhetoric. Nonetheless, with that caveat, it is possible to begin analysing the leading candidates’ foreign policy positions and considering the implications if any of them become president.
The candidates have a few things in common. They all emphasise that defeating Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a top priority. They all say US allies need to do more. They all talk about their support for Israel. But there are important differences.
The Republican candidates view the Middle East primarily through the lens of fighting “terrorism” and Iran. They compete with each other to see who is best at talking tough on national security and bashing US President Barack Obama’s foreign policies.
The Democratic candidates generally support Obama, but Sanders would be more cautious and Hillary would be significantly more assertive abroad, particularly with the use of military force.
Republicans complain that Obama lacks a foreign policy strategy, and even Hillary has implied as much. Hillary, the foreign policy veteran of the group, favours a more assertive but pragmatic foreign policy that includes a mix of diplomatic, economic, and military power. Sanders’ guiding principle is to avoid unilateral US military action. Rubio has written that “we need to replace a policy of weakness with a policy of strength”; he calls for a more interventionist America, emphasising the use of military force. Cruz uses bellicose rhetoric, but appears reluctant to commit US ground troops. Trump stokes Americans’ fears of foreign threats but offers no foreign affairs knowledge, let alone plausible policy proposals and strategy.
So what does this mean for the Middle East?
The most important foreign policy issues to the candidates — and the areas where they are most likely to implement significant change — are 1) how to deal with Daesh and conflict in Syria and Iraq and 2) how to manage the Iranian challenge.
On Syria, the Republicans work hard to out-do each other in blaming Obama for the conflict and in asserting their commitment to destroy Daesh. Trump’s first campaign ad says he will “cut the head off of [Daesh]” and “take their oil” — an example of political rhetoric detached from reality. Cruz says he will “carpet bomb” Daesh “into oblivion” and raised eyebrows when he talked about sand glowing in the dark. However, Cruz’s only apparent difference to Obama’s approach is that he would drop more bombs more indiscriminately, and he does not want to increase the US military presence on the ground. Trump and Cruz have both suggested that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad might — and maybe should — remain in power.
In contrast to the other leading candidates, Rubio and Hillary want to work to transition away from Al Assad and destroy Daesh at the same time, seeing the two as intricately linked. Both would expand the US role in the Syrian conflict, but Rubio is more aggressive in terms of military involvement. Both have proposed no-fly zones. Hillary wants to expand support for Kurdish and Arab fighters, including sending some more specialised military personnel. However, Hillary has said that sending large numbers of American combat troops into Syria or Iraq is “off the table”, while Rubio’s proposals include “a larger number of American troops on the ground”.
On Iran, Hillary and Sanders both support the nuclear agreement, though Sanders is the only candidate to express hope for an eventual normalisation of relations with Iran. Hillary talks about enforcing the nuclear deal and pushing back against Iran in other areas. The top Republican candidates all say they would immediately “tear up” or “revoke” the deal.
Hillary and the Republican candidates all want to appear tough on Iran, and as part of this, they openly or tacitly support Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states as an essential counterweight. All the candidates criticise Arab Gulf states for not doing more to fight Daesh and to combat religious extremism — but, at the same time, all also assert they want stronger partnerships with these countries. Rubio has talked about “standing with our allies” in reference to Saudi Arabia. With his usual tendency for half-baked claims, Trump has offered to defend Saudi Arabia but expects payment from Riyadh in return.
The next US president will face complex, dangerous risks in Syria, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East. The US is powerful enough that any actions have an impact on the region, but it is not in full control of any of the events there.
The Republican candidates preach the myth that the US can do anything militarily and make any actor do Washington’s bidding. If the candidates truly believe this, they are deeply unprepared to serve as president. Sanders advocates a different myth: That it is sufficient to play a supportive rather than a leading role. Only Hillary has the experience and, to date, the policy proposals to potentially succeed in coping with the risks posed by a region in conflict. Despite her flaws, she understands that there is much the US can do in the Middle East — for good or for ill — and much that it cannot do. She knows that the next president must figure out the difference.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant.