The debate on U.S. foreign policy

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The debate on U.S. foreign policy

The Republican debate among the party’s presidential candidates this week focused on foreign policy. The debate provided some interesting - but disturbing - insights into the current state of the American psyche. But it also revealed interesting fissures among Republicans on significant foreign policy issues.

The most striking thing about the debate was the overwhelming focus on the Islamic State (ISIS). This may not be altogether surprising. The mass murders in Paris suggested ISIS was looking for opportunities abroad. A recent shooting in San Bernardino, California, by a couple with vague allegiance to ISIS - although no direct connections - left 14 innocent people dead.

Yet the American preoccupation with terrorism seems wildly out of proportion to the risks it poses to American security. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. has suffered 45 deaths on its soil from events that could be associated with radical Islamic beliefs, and more than half of those were the result of just two events - San Bernardino and the Fort Hood shooting of 2009. The Boston Marathon bombing killed four and wounded 61.

During that same time period, 48 people were killed by right-wing extremists in the United States, and more than 200,000 were killed by gun violence.

Media and the struggle for the Republican nomination have combined to raise national anxiety, and the candidates played it to the hilt. But what to actually do about it revealed divisions within the Republican Party on three important issues: domestic surveillance and civil liberties; immigration; and the extent and way in which the United States should intervene abroad.

Virtually all Republican candidates proclaimed their intention to destroy ISIS, an extraordinarily ambitious goal. But the debate plays out against public wariness over foreign military intervention.

Few acknowledge that if the objective really is to destroy ISIS, rather than contain it, the United States would probably have to put forces on the ground to hold territory.

Not surprisingly, many candidates emphasized that the U.S. should do the bombing and others should pick up the tougher work of putting “boots on the ground.”

Exactly who these ground forces would be was surprisingly vague. Some favor arming “moderate rebels,” despite the fact that we have little understanding of who these groups actually are. Others speak about coalitions of the Arab states themselves. But we have little evidence that regimes in the region are willing to pick up this challenge, despite the more immediate threat it poses. To the contrary, some of the very governments we have relied on to help have contributed to the problem either directly (Iraq, through its inattention to Sunni interests) or indirectly (Saudi Arabia, through its decade-long funding of Islamic radicalism).

Perhaps the most interesting strand of the debate was over the role that the United States itself has played in fomenting radical Islamic terrorism. Rand Paul has been the most explicit on this point, noting that efforts at regime change in Iraq, Libya and Syria have all proven disastrous. Despite their tough talk, both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump also questioned the wisdom of overthrowing dictators. It was left to John Kasich and particularly Marco Rubio to defend the strategy of ousting Bashar al-Assad, a stated goal of the Obama administration as well.

Indeed, the detailed plans on ISIS laid out by Rubio and Hillary Clinton - who has staked out a tougher position than the administration - are virtually indistinguishable.

Debates about ISIS were also entangled in the internal Republican wars over immigration. In one of his most outrageous proposals to date, Trump suggested that the United States should temporarily ban the entry of all Muslims into the country. At least on this proposal, he got some pushback from a spectrum of candidates pointing out how counterproductive such a measure would be. How could you secure Muslim support for a war on terror when instituting a blanket travel ban?

Yet even those challenging Trump have steadily hardened their immigration proposals, making it more difficult to reach a bipartisan consensus on the issue looking forward. And in a particularly shameful turn, a number of Republicans have proposed a ban on the U.S. taking refugees fleeing the violence in Syria, even though refugees are more closely vetted than those entering the country on other visas.

A final point that divided the candidates was how to manage the trade-offs between civil liberties and national security. Libertarians like Paul have long challenged security justifications for government surveillance, supporting the charges leveled by Edward Snowden against the national security establishment. Chris Christie - a former prosecutor - by contrast argues that the government should be given more tools for monitoring private communications.

Trump even appeared to support policies that would determine which social media sites were politically dangerous, a task that could easily devolve into partisan censorship.

No country, and particularly not the U.S., is at its best when policy is driven by fear. The only ray of hope coming out of the Republican debate is the moderating role that voters will ultimately play. The American public remains rightly cautious about a strategy that will once again entangle the U.S. in foreign civil wars.

*The author is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies at the University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard
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