Originally published December 20, 2015
Last week at the Republican presidential debate in Nevada, we saw a big divide on the continued policy of regime change in the Mideast, especially as to overthrowing Bashar Assad in Syria and putting American ground troops, so-called “boots on the ground,” in defeating the Islamic State. The establishment candidates (Jeb! Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich) all were in favor, and the outsiders (Donald Trump and Rand Paul) were opposed.
Now tonight at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, a somewhat similar dividing line on regime change has emerged as to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, insider versus outsider.
Sanders, the Democratic Socialist, and Trump, the nativist Republican, agree: defeat ISIS first and worry about Assad later, if ever. America is not the world’s policeman and take care of direct threats to U.S. national security first before the world’s problems. Their view is that the vacuum created by unseating Arab strongmen has been filled by the chaos of Islamist terrorists. Hillary (like Chris Christie at the Republican debate) presented a competing narrative of ISIS’ rise, namely as the byproduct of the oppressive Assad dictatorship.
In terms of military policy going forward, Clinton’s position splits the difference between the Republican establishment and the outsiders. While she agreed with the Obama Administration’s policy of using U.S. special operations to buck up the Kurds, Iraqis and Turks fighting ISIS, she firmly opposed American boots on the ground. As she said, “[ISIS] want[s] American troops back in the Middle East. They want American soldiers on the ground fighting them, giving them many more targets, and giving them a great recruiting opportunity.” But she also said that the eventual removal of Assad is an important element in the grand policy of attracting anti-ISIS, Sunni Arab allies, who will be the ground troops to our air support. They are primarily animated by their hatred off the Alawite regime in Damascus and only secondarily motivated to put an end to the competing Sunni Caliphate.
In a break with the president she once served, Hillary was one of the first national politicians to propose an American no-fly zone over Syria to shield Syrian civilians from the atrocities of ruling regime and help stem what has become one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time in the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of refugees. But she didn’t go all neocon like the Republican establishment at their debate. Christie wanted to use a no-fly zone to shoot down Russian planes and Kasich to punch Putin “in the nose.” Instead, Clinton was able to buttress her position with this week’s diplomatic news at the United Nations and between the U.S. in Russia in moving toward a coordinated policy toward ISIS and Syria – meaning that Washington had foregone regime change in the immediate term in order to put the Islamic State first and foremost in everybody’s crosshairs.
At tonight’s debate, Bernie Sanders criticized Hillary Clinton for being “ too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.” Bernie was really trying to score points against Hillary more on her past positions on Iraq and Libya than on her present policy on Syria. Hillary returned fire not only against Bernie (pointing out that he voted in the Senate to overthrow Gaddafi), but also against Donald Trump, whom she might face in the general election, saying, “Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make think there are easy answers to very complex questions.” Clinton is proving to be the one who gives the complex answers to those complex questions.
A mini-controversy erupted, however, over Clinton’s statement that:
“. . . we also need to make sure that the really discriminatory messages that Trump is sending around the world don’t fall on receptive ears. He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”
Commentators immediately pointed out that there was no evidence of any such ISIS videos. Clinton’s statement, although not precise, appeared to be prospective, in other words, that Trump’s words could be used in ISIS recruiting videos, not that they already have been. We’ll see how the Clinton campaign responds, but on the bigger picture of regime change, the lines between the insiders, outsiders and Clinton have been drawn.