2016 election, Arabs, Bashir Al-Assad, Chris Christie, Im-Politic, Iran, ISIS, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Middle East, Muslims, Obama, Qatar, Republicans, Saudi Araabia, Shiites, Sunnis, Syria, terrorism, Yemen
According to the nation’s mainstream political and media classes, this year’s Republican presidential hopefuls are divided into two main categories. One is comprised of the “serious” candidates who, whether you agree with them or not, clearly know the issues inside out thanks to their experience in government which has exposed them both to the complexities of America’s leading challenges and to the community of – mainstream of course – experts, many of them former policymakers themselves, who constantly fill them in on critical details and new findings. The other is comprised of the candidates who are manifestly non-serious – who can’t possibly know what they’re talking about because they lack both that governing experience and those connections with experts.
It’s a seductive typology – until you realize that all of their experience hasn’t prevented the supposedly serious candidates, and their galaxies of experts, from backing ideas that are completely whacko. Here’s just one prominent example: The belief that America has reliable allies in the Sunni Muslim world and that all that’s been preventing them from banding together into an effective anti-ISIS coalition is President Obama’s lack of resolve.
Propounders of this view have been Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Chris Christie – who the mainstream media has allowed to portray themselves as foreign policy authorities even though they’ve mainly been state governors with no direct background in the field. It’s also been a staple of Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, who at least can boast of having legislative responsibilities in national security. All of which goes to show you that experience is no guarantee of knowledge and common sense, let alone wisdom.
None of these ostensible diplomatic geniuses seem to know that the Sunni Muslim governments preside over fragile and sometimes failing states that are simply too divided internally and peopled with deeply anti-Western, scapegoating-happy movements and populations to go all-in on any military campaigns in which the United States – the leading symbol of historic Western success (and Arab Muslim failure) – plays any meaningful role. Even more dangerous for Sunni Arab leaders’ survival would be joining with the West to wipe out a group that claims to seek the return of Islam’s glory caliphate days.
But that’s not the biggest obstacle to creating a regional alliance against ISIS. For among the leading anti-Western scapegoaters have been the Sunni Muslim governments themselves. As widely noted, it’s been a great way to divert their populations’ attentions from their own records of keeping their countries backward and oppressed – and in some cases poverty-stricken. In addition, the political and economic elites of countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are filled not only with ISIS sympathizers. They’re filled with leading ISIS funders. More broadly, as The Economist (not known for iconoclasm) has observed:
“among observers of the Muslim world, it’s a commonplace that Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment has used its wealth to propagate, globally, its own puritanical school of Sunni Islam, one that despises more elaborate forms of worship and their practitioners. A catchall term for this kind of Islam is Salafism, a school that stresses the life of Muhammad and his immediate successors and distrusts any thinking or practice that emerged later. Salafism can be politically quietist, and it has some peaceful adherents, but it can also be ultra-violent. It can provide soil in which terrorist weeds can flourish.”
Finally, the Sunni Arab leaders are anything but united behind American geopolitical aims (which are pretty confused themselves). For example, the top Syria priority of conservative Persian Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia isn’t defeating ISIS. It’s ousting dictator Bashir Al-Assad, a long-time ally of their arch-enemy Iran, the world’s leading Shiite Muslim power. Indeed, reports have multiplied that the Saudis have slacked off even their initial anti-ISIS military moves in Syria in order to concentrate more of their resources on countering Iranian influence in their southern neighbor, Yemen.
To be sure, the conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong, and experience doesn’t always produce disaster. But establishment Republican candidates’ infatuation with the fantasy of a powerful Middle Eastern anti-ISIS coalition just waiting to be created makes alarmingly clear that it often is and can. So does recalling that the major supporters of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam were considered “the best and the brightest,” and that almost no major economists predicted the last, almost catastrophic, financial crisis. By the same token, the unconventional wisdom and inexperience can’t guarantee success, or avert calamitous failure.
Instead, the real lesson here is that the word “serious” has been thrown around way too carelessly, and self-servingly, in this campaign season – especially considering the recent records of establishment politicians in both major political parties. Encouragingly, poll results so far are making clear that big portions of the public aren’t buying these labels. Is it too much to hope that the political and media classes might display comparable savvy? Are are these self-styled taste- and king-makers too conflicted?