The American presidential candidates finally face off Monday night in a debate that, as my colleagues put it, already seems skewed in Donald Trump’s favor.
“Many reporters have set the bar unfairly low for Donald Trump ahead of tonight’s presidential debate,” writes The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “raising the specter that pundits will declare him ‘the winner’ even if he makes a series of factually inaccurate statements and struggles to show depth on the issues.”
On matters of foreign policy, the gulf in experience between Trump and his adversary Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, is particularly pronounced. Trump marched through the Republican primaries with a host of discordant, sometimes contradictory, largely substance-free policy prescriptions that played to a populist crowd.
It measures up oddly against the more considered positions of Clinton. Her critics harp on her alleged misuse of classified emails and, more broadly, frame her candidacy as that of a doyenne of the establishment: To some conservatives, she’s too weak and conciliatory, like the current president; to others, she’s a neoconservative hawk in liberal clothing.
During the debate, a range of hot-button foreign policy issues may get trotted out. Here’s the context you’ll need to parse through the bluster.
Syrian refugees are a threat to the United States
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) September 19, 2016
A controversial tweet by Donald Trump Jr. may not have been an official Trump campaign talking point, but it echoed the logic that underlies the Republican nominee and the defeated GOP candidates’ consistent opposition to refugees. Trump’s son tweeted an image of a bowl of Skittles, and asked whether you would eat from it if you knew a few Skittles were poisoned. This was meant to be an analogy about the threat posed by Syrian refugees coming to the United States.
Beyond the fact that it’s offensive and weird to liken desperate human beings to pieces of candy — something that even Skittles’s parent company pointed out — Trump Jr.’s argument is also a scare tactic. The risk of an American being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3.64 billion, as others noted last week.
The United States is not prone to the same influx of migrants that arrived over the past year-and-a-half in Europe, where indeed some people linked to the Syrian refugee exodus have participated in terrorist attacks. The existing measures in place to screen refugees applying for asylum in the United States are among the most stringent in the world. A prospective applicant and their families go through months, even multiple years, of checks, conducted by a number of different federal agencies and aided by international organizations.
— Hilbrand Rozema (@RozemaHilbrand) September 21, 2016
And then there’s the question of Syrian refugees themselves. The United States, a country where leaders across the political spectrum trumpet an “American Exceptionalism” that’s anchored in a unique history of immigration and diversity, is taking in far fewer Syrian refugees than a number of other Western nations. (See the data in the AFP map above.)
The burden on Syria’s neighbors — particularly Jordan and Lebanon — is straining those nations to breaking point. And a whole generation of young Syrians is growing up in squalor and deprivation. In Jordan, more than half of all Syrian refugees are children, according to the United Nations. In Lebanon, a quarter of a million Syrian kids are not going to school.
The global number of refugees in the world is the highest ever recorded.
It’s possible to simply “take” Iraq’s oil …
This is a demand voiced over the past year by Trump, who while decrying the Iraq War and a subsequent intervention in Libya, seems convinced it makes sense to plunder a foreign nation’s oil wealth. My colleague Steve Mufson discussed this idea with a group of Middle East experts in Washington, who derided what is an “illegal, impossible and beyond goofy idea” that would entail — if nothing else — a renewed American military presence in Iraq to guard over resource extraction and against likely infuriated, hostile Iraqis.
Matthew Reed, vice president of a consulting firm focused on oil and politics in the Middle East, offered a withering assessment of the proposal:
There’s no reason to believe the Iraqis would allow this. No country would. Instead, the government would call on foreign courts to intervene; the population would protest and violence would be unavoidable. Seeing as Iraq’s oil infrastructure is a sprawling network, vulnerable and almost entirely aboveground, it can’t possibly be protected on the cheap or exploited without local consent. Consider also the moral costs of taking this oil: to do so then would have proven conspiracy theorists right about American intentions and destroyed what little credibility the U.S. had; to deny Baghdad vital revenues would have only increased public suffering, making the country even riper for insurgents like ISIS.
… and can you simply bomb the Islamic State to smithereens
Furthermore, Trump has promised a tough military solution to defeat the Islamic State, one which involves subtle strategies, such as bombing “the s— out of” the militant group, targeting the families of suspected terrorists, and maybe just leaving it all to the Russians to handle.
As my colleagues discussed over the weekend, he has “declined to lay out a coherent strategy” for the destruction of the Islamic State, even while constantly signaling his unique ability to do so. What most experts agree — and reporting on the ground clearly indicates — is that military action is only one component of defeating the jihadist organization. It rose up, after all, amid political dysfunction and chaos in Iraq and Syria, and profited from the ill-will of restive Sunni populations chafing under the rule of regimes dominated by other sects.
Destroying the Islamic State has to also involve efforts to work toward larger solutions in the region: Deescalating the ruinous civil war in Syria and paving a way for a political reconciliation, as improbable as it seems right now. And then pushing for more stable, reliable governance in Iraq. There are no easy options or answers to achieving any of this. But any future American president will have to make an earnest effort to getting to grips with these conundrums.
The Kurds are the answer
This is a common refrain from American politicians searching for allies in the battlefields of the Middle East. Kurdish militias have fought the Islamic State, taken territory from the autocratic regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and even boast of being secular and pro-women’s rights. What’s not to love?
But as WorldViews has explained at length in the past, the travails and intrigues of the Middle East’s largest, stateless ethnic group are complex, mired in factional infighting, as well as the larger politics of key regional powers. Turkey, where one-fifth of the population is Kurdish, is deeply opposed to the West arming and enabling Syrian Kurdish factions on the other side of its border as it fights a Kurdish insurgency at home.
If you want to champion the Kurds, you have to also be willing to consider the new geopolitical challenges that an emboldened Kurdish nationalism may pose for the region.
The world is more dangerous than it has ever been
The election campaign is suffused with the rhetoric of doom and gloom, particularly stoked by Trump and other Republicans who grandstand over rising terror threats in the West and the collapse of law and order in inner cities. The truth, though, is that despite the hideous violence of the past year, the world is not less safe than it has been in the past.
“The impression that some kinds of violence have gone up over the last five years has some truth to it,” he said. “Because of the Syrian civil war, the rate of death in warfare has drifted upward a little bit in the last five years. There has been a small increase in homicide in the United States in the last three years. But both of those figures are at a fraction of what they were in the ’60s, ’70S and ’80s.”
These are the decades that are celebrated, presumably, by those proclaiming Trump’s motto of “Make America Great Again.”