In the 2016 Campaign, US Foreign Policy Establishment Not Faring Well Either

After months of reality-show media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, the voting process is thankfully starting. As the voters begin to speak, perhaps the coverage will have more actual reality in it. In recent years, it is no secret that media coverage of elections virtually ignores where the candidates stand on major issues, in favor of the "horse race" involving candidates’ political strategies and tactics, and now has even become merely celebrity gossip. One cynical analyst once said that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people.

So it should be no secret that Donald Trump, one of the kings of "reality" TV, has done much better than anyone ever thought he would. Outsiders in both parties seem to have performed better in this circus, because voters seem to be angry that, for decades, they have been repeatedly promised a fix to Washington’s dysfunction – the most recent billed as "hope and change" – only to see the same old shenanigans continue there.

Similar public frustration with U.S. foreign policy is not reported much in the media – because it does not boost ratings or numbers of subscribers as much as sensational coverage of minor terrorist attacks. Although out of this excessive media-induced fear, a slim majority of Americans want something done militarily about ISIS, the brutal Islamist terrorist group, they don’t want another long Iraq – or Afghanistan – like quagmire in the greater Middle East involving American boots on the ground. Unfortunately, one cannot eradicate ISIS military without ground forces; using local ground forces is the best option, but in Iraq and Syria, where the ISIS "caliphate" exists, friendly local forces are either unreliable, meager, or virtually nonexistent. Attacks from the air – the major thrust of current US policy – inadvertently kill civilians, which enrages the population and likely only creates more terrorists than it kills.

This underlying reluctance of large swaths of the American electorate of both parties to continue such long-standing US meddling in faraway conflicts – which it intuitively, if vaguely, realizes is the major cause of blowback terrorism – is reflected by the better-than-expected standing of antiestablishment candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Although Trump and Cruz have made some over-the-top comments about bombing ISIS into smithereens, in general they are less hawkish than the mainstream candidates, with their traditional Republican jingoistic foreign policy: Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush. Moreover, the pall of George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War still hangs over the 2016 election to such an extent that so far, the candidacy of Bush #3 – who the at the beginning of the campaign in 2015 the media was trying to anoint as the Republican frontrunner – has done abysmally.

In fact, Trump shows at least some indication of being in the realist (rather than reality-show) foreign policy school by his astute advocacy of outsourcing the Syrian problem to the Russians – after all, when your enemies are fighting each other, let them, while also keeping the Russians busy in a nasty civil war that has "bog" written all over it. Also, Trump convincingly argues for renegotiating the expensive U.S.-Japan alliance, which for decades has permitted a wealthy country to save resources by allowing the United States to protect it, while throwing those extra resources into competition with US companies and restricting its market to those same companies. Furthermore, as many foreign policy realists do, Trump has said that US foreign policy should be designed to safeguard only US interests, more narrowly defined – omitting such things as advocacy for human rights, democracy promotion, humanitarian military interventions, and the responsibility to protect people overseas from harm. He believes correctly that economic engagement with dictatorships has the best chance of opening them politically in the in the long term. He rejects the neo-conservative doctrine of remodeling countries into shaky democracies by using military force – that is he was against the Iraq War. According to journalist Josh Rogin, Sam Clovis, a retired Air Force colonel and Trump’s chief policy adviser, criticized neo-conservatives who "think you can go out there and in three weeks after Iraq collapses you can create a constitutional democracy over there."

Ted Cruz has characterized his foreign policy views as somewhere between the aggressiveness of John McCain and Marco Rubio at one end of the spectrum and the much less interventionist Rand Paul at the other end. For example, Cruz has cogently argued, "The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. If the Obama administration and the Washington neo-cons succeed in toppling [Bashar al-] Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria."

On the left, Bernie Sanders, although not totally dovish, was against the Kosovo War in 1999 and W’s Iraq War. In fact, he trumpets that on the seminal foreign policy issue of our time, he was against the invasion of Iraq and Hillary, always very hawkish, was for it.

Thus, at least a ray of hope exists that America’s exhaustion with the long foreign quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan is casting a long, if barely visible, shadow on the 2016 presidential campaign.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.