The Middle East on the Campaign Trail
By Luis Sánchez
Photograph of Hillary Clinton Testifying about Benghazi courtesy of The Atlantic
After 11 hours of questioning, Hillary Clinton stepped out of the Benghazi hearing noticeably tired, and the country was left with no more insight into the Benghazi attacks of 2012 than before.
The Benghazi hearing seemed more like an attempt to shine a bad light on Clinton than an actual dissection of the attacks. Kevin McCarthy, who dropped out of the race for Speaker of the House, himself insinuated that the Benghazi hearings were used to bring down Clinton’s poll numbers.
While the hearings have concluded, it is worth considering what role events in the Middle East will have on the presidential election in the months to come.
Benghazi, mixed with the email scandal, did do damage to the Clinton campaign but now the worst for Clinton has passed. Going forward, any mention of the Middle East on the campaign trail will most likely focus on ISIS.
If the past 3 debates were any indication of the issues that will be central to the election, the Middle East drew the short straw. Candidates such as Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie mention providing more arms to our allies and creating no-fly zones in Syria. The Republican candidates stand united in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
With ISIS, there has been little focus on substantive solution. Instead candidates have been playing the blame game. Most Republicans blame president Obama’s lack of a strong response for the rise of ISIS, and Hillary Clinton blames George W. Bush for the instability in the region.
That Middle East legacy of George W. Bush has provided an obstacle for his brother Jeb. In the spring, the former Florida governor struggled to answer whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003. Hind-sight criticisms of the invasion would come across as unfraternal and hurt Jeb among Republicans. Yet overt backing of the war would harm Bush in a general election. His brother’s Middle East policies figure to have a notable influence on Jeb’s campaign.
The Middle East could also have a relatively large impact on Rand Paul’s candidacy. Overall, Paul proposes a broader disengagement from the region that differs from much of his party. As a result, Paul opposes providing weaponry to Syrian opposition groups. This places him at odds not only with fellow Republicans, but with President Obama as well. Paul has also faced criticism for suggesting that he might limit foreign aid to Israel—a proposal that he has since retracted. If Paul’s sagging poll numbers provide any indication, voters still want America to play an assertive leadership role in the Middle East.
It seems difficult to give an answer with absolute certainty about what we can do to eliminate ISIS. Despite the current air-campaign, without a commitment to troops on the ground the US has limited options. Few candidates, except for South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, would support sending ground troops.
In the future we will probably hear little about substantive solutions to problems in the Middle East during this election season. Contenders such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson have gained steam despite no experience in dealing with the region. Candidates have little to gain from any concrete promises concerning the Middle East. The majority of voters themselves care little about the region and would rather focus on domestic subjects that affect them more immediately, like the economy. Today, voters aren’t going to base their vote on who provides the most clear solution to the problems in the Middle East. As long as voters aren’t demanding solutions, the candidates can get away with saying little.