Listening to the ever-growing field of Republican candidates one may conclude that a GOP victory in next year’s US presidential election inevitably means a new American war in the Middle East. Every one of them criticises President Barack Obama for lacking a strategy to “defeat” Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Most offer few specifics regarding what they would do instead, though the rhetoric they deploy almost always hints at more military action.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio says the action movie Taken offers the best template for dealing with Daesh and Al Qaida: “We will look for you. We will find you, and we will kill you.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (not yet officially a candidate, but universally expected to announce in the next week or two) sniffed that it is only “for political reasons” that the administration is unwilling to send an army back to the Middle East. Former Senator Rick Santorum promised to “load our bombers up and bomb them back to the seventh century”. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham spent most of the speech announcing his candidacy, warning of threats to America emanating from the Middle East and promising to confront them where Obama will not.
Santorum and Graham have close to zero chance of becoming president, but Rubio and Walker are generally regarded as top-tier candidates. Even Kentucky’s Rand Paul, the unconventional and occasionally isolationist libertarian of the GOP field, has said he generally favours more bombing (he just wants Congress to have more of a say in it). So if a Republican moves into the White House a year-and-a-half from now, does that inevitably mean the region will face a new era of American military intervention?
Probably not. First, and most obviously, politicians say all sorts of things during campaign season that they do not necessarily plan to follow through on. More importantly, when one compares Republican rhetoric to the realities of the Obama administration, there is less difference than meets the eye.
Under a GOP administration, drone strikes against both Daesh and Al Qaida in its various forms may be stepped up. The relatively small deployments of US troops to the region to train local Iraqi and Syrian forces may increase. Washington’s rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly improve. All of these, however, are matters of degree, not wholesale change, whatever the candidates may say to the contrary. Drone strikes have dramatically increased under Obama, a fact that is probably more familiar to most readers of this newspaper than it is to many American voters. With Obama using armed drones far more extensively than George W. Bush ever did, a different Republican ‘approach’ is likely to be more about rhetoric than substance.
When it comes to “boots on the ground” (as Americans like to term it) the calculation is even more basic: Candidates on the stump may swagger, but all of them (all of the serious ones, at least) are well aware that the country is tired of war and in no hurry to start a new one. This spring’s announcement that a few hundred American troops would return to Iraq on a training mission prompted a lot of concern about mission creep among Democrats and Republicans alike. Recent statements by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to the effect that Americans cannot even find enough willing Iraqi army recruits to train have also given a lot of observers pause. The bottom line is that absent a 9/11-like provocation, it is hard to see the next US president, whomever he or she may be, sending a large army back to the Middle East.
Even on the politically-charged topic of relations with Iran, there is likely to be less change than one may expect. A number of Republicans have vowed to cancel any existing agreement with Iran as soon as they take office. Yet, if an agreement is reached and if it manages to hold together through January 2017 (two very big ‘ifs’) tearing it up out of spite may prove more difficult than they imagine. It is useful here to recall that back in 1980 candidate Ronald Reagan convinced a lot of people that he planned to abrogate the treaty passing control of the Panama Canal back to that country’s government. Once in the White House, he found other matters to occupy his attention, and the process of turning over the canal to Panama went ahead on schedule. This happened in no small part because advisors with more experience in foreign affairs convinced him that withdrawing from the treaty would set a bad precedent, creating a broader series of problems with allies and adversaries alike.
As deep as the ideological fissures are in American politics, there are equally strong forces at work guaranteeing that on delicate and complicated foreign policy issues, change — when it comes — will be incremental rather than radical. That is why the transition from Bush to Obama was much less dramatic than one might have imagined after listening to the 2008 campaign’s rhetoric about the Middle East. The transition from Obama to someone else is likely to be similarly more nuanced and less abrupt than the next 18 months will lead you to believe.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.