I haven’t written much about the ongoing presidential race because, well, it’s just too damn depressing. The race is nearing a critical period, so I’ll make a few observations and then go back to looking for an island to escape to.
Trump is still ascendant in the Republican race. His closest rival, Cruz, is almost as frightening to the Republican establishment as Trump. So said establishment has seized upon Marco Rubio as its savior. After Iowa, Rubio was anointed as the voice of reason with the best chance of defeating Hillary (assuming that she is the nominee, and given the way the Democratic nominating process is rigged, that could happen even if she loses every primary to the dotty socialist, and has to appear at her inauguration in an orange jumpsuit instead of a canary yellow Mao suit).
That lasted for about a week, when Chris Christie showed that the establishment’s Great White Hope had a glass jaw in the New Hampshire debate. This sent the establishment into paroxysms of defensive rage, directed mainly at Christie for having the temerity to challenge The One and undermining the Republican’s best chance at victory in November.
This logic is delusional. If Rubio can’t handle a telegraphed punch from a fellow Republican, how could anyone possibly expect him to do anything but wither under the assault of the Clinton machine and the national media (but I repeat myself)?
Even if Rubio is toast, the establishment’s enthusiasm for him and his positions is disturbing, and reveals precisely why Trump and Cruz are dominating the process. Rubio has made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign. This despite the fact that the signs are all around that economic troubles are mounting, and that the election is likely to turn on economic issues than foreign policy ones. The seething discontent that feeds Trump (and Cruz, and Sanders on the Dem side) is at root a populist revolt driven by economic anxieties and a belief that the political system is favors elites that have done quite well in the aftermath of the crisis while many Americans are floundering.
Further, the specifics of Rubio’s foreign policy positions are troubling and disconnected. Yes, terrorism is a major concern of many Americans. But Rubio’s nostrums involve a new round of interventions in Syria and Iraq that are unlikely to reduce materially the threat of terrorism. Indeed, mouthing the words of his neoconservative adviser Max Boot and his ilk, Rubio advocates getting involved in intra-Muslim sectarian civil war on the side of the primary source and funders of anti-American terror in a place where only minor American interests are involved, and where intervention would greatly increase the risk of a confrontation with Russia. And large swathes of the Republican establishment cheer him on.
Rubio talks constantly on the stump and in debates about taking the side of the Sunnis in the Sunni-Shia Muslim civil war. Let’s be clear about what he really means: he means taking the side of the Saudis and Qataris and Turks, none of whom are reliable allies, or have US interests at heart. Indeed, (a) the Saudis in particular are the wellspring of terror, and (b) their main interest is in manipulating the US to intervene in their battles to advance their interests, which are in no way aligned with ours. We have no stake in the Muslim civil war.
Because they currently occupy Sunni cities and villages. Sunni cities and villages can only truly be liberated and held by Sunnis themselves. If they are held by Shias it will trigger sectarian violence. The Kurds are incredible fighters, and they will liberate the Kurdish areas, but Kurds cannot and do not want to liberate and hold Sunni villages and towns. It will take Sunni fighters themselves in that region to take those villages and cities, and then to hold them and avoid the sort of sectarian violence that follows in the past. And why that is important is because if Sunnis are not able to govern themselves in these areas, you are going to have a successor group to ISIS. ISIS is a successor group of al Qaeda. In fact, they broke away from al Qaeda, because as horrible as al Qaeda is, ISIS thought al Qaeda was not radical enough. This is who we’re dealing with, and they have more money than al Qaeda ever had.
This is delusional for several reasons. First, it presumes that “Sunni fighters” are all that interested in fighting ISIS, which is an avowedly Sunni movement that wants to extirpate Shia. In Syria, the Sunnis are focused on toppling Assad. In Iraq, the Sunni powers in the region have little interest in defeating an insurgency because that would empower Iran and the Shia government of Iraq. Second, the governments of Syria and Iraq have no interest in empowering Sunnis who would, if they succeeded in defeating ISIS, become a threat to those governments. The aftermath of a putative defeat of ISIS by the magical Sunni fighters would almost certainly involve conflict between the victorious Sunni forces and the governments of Syria and Iraq, thereby involving the US as a partisan in civil conflicts in both countries. In the case of Syria, this would set up a direct confrontation between Russia and the US. Third, the idea that there are Sunni moderates, or that Sunnis with guns are likely to be moderate, is nuts. In Syria, the armed Sunni groups are overwhelmingly Al Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood. Both are virulently anti-American. Even if they somehow vanquished ISIS, we would just be empowering other anti-American groups with a history of carrying out terrorism.
The Rubio model (or more accurately, the model of his advisors, because he seems incapable of independent thought) appears to be the Surge in Iraq. Yes, the Surge was very successful, much to the surprise of many. But its success depended on many conditions, none of which can be repeated now.
Remember what was “surged”: American combat units. 150,000 US personnel were involved. Although the Anbar Surge has received most attention, American troops also fought fiercely to subdue Shia militias as part of the effort. Indeed, that was vital in giving the US credibility in forming alliances with the Sunni tribes in Anbar. Moreover, the Sunni tribes would not have stood up against Al Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS) if there were not tens of thousands of Americans in the fight. This is not happening, nor should it happen, because the gain is not worth the cost.
Nor can one ignore the fact that the US’s ignominious withdrawal from Iraq is what made it possible for ISIS to metastasize and wreak vengeance on those Sunnis who had cooperated. It also allowed the hardcore Shia sectarians in Iraq to run amok, and take their vengeance on Sunnis. The trust that Petraeus and other Americans so painstakingly built to coax the Sunni tribes into the conflict against AQI has been destroyed, and it will not be possible to restore it.
In brief, the success in Anbar was dependent on conditions that cannot be repeated. Those using the Surge as their model for the battle against ISIS are fighting the last war, which inevitably turns out badly.
I should also note that Rubio’s relentless criticism of Assad puts him clearly on the Sunni/Saudi/Turkish/Qatari side of the civil war in Syria. Further, his advisors, and those supporting him, are relentlessly anti-Shia and pro-Sunni. They demonize Assad-who is indisputably a malign man who has committed atrocities-but gloss over the equally malign nature of most of those fighting him. This black-and-white characterization of what is really a black-and-black situation is exactly what led to the disastrous intervention in Libya. Even if ISIS is subdued, the Rubio mindset makes it inevitable that he would get the US involved in a civil war in a minor country that is only tangential at best to American interests.
Here too Trump and Cruz have a better sense of the American people than Rubio. There is widespread opposition to another adventure in the Middle East, even one dressed up as a war against ISIS.
To some extent, this issue would be neutralized in a general election campaign between Clinton and Rubio, because Hillary is also an interventionist, and one who wears Libya like an albatross around her neck. But being an interventionist would be a disadvantage if Hillary was matched up against a non-interventionist.
Rubio’s advisors are strong advocates of the idea of the US as the world’s policeman, and have blasted Cruz, Christie, Paul and Fiorina as “isolationists” because of their skepticism over engaging in new adventures in Syria and elsewhere. Yes, Obama’s anti-interventionism has contributed to the current chaos in the world. But just as Obama over-learned the lessons of the Bush presidency, Rubio, his neoconservative advisors, and the Republican establishment, seem hell-bent on over-learning the lessons of the Obama presidency. The average between too much and too little isn’t “just right.” Rather than see-sawing between extremes, we need a foreign policy that is discriminating in where and how it intervenes, focusing on areas of vital US interests, ignoring sideshows (as tragic as they are), not picking unnecessary battles even with egregious actors (e.g., Putin) and not being played by regional actors with their own agendas.
A callow Rubio, who is clearly very reliant upon the advice of others who are anything but discriminating, would combine the worst characteristics of Bush and Obama. This is definitely not what the US needs right now. Unfortunately, what the US needs is not on offer. Not even close.