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Everyone sees what they want to see in the candidates for president. A recent survey on their foreign policies rated them with letter grades, but “foreign policy” is itself a bit of an elusive concept and the results tended to favor what the authors considered to be important. In my opinion the issue is actually much simpler: who among the candidates would be the most likely to lead the United States into another war or wars? Who would be least likely to do so?
The sovereign ability to go to war is the dark side of a nation’s foreign policy. It means in practice that the government has been unable or unwilling to use non-violent means of suasion to deflect perceived threats coming from a foreign nation or group of nations. The Nuremberg Tribunal established the principle that initiating a war is the ultimate crime against humanity as it brings with it every other imaginable evil. Those like America’s own neocons who consider war as politics by other means fail to understand that war is a breakdown of civilized norms and is in a sense a type of anarchy in which the weak and helpless are inevitably the principal victims.
I have written before that the problem with Americans in general is that they have never experienced close up the full horror of modern warfare. The images of ruined buildings and the shattered lives in today’s Gaza or Aleppo bear witness to what war means on the ground for those on the receiving end. That American presidential candidates can promote carpet bombing, annihilation of families and going to war to remove an undesirable government tells one that they are willfully ignorant of the consequences of their words.
I am assuming that our next president will be either a Republican or a Democrat. Casting a ballot for a Green, Libertarian or Conservative might provide some personal satisfaction but it would be a wasted vote in a year when the consequences of who assumes office might be very grave indeed. Whom I will be voting for in November comes down to only one issue – who is less likely to start a new war.
Given today’s geopolitical realities, a new war would mean either substantially increasing involvement in an ongoing conflict or a completely fresh initiative either with a current adversary or with an over-the-horizon competitor. The expansion of an ongoing conflict might derive from the “war on terror” and/or regime change in Syria/Iraq, though it would also have to include Iran as all the candidates but Bernie Sanders have specifically targeted that country on behalf of Israel. The current adversary with whom war might become a distinct possibility would be nuclear armed Russia and the over the horizon threat would be China.
Bernie Sanders does not speak much about foreign policy as his primary focus is domestic but it is clear that his instincts are to avoid war, particularly any conflict in which the United States has to take the lead. He believes that ISIS presents a serious threat but also thinks that local countries most affected by it should do the heavy lifting in opposing it. He supports the nuclear agreement with Iran. He opposed both the first and second Iraq Wars but he did vote for what he perceived as the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya. He approves of the use of sanctions against Russia over Ukraine but opposes lethal assistance to the government in Kiev and would not escalate U.S. involvement. He opposes further expansion of NATO. He has taken no position on China. One assumes based on his track record and inclinations that he would instinctively resort to diplomacy in a crisis rather than saber rattling and war itself would be a last option only when vital American interests are at stake.
Bernie is admittedly unlikely to become the Democratic Party nominee. That honor, unless she is derailed by emailgate, will go to Hillary Clinton. Hillary is an unreconstructed hawk, her inclinations invariably tending towards using military force whenever in doubt. Whether this derives from her desire to assert herself as a woman in a male dominated government or a paternalistic view of the U.S. global role really doesn’t matter as the result is consistently to favor the military option in support of perceived interests. Hillary supported toppling Saddam Hussein and as Secretary of State she played a major role in the disastrous occupation and democracy building that effectively destroyed Iraq, a series of missteps that have produced many of the ills being experienced in the region to this day. She reportedly convinced a reluctant President Barack Obama to intervene in Libya, another foreign policy disaster.
Hillary would provide lethal aid to Ukraine and would expand NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, a direct challenge to Russian national security. Her protégé at the State Department for dealing with Russia was and still is leading neocon hawk Victoria Nuland, who would likely show up in a senior position in a Clinton administration. Hillary has endorsed no fly zones in Syria, which would increase U.S. involvement and risk of conflict with Russia and other participants in the fighting. She demands regime change to eliminate President Bashar al-Assad as a precondition for a peace settlement. Hillary accepts the nuclear agreement with Iran but she talks of strict enforcement of it, coupled by threats to reinstate sanctions. She calls Iran a threat to the entire region. Of all the candidates, she is genuinely closest to Israel and has repeatedly pledged taking the bilateral relationship to a “new level” while also deferring to Benjamin Netanyahu on issues claimed to be related to Israel’s security.
Hillary would heighten tension with Russia and increase involvement in Syria and Iraq. She would rebuff any attempted normalization with Iran and would endorse and directly support any and all moves made by Israel in the region, to include attacks on neighbors to include Lebanon that would inevitably involve Washington. She would continue the “longest war” occupation of Afghanistan.
Donald Trump is the joker in the deck. He has spoken about waste and mistaken priorities in military spending and has pledged to cut the Pentagon budget. He has consistently criticized military interventions in Asia, to include condemning the Iraq War and Libya, based on their cost and failure as policies. He has rejected direct American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq for the same reason but sees ISIS as a threat and has pledged to bomb them mercilessly, heedless of civilian casualties.
Trump believes he can get along with Vladimir Putin and does not see Ukraine as a vital interest for Washington. He is the only candidate willing to attempt détente with Moscow and even speaks of disbanding NATO, which he says has outlived its usefulness. He also believes he can work with the Chinese leadership. In the war on terror, Trump would reinstate torture against suspects and has even advocated killing the families of terrorists as an acceptable collateral cost. He clearly believes in taking the gloves off in terrorism cases where the target is well defined and is less willing to get engaged in a conflict that is more amorphous. Regarding Iran, Trump would accept the nuclear agreement but he would police it rigorously and he has raised concerns with the Israel Lobby because he has said that he would be even handed in peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump has told the Republican Jewish Committee that he doesn’t need their money to run his campaign, suggesting to many that his commitment to Israel is not based on anything tangible. He might even be pragmatic, which would place U.S. interests ahead of those of Israel.
So The Donald would not be aggravating tensions with Russia or China and would not expand U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He might even be inclined to pull the plug on Afghanistan, which he has disparaged. He is not an ethical non-interventionist. His opposition is based on the fact that the wars cost too much and are unsuccessful. The fact that neo-conservatives hate him should be noted as a backhanded endorsement of what he stands for.
Ted Cruz wants to increase the Pentagon budget dramatically, wants to carpet bomb Syria to destroy ISIS, establish no-fly zones, arm Ukraine and directly support Kiev against Moscow. He does oppose the interventions in Iraq and Libya in hindsight because they were not successful and based on false intelligence. He would tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran and demand that the Iranians eliminate all their existing nuclear facilities. His zeal in “having Israel’s back” is unmatched by any other candidate with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton and he models his own foreign policy on that of Netanyahu, whom he describes as “Churchillian.”
John Kasich would punch Vladimir Putin in the nose, metaphorically speaking, by arming Ukraine and he has opposed any Russian role in Syria. He would create a no-fly zone and if Russian planes violated it he would order that they be shot down. He has advocated the use of military force against Beijing in its dispute with South Korea and Japan in the South China Sea. He “strongly opposed” the Iran agreement but now says that he would try to work with it while remaining hawkish in how he regards the regime of the Ayatollahs. Like Cruz, he is now dismissive of the Iraq War and Libya, but only in retrospect.
Cruz is the most hawkish of the Republican candidates and Kasich is a blue collar tough guy who likes to show that he is willing to stand up to bullies. Neither has thought very much about the issue of war and peace because neither has ever had to do so and, like all the other candidates, neither of them has ever served in the military. They both admit in hindsight that Iraq and Libya were failures but they are willing to try again with the same hawkish policies in expectation that this time they will be successful.
Cruz’s foreign policy team of Islamophobes headed by the clinically insane Frank Gaffney is something to behold while Kasich is given to posturing over issues that he barely understands. But would either of them go to war? Kasich might blunder into war or get fooled into doing so by Netanyahu, but Cruz is a different breed of cat. Highly intelligent he could be a poseur, but his in your face Pentecostal religiosity and ties to Zionism suggest that he might be all too ready to jump into a war in the Middle East in fulfillment of prophecy. He has already been endorsed by Mormon stalwart Glenn Beck as prophet material, so why stop there? He is a man with a maniacal gleam in his eye that scares the shit out of me.
So how do I rank them? Bernie is best choice but unlikely to be on the ballot. I then would have to go with Trump in hopes that I can trust him to pay heed to the whispering of his better angels. That leaves Hillary, who is completely corrupted by interest groups and a reliable establishment warmonger. Or Cruz who comes across as a crazed zealot with little in the way of the Christian virtues that he so often cites. Kasich doesn’t seem to actually stand for anything but maybe he would prove to be a tough talking street guy too timid and insecure to be dangerous. It’s a hard choice, but I think that Hillary is capable of doing more damage than Cruz, who would be reined in somewhat by a Congress that truly hates him. I would go with Bernie, then Trump, then Kasich. I could never vote for Cruz or Hillary under any circumstances. God save America!