America deserves more from presidential hopefuls

The best way to understand the US presidential election, writes James Zogby, is to look at the candidates take on the Middle East

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Iowa.  Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg News
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I have long argued that how candidates for high office speak about the Middle East should be a critical test of their capacity to lead America. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the US has spent more money, sold or given more weapons, sent more troops, fought more wars, lost and taken more lives, expended more political capital and had more vital interests at stake in that region than anywhere else in the world. And yet the candidates have not faced this reality by providing us with a substantial discussion about the challenges America faces in this critical region.

I have listened attentively to all of the Republican and Democratic debates and have been deeply disturbed. I am most troubled by what I hear on the Republican side.

From what I have learnt so far, Republicans largely agree on a few points: ISIL must be defeated. Israel must be defended and never criticised. The Iran deal is bad and should be rescinded. Barack Obama has weakened America and betrayed its allies and Syrian refugees, especially those who are Muslims, should not be allowed into the United States.

There are, to be sure, some differences in how the candidates propose addressing this litany of concerns. And there are other Middle East issues where the candidates differ, for example, on whether the Iraq war was a disastrous failure and whether the region is better off or worse off following the overthrow of dictators such as Muammar Qaddafi. But, for the most part, I have found that the Middle East policies the candidates have advocated have ranged from the absurd to the banal, demonstrating a disturbing lack of both seriousness and understanding of the issues facing the United States in the Middle East.

Donald Trump, for example, suggests that dealing with America's Arab allies will be easy for him because "I know these people and do business with them" – ignoring the fact that many of "these people" have denounced him and cancelled their business connections with him following his repeated displays of anti-Muslim bigotry.

For his part, Jeb Bush offered a quick and easy three point agenda to fix the Middle East that included getting tough with Iran, immediately moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then rebuilding frayed ties with America’s Arab allies in the Gulf. He largely ignored the fact that once he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, he could pretty much forget about rebuilding ties with Arab allies and count, instead, on a crisis with every Arab and Muslim country.

Then there's Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of whom reject admitting Syrian refugees who are Muslim, calling it "lunacy" or "irresponsible"– forgetting, of course, that their parents were refugees and that locking out innocent civilians fleeing war and persecution on the basis of their religion would not only be an unconscionable act of discrimination, but would compromise whatever relationships the US has with the Muslim world.

And then there's Mr Cruz's nerdy tough guy talk about bombing ISIL until the desert sand glows or Chris Christie's consulting with Jordan's long deceased King Hussein, making both candidates sound like silly amateurs.

The fact is that most of the candidates' pronouncements about key Middle East issues appear to come from ignorance (they just don't know), wilful ignorance (they just don't want to know because it is has never been politically important to them), or ideology (a problem for the neoconservatives such as Mr Rubio or the evangelicals such as Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson – whose convictions are based on blind faith, not on fact).

Democrats, too, must be criticised. While they have not made preposterous statements or been threatening or demagogic, they, all too often, have come up short, failing to propose new ideas that can help unwind conflicts raging across the Middle East.

Pledging, for example, to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without suggesting any way to restrain Israel's behaviour or end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land makes that pledge hollow. On this and other issues, simply embracing the failed policies of the past is nothing more than a recipe for more failure.

If all this were a mere academic exercise, it would be sad and disturbing. But it is so much more, because the stakes are so high. At risk are the lives and futures of millions, the values and honour of the United States and strategic interests in a critical region of the world.

For all these reasons and more, American voters should demand more than either mindless bluster or vacuous pronouncements. It is simply too important. And to excuse this behaviour as necessary because of political pressures is not an excuse at all. It is just one more indictment of America’s broken politics.

The media personalities who conduct the debates or the commentators who evaluate the post-debate performances are also at fault. Because they also know or care too little about the Middle East or have, themselves, bought into the failed policies of the past or the ideologies that have created blinkersto knowing more, they fail to challenge the candidates' silly statements.

The result is tragic, because what it means is that we may have another election in which the candidates engage in a substantive debate about health care, entitlements, immigration reform, and the state of the military, but will not discuss new ideas that might help America decide which candidate is best suited to lead the nation in addressing the region of the world that has helped to define the tenure of every president for the past four decades.

The American people deserve better and the world needs more from the US.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa