Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reflections on the Republican Debate: Foreign Diplomatic Relations

Today, I'm continuing my reflection on the more interesting ideas proposed by the Republicans during their debate. This time, the subject is foreign relations--a critical subject, especially in this era in which we have thousands of troops stationed all over the world.

Specifically, I'm referring to diplomatic relations. Economic relations are a completely different thing and, I believe, much more complicated.

The Republicans all had different ideas about how to handle ISIS and the conflicts in the Middle East. Every single one of them wants to "rebuild the military," the implication being that our military is currently weak and/or falling apart. Specifically, some of them were concerned that our allies in the Middle East, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, are losing faith in the United States' ability to support them. Further, a strong military gives the United States stronger negotiating power as we try to broker peace in the region. Jeb Bush especially was offended at Donald Trump's idea of banning Muslims from entering the United States due to the enormous, detrimental impact such a policy would have on our diplomatic relations with Islamic nations.

Given that our defense budget dwarfs the defense budget of any other nation on Earth, I'm inclined to believe that if our military seems to be weak and falling apart it's more of a management problem than a budgetary problem. Plus, the accusation that President Obama is defunding the military is provably false: the defense budget of the United States in 2015 was $598.5 billion, accounting for 54% of the discretionary budget. In 2014, it was $520.5 billion. It's true that, in Obama's first budget, passed by a Democratic Congress in 2010, the Defense budget was $663.7 billion, though that was quite a bit more than George W. Bush's Defense budgets for 2009 and 2008, which were $515.4 billion and $481.4 billion respectively.

That said, I don't know what's going on in the military right now or why they may need more funding. I also don't know what's going on in the minds of leaders in the Middle East, whether they're starting to doubt out military might or not. Certainly, we've spent quite a long time there now without much luck in calming the region, and with ISIS taking over half of Syria it seems to be worse than ever.

Unlike many of the Republican candidates, I don't think ISIS is the result of poor relations in the Middle East. On the contrary, I think ISIS is symbolic of a reaction against some great progress Islamic countries have been making. To make an American analogy, ISIS is the region's Ku Klux Klan, violently resisting very real progress despite the fact that their very existence means that the end of their ideas are near.

Some of the Republicans have some interesting ideas about how to handle the situation, though. Some just want to bomb ISIS into oblivion of course, civilian casualties be damned, but the more clear-headed among them supported the idea of aiding regional forces against ISIS and other extremist groups rather than simply throwing American soldiers at the problem. Certainly doing so would reduce casualty rates for American soldiers, but I don't think it's a good idea to make it a simple "our bodies, their bodies" calculation. Rather, the idea seems sound because it continues the process of teaching the people to fight for and maintain their own peace rather than relying on outside forces to do it for them.

It's quite possibly a pipe dream, as people have been trying to bring peace to the Middle East for thousands of years to no avail. Plus, it's the height of conceit to think that Americans can solve the problems of the region from here on the other side of the world. Still, the beauty of helping them help themselves, to give them the power to create peace or destroy it, takes us out of the equation somewhat. And that, to me, seems better than nothing, though I should acknowledge that previous attempts at doing so led to the creation of militant groups that eventually fought us with our own weapons.

Given that, it's tempting to simply extract ourselves from the region altogether, abandoning our allies in the region and letting them sort themselves out. However, Middle Eastern conflicts tend to not contain themselves in the Middle East, and ISIS especially has been at least tangentially involved in attacks in Europe and the United States in the past year, so it's obvious that we're going to be involved whether we're in the region or not.

In short, there's no simple solution, and I think most of the Republicans on stage at the debate were aware of that. Even Donald Trump's Muslim ban is proposed to last only "until we figure out what's going on," as if it's something we'll ever really figure out.

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