The past two presidents have been deeply engaged in promoting democracy in the Middle East. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Middle East emerged as a key region of strategic interest for the United States, and both Bush and Obama sought to build a strong base of allies among its nations. Efforts have ranged from military strategies to topple nondemocratic regimes, such as the Iraq War begun under Bush and the intervention in Libya overseen by Obama, to soft diplomatic and foreign aid programs to build civil society, facilitate free and fair elections, and promote the rights of women, minorities, and other marginalized groups.
These efforts have sparked a range of successes and failures throughout the region, and a charged policy debate over the proper role of the United States in promoting democracy and the most effective way of doing it. It is no surprise that presidential candidates on both the Republican and Democratic sides have weighed in.
Secretary Hillary Clinton
Of all the candidates, Clinton is the strongest proponent of active democracy promotion in the Middle East. During her service as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton defended and executed his democracy promotion vision. She oversaw the administration’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 to aid the opposition to Qaddafi’s regime and its subsequent efforts to build a viable democratic state. In addition, she administered the State Department’s numerous foreign aid programs throughout the region which seek to, among other goals, improve transparency and respect for human rights, and promote the rights of women, minorities, and LGBT people.
Beyond the Obama administration, Clinton has carried out private foreign assistance through the Clinton Foundation and advocated for gender equality. She has also called for an expansion of foreign aid. At a USAID event in 2014, she remarked, “You all know that the polls continuously show that most people in our country think we spend 20-25 percent on foreign aid and I would have loved that to have been the case.”
In the midst of widespread criticism of the outcome of intervention in Libya, Clinton defended her foreign policy as Secretary of State at the last Democratic debate by stating that, “I think we did a great deal to help the Libyan people after Qaddafi’s demise.” After outlining the administration’s previous efforts in Libya she said, “The Libyan people deserve a chance at democracy and self- government. And I, as president, will keep trying to give that to them.” She further suggested that intervention may be warranted in Syria, stating that “Nobody stood up to Assad and removed him, and we have had a far greater disaster in Syria than we are currently dealing with right now in Libya.” Clinton has additionally expressed concern for the situation in Egypt. She wrote in her book Hard Choices that current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “appears to be following the classic mold of Middle Eastern strongmen.”
Senator Bernie Sanders
Sanders sharply disagrees with his Democratic opponent and often expresses non-interventionist views more in line with his Republican counterparts. During the last Democratic debate on April 14, he noted that “Regime change often has unintended consequences in Iraq and in Libya right now, where ISIS has a very dangerous foothold.” After acknowledging Assad’s status as a brutal dictator, he stated that “right now our fight is to destroy ISIS first, and to get rid of Assad second.” Unlike Clinton, Sanders does not support a no-fly zone over Syria.
Sanders has also frequently called the war in Iraq “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.” In his view, it is an example of a history of failed interventions and illustrates why he feels reluctant to intervene in countries like Libya and Syria.
On the subject of foreign aid, Sanders has said little throughout his campaign about his vision for soft-power democracy promotion programs. However, he has supported foreign aid in general as a senator, including introducing his own bill to redirect funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to development aid for poor countries. He also stated in 2013 that aid to Egypt should not be cut off. He said, “It’s easy to say ‘let’s cut off aid tomorrow.’ Fine. What happens the next day? Does the country descend into civil war? With aid the United States continues to have some leverage. The question is how we use that leverage.” He expressed a belief in the utility of aid to pressure the governments of Egypt and other countries to democratize and improve human rights protections.
Trump has famously articulated a foreign policy vision sharply limited to what he perceives to be in the interest of American national security. He has expressed strong opposition to democracy promoting interventions in the Middle East. He told Meet the Press in October that “of course” the Middle East would be more stable with dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi in power. Speaking to Chuck Todd, he said, “if you look at Libya, look at what we did there — it’s a mess — if you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there — it’s a mess — it’s [Syria] going to be same thing.”
Trump has also decried the money that he believes has been wasted on policies in the Middle East. At the fifth Republican debate in December, Trump said, “In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people” and “We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.” He also stated that “We have to get rid of ISIS first” before fighting Assad. Although he has repeatedly said that he opposes allowing Arab refugees into the United States and is reluctant to spend funds on issues not directly tied to national security, Trump told Face the Nation in October 2015 that he would “help [Syrians] economically, even though owe $19 trillion” by providing aid to create a safe zone for refugees in the country.
There is some evidence that Trump’s positions on this subject have changed over time. During the tenth GOP debate in February, Ted Cruz challenged Trump’s claims that he had “never discussed the subject” of U.S. intervention in Libya in the past. In fact, Trump posted a YouTube video advocating for the U.S. to “immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively and save the lives.” He has since changed his position and stated at the debate that “we would be so much better off if Qaddafi were in charge right now.”
Senator Ted Cruz
During Meet the Press in October 2015, Cruz agreed that the Middle East would be “more stable” with Qaddafi, Saddam, and Assad in place. He said “It wasn’t even close that Libya under Qaddafi was better for US interests than the chaos now that is allowed jihadists to gain strength,” and we should not have gone into Iraq. He further explained, “I don’t believe we should be engaged in nation building. I don’t believe we should be trying to transform foreign countries into democratic utopias.”
Cruz has indicated previously that he opposes most foreign assistance in the Middle East. In 2013 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said, “We need to stop sending foreign aid to nations that hate us. Just two weeks ago President Obama cancelled White House tours and sent $250 million to Egypt with no conditions, no strings attached, nothing focused on U.S. national security–simply wrote a check.” However, he has continually advocated for robust aid and support to Israel.
Although he has stopped short of recommending the deployment of ground troops, Cruz has emphasized that his main goal in the Middle East is to defeat ISIS. At the fifth Republican debate in December, Cruz pledged, “If I am elected president, we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS” in addition to introducing legislation to “suspend all refugees for three years from countries where ISIS or Al Qaida control substantial territory.” On the subject of Assad, he said, “And I’ll tell you whose view on Assad is the same as mine. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel doesn’t have a dog in that fight because Assad is a puppet of Iran, a Shia radical Islamic terrorist, but at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t want to see Syria governed by ISIS.”
Governor John Kasich
Kasich has expressed a belief in the need to support rebels who oppose non-democratic regimes such as those in Syria and Egypt under Hosni Mubarak. In an interview on February 14, 2016, Kasich stated, “I would only go to Syria to destroy ISIS. I would not use U.S. troops to depose Assad. But I would support the rebels there. It’s okay to support those people who share your view. But for the United States to be embroiled in a civil war in Syria against Assad I think is a big mistake.
Similarly, at the GOP debate in Miami in March, Kasich expressed the belief that we have not always gone far enough in promoting pro-democracy rebels. He said, “You had a red line in Syria. You walked away from it. You refused to fund the Syrian rebels, you undercut Egypt and we ended up with the Muslim brotherhood for awhile.”
However, Kasich has also expressed reluctance to overthrow those regimes that provide valuable American allies. During the GOP debate on March 3rd, Kasich argued that “we had no business” intervening to depose Qaddafi because “He was working with us. He was cooperating with us. He denuclearized. And now they pushed him out, and now we have a fertile ground for ISIS.” Like Trump, he believes that well-intentioned democracy promotion can lead to unforeseen consequences.
What the Candidates Ignore
When the Middle East is discussed, the candidates on both sides focus primarily on defeating ISIS, evaluating the intervention in Libya, and debating what to do about Assad’s regime in Syria. All of the candidates agree that defeating ISIS should be a foremost priority, and most, excluding Sanders, have stated that they favor creating safe zones for refugees and imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. While Clinton has defended her involvement in the intervention in Libya, the rest of the presidential field has highlighted it as an example of failed U.S. efforts in democracy promotion.
Although some candidates have discussed their views on foreign aid in general, there has been little substantive discourse on the subject of soft-power means of promoting democratization and human rights. The candidates also spend little time discussing the current democratization efforts in several countries of interest to the United States, including Tunisia, Egypt, and Iraq. As the field narrows to selection of two party nominees, the candidates should be pressed to articulate how they will or will not follow the democracy promotion legacy of Presidents Obama and Bush.