David Coates

The Republican Juggernaut Marching Us to War

The over-riding temptation in the wake of the first debate between Republican presidential hopefuls may be to focus on the Trump opening gaffe, or to join the mainstream media in ranking candidate performance and picking winners. But the temptation to focus on the differences on display in Cleveland should be avoided – by progressive commentators at least – when the bigger story is surely that of the level of agreement between the vast majority of the candidates who spoke.

Rand Paul apart, there seems to be near unanimity on three dominant themes.1

The first is that the US economy is currently underperforming – doing less well in terms of competitiveness and employment than it could and should – and is doing so primarily because of excessive regulation, burdensome taxation and the inflated size of government sustained by the Obama Administration.

The second is that US foreign policy abroad is currently both ineffectual and threatening to our domestic national security, and is so partly because of the naivety and lack of patriotism of the President himself, and partly because of the propensity of the State Department under both Clinton and Kerry to under-resource our allies and to under-estimate our enemies.

The third is that the two weaknesses – economic underperformance at home and the ineffectual deployment of US power abroad – are linked; and that the way to resolve both is to spend more on our military, not less, and to deploy that military capacity in an ever more aggressive assault on radical Islamic terrorism.

There were dissenting voices on the stage last night – John Kasich refusing to send another US soldier into harm’s way unless it was absolutely necessary, and Rand Paul pointing out how so much of our military equipment ends up in the hands of people who hate us. There was even a Jeb Bush concession that, with the wisdom of hindsight, the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake. But none of that broke the thrust of the over-riding message from the rest: that America (to be strong again) needs to be more belligerent, not less, in the Middle East; that the Middle East is currently unstable because the Obama Administration withdrew from Iraq too quickly and signed a deal with Iran too lightly; and that unless we completely destroy ISIS on its own territory, ISIS will come after us and attempt to destroy America here.

Lindsay Graham was the only one honest enough to insist that the United States needs to put troops back on the ground in the Middle East if ISIS is to be defeated there: but he was not alone in seeking to establish his credentials by beating the drums of war. With the exception of Paul and Kasich, every major candidate in that first debate sought to out-hawk the others. If progressives don’t act now to challenge the assertions underpinning that hawkishness, then we can be pretty certain that America will be back into a ground war in the Middle East in 2017 if any one of these candidates prevails.

Which is why it is vital to counter-assert at least the following

The economic under-performance that so concerns the current crop of Republican candidates did not start with the Obama Administration. It predated it. The weakness of US manufacturing, the outsourcing of US jobs, the development of a vast trade deficit with China, and the instability of the US banking sector, all occurred on George Bush’s watch. These are economic weaknesses that were inherited by the Obama Administration, not caused by it. They are weaknesses rooted in the excessive deregulation of US business, not in its over-regulation;2 and if economic weakness now makes the financing of welfare programs difficult, the origins of that difficulty do not lie in the welfare programs but in the economy.3 It is not the welfare programs that undermine economic performance, but weak economic performance that undermines the adequacy of essential public provision.4

The instabilities of the Middle East are not the product of any naivety or lack of patriotism on the part of President Obama. If there is an administration in recent US history that is guilty of naivety, it is surely the administration of Obama’s immediate predecessor. We live now in the shadow of the ill-informed Bush decision to invade Iraq. Bush and Cheney were the true destabilisers here, not Obama and Clinton, who are merely struggling to clean up an inherited mess. When leading generals tell leading politicians that there is no purely military solution to ISIS’s growth and potency, they are not wrong, as Donald Trump contends. They are right. Just how many Middle Eastern wars will it take to persuade Republican contenders that there are necessary limits to US power in an area as complex as the Middle East, and that national security requires that presidents operate within those limits rather than deny their existence?5

Economic under-performance at home and ineffectual US foreign policy abroad may well be linked, but the direction of causality is exactly the opposite of the one canvassed by Republicans in their first debate. It is because too much US treasure and personnel are deployed militarily abroad that the resources necessary for nation-building at home are so depleted. It is because we are currently overstretched abroad that we are under-resourced at home. The United States is currently experiencing the classic problems of empire: imperial over-reach, blowback by threatened enemies, and a systemic weakening of the domestic economic superiority on which the original global role was established and extended. We don’t need more wars. We certainly don’t need the further deployment abroad of our men and women in uniform. On the contrary, we need them back here, and we need them back here now.6

If the Republican circus of presidential candidates manages to persuade – by the regular repetition of inadequate and ill-informed talking points – that the route to future US economic prosperity and national security is through ever more military belligerence abroad, then we are on the way to yet more wars. Which is why the equivalent debate inside the Democratic Party must, as a matter of urgency, shift its focus from purely domestic matters to matters of foreign policy, and to a progressive assertion of the relationship between the two. The route to both US security and national prosperity lies through peace, not war.7 It lies through robust diplomacy abroad and economic reconstruction at home; and Democrats need to say so.

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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