By Alex Rowell,
With the race for the 8 November election of the 45th president of the United States having effectively narrowed to just four major contenders, NOW takes a look at where the candidates – Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump – stand on five key Middle East policy issues.
As the above graphic illustrates, there is substantial variation not just between but within the Democratic and Republican camps regarding Middle East policy.
On Syria, both Clinton and Sanders seek to depose President Bashar al-Assad by political negotiations, whereas Cruz and Trump have both said the president is preferable to any currently available alternative. While Clinton has argued Assad is the root cause of ISIS, and thus “it’s very important we operate on both [removing ISIS and Assad] at the same time,” Sanders has on several occasions opined that fighting ISIS is a higher priority than ensuring Assad’s exit, which “doesn’t have to happen tomorrow.” Clinton has expressed the most enthusiasm for supporting moderate anti-regime rebel factions, saying the US should “retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units” and even calling for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to be managed by a coalition of nations. All three of the other candidates oppose a no-fly zone, though Trump has spoken vaguely of creating a “big, beautiful safe zone” to house internally displaced Syrians. Regarding opposition fighters, Cruz says, “We should stop engaging in the fiction of trying to find these moderate rebels.” This sentiment isshared by Trump: “The so-called ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels pledged their allegiance to ISIS after Obama’s address. We should not be arming them!”
On Iran, despite his declared preference for Assad, Cruz is the most hawkish of the four candidates, calling Tehran “a state sponsor of terrorism that seeks a nuclear bomb to wipe the United States and Israel off the map” and pledging to “rip up and rescind this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal” on his first day in office. Trump has vowed to “police” the Iran Deal but has stopped short of saying he would undo it, putting him in roughly the same terrain as Clinton, who has called for vigilantly monitoring Iranian compliance. Sanders is the most dovish on Iran, saying “what we have got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”
On the fight against ISIS, the Republican candidates have vied to outbid the bombast of one another’s rhetoric, with Trump vowing to “bomb the shit out of ‘em” and Cruz pledging to “find out […] if sand can glow in the dark.” Beyond this “carpet-bombing,” Cruz has called for working closer with Kurdish anti-ISIS militants, while Trump suggests up to 30,000 US ground troops may be needed to do the job. Clinton has outlined a plan involving, among other things, targeting the group’s finances, strengthening the Iraqi army and winning back the support of alienated Iraqi Sunnis (“The task of bringing Sunnis off the sidelines into this new fight will be considerably more difficult. But nonetheless, we need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening”). Sanders has vowed to minimize American involvement in the war, suggesting that regional powers, including Iran, should send ground forces in to defeat them. Clinton, by contrast, has said, “We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges […] Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.”
On Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Clinton and Cruz have characterized the group as a dangerous extension of Iranian regional influence, but have not outlined any specific policy for addressing them. Trump has opined that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah will “be gone” by the time he takes office in January 2017. NOW could not find any record of Sanders commenting on Hezbollah.
Finally, on refugees, the Republican candidates oppose granting asylum to any refugees from the Middle East (with the exception of Christians, in Cruz’ case), whereas both the Democrats support the idea. Clinton has endorsed America taking in up to 65,000 refugees, while Sanders has said he doesn’t know the “magic number.” Cruz has described “Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America [as] nothing less than lunacy.”