This week, the ongoing war of attrition between the Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, to occupy the position once held by greats like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had the appalling distinction of being both politically pernicious and personally vulgar. Gutter politics does not even begin to describe it.
Watching Trump and Cruz trading insults on the air, firing poisonous 140-character tweets at each other’s, even diminishing their wives while claiming to defend their characters, one wishes to send them back to simpler times where they could settle their feud in a real life and death duel, but one would immediately realize that both men lack real character, hence they are bereft of real courage.
The American electoral rituals; including primaries, caucuses, rallies and worn out talking points, lumbered under the shadows of another terror attack in Europe. But instead of eliciting thoughtful analysis and serious discussions and practical steps, to shore up the allies in Europe and strengthen the domestic front against potential enemies from within and without, the two candidates sank deeper in the mud, peddled fear and demonized fellow Americans, issued shrill threats of unleashing fire and brimstone against opaque enemies, and once again aroused the worst daemons of our nature.
Most Middle Eastern countries suffer from bad governance, and lack viable political institutions and the European Union, given Russia’s aggressive irredentism in the Ukraine, and the unbearable weight of a historic influx of refugees, is under tremendous strain and may not survive as a unitary structure. All of this cries out for a wise and steady American leadership, based on broad support from an informed public opinion that accepts the indispensability – and the cost- of American leadership in the world to confront and check conventional adversaries and the asymmetrical depredations of non-state actors like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Last week’s political and electoral discourse was disheartening to say the least.
President Obama defended his cautious war against ISIS which in recent months put the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria in a defensive mode, and continued to degrade it; but he said that while defeating ISIS is the first priority of his administration, there is no need for radical change or a ‘Plan B’ to intensifies the war. But instead of addressing the real shortcomings of the war, such as the need to increase the tempo and intensity of special operations with the collaborations of some of the regional powers against ISIS, the setting up of safe zones for nationalist Syrian opposition groups to govern these zones and provide them with arms and training, the Republican candidates, proposed a litany of outrageous, immoral and illegal actions.
Trump cavalierly waived the nuclear option, while Cruz stuck to his preferred weapon of terror; carpet bombing. Both Trump and Cruz harshly criticized President Obama’s war against ISIS, but both of them opposed deploying ground troops to defeat ISIS.
A corrosive and bitter political language became the Lingua Franca of some in the Republican Party, a Party that acts at time as if it is an insurgency more than a political partyHisham Melhem
Asked if he would consider nuclear weapons to retaliate for the Brussels terror attacks, which were claimed by ISIS, Donald Trump said he would be open to such option. In a television interview Trump spoke of the need to display “unpredictability” to keep the enemies guessing, “I frankly don’t want the enemy to know how I’m thinking. But with that being said, I don’t rule out anything.”
The banal and casual way Trump speaks of the nuclear option, is matched by his ignorance that using a nuclear device against a city like Mosul in Iraq or Raqqa in Syria and murdering thousands of civilians would constitute a war crime, not to mention the political ramifications in the region and beyond.
Senator Cruz who threatened in the past to make the desert sands glow in the dark in the wake of intense bombing, is not interested in explaining how he thinks he could get away, politically and legally, if he carpet bomb towns and cities with high concentration of civilians, (which is considered a war crime by the Geneva Convention) since the “Caliphate” lacks large industrial and military facilities to be subjected to carpet bombing.
...And the quixotic
Trump renewed his previous ban on Muslims entering the United States, and for legalizing waterboarding and other forms of torture to extract information from captured ISIS henchmen. Ted Cruz called for the immediate halt to what he called “the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al-Qaeda or ISIS presence”. Cruz earned the scorn of many Americans, when he essentially called for the profiling of members of the American-Muslim communities. “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized”.
Cruz, who is a lawyer, sidestepped the fact that such practice would violate the civil rights of American-Muslims, has admitted that he does not know the number of American-Muslims in the country and simple demographic and social realities, chiefly among them the fact that the majority of American-Muslims don’t live in “Muslim neighborhoods”, like many Muslims in European cities, that they are living all over the country and working in every conceivable sector, and a large proportion of them are highly educated, assimilated and represent an integral part of the middle and professional classes.
Equally important is the fact that American-Muslims are as diverse ethnically and culturally as the rest of American communities. American-Muslims constitute a rich human mosaic. An American-Muslim can be a blond European from Bosnia, a black from sub-Sahara Africa and having every pigmentation in between, and American-Muslims boast a babel of tongues. Peddling fear of immigrants, ignores the painful truth that some acts of violence and terror committed by a handful of American-Muslims since the 9/11 attacks were initiated by natural born citizens, not refugees or immigrants.
Republican chickens are coming home to roost
In the last few decades, the very conservative wing of the Republican Party began to wage a cultural war against other Americans who disagreed with them on issues such as abortion, prayer in schools, gun control, and same-sex marriage. They vehemently opposed those moderates and liberals who wanted, to have realistic and meaningful gun laws and regulations, preserve the rights of women to control their bodies, and for people to choose whom to marry.
Those who disagreed with conservative purity on national security issues such as the invasion of Iraq, reduction of the military budget, or those calling for banning torture, saw their patriotism being questioned. This lopsided view of politics, allowed the conservative powers that be to divert the attention of many citizens, particularly those of lower incomes and education from seeking redress to their legitimate economic, health and educational grievances, and instead focus on the tangential “cultural” issues.
In recent years the Republican leadership in both the White House and Congress was obsessed with cutting taxes on the wealthy and the big corporations. The Bush administration did exactly that when the country was waging two wars simultaneously, to deleterious effects. In some quarters of the conservative movement, opposition to very modest increases in taxes (for instance to repair the country’s antiquated infrastructure) has become almost like a religion.
The old, healthy skepticism of federal or centralized power and its corrupting influences was transformed into enmity towards the Federal Government. Washington “is the problem” became in the minds of some as the unspoken “Washington is the enemy”.
After the election of Barack Obama, with the rise of the Tea Party, and the so-called Birther movement, which denied Obama’s Americanism, some in the leadership of the Republican Party, which made it clear that they will not cooperate with the President, tolerated and even cultivated the anger many poor whites felt because of their tough economic situation, and encouraged them to direct that anger against Obama, the “Muslim”, who wants to confiscate their personal guns, and force them to subscribe to Obamacare.
The racial backlash was unmistakable. A corrosive and bitter political language became the Lingua Franca of some in the Republican Party, a Party that acts at time as if it is an insurgency more than a political party. This political and cultural milieu, in addition to the changing demographic make-up of America, and the economic destabilization of globalization and the flight of many jobs from America to other countries, in part because of trade agreements pushed mainly but not exclusively by Republicans, are responsible for the rise of the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
It took many years for the political right to reach this nadir; it will take many years before the right corrects its way.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem