Republican candidates on Middle East: All about Iran and ISIS

While the Republican candidates aspire for a Reagan-esque foreign policy, the regional picture could restore the George H. Bush doctrine

Joyce Karam

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Some of the 17 Republican candidates for the Presidential nomination in 2016 have wild theories on the Middle East. Donald Trump claims that the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) "built" a four star hotel in Syria, while Rand Paul accuses the Iraqi government of being an ally of its archenemy ISIS, as Ted Cruz confesses to his admiration for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

But even with all the Trump and Cruz hubris, none of today’s GOP candidates is promising a return to the foreign policy of the last Republican resident of the White House: George W. Bush. The days of the Iraq war and democracy promotion in the Middle East are something of the past. Yet, the Republican field with its hawks, realists and isolationists, is promising a very different path in the Middle East than the one pursued by current President Barack Obama.

The platform of mainstream Republican candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker signals an end to the “frenemy” (friend and enemy) status with Iran, fixing ties with the GCC states and Israel, and escalating the war on ISIS.

Turn page on W. Bush

“I am my own man” declared Jeb Bush in the last debate, drawing a wedge with his former brother George W. Bush who started two wars, and left office in 2009 with the biggest economic crisis since the great depression. The Republican class of 2016 “is a more careful and less ideological than that accompanying W. Bush to power in 2000” says Jonathan Schanzer, a former treasury official during the Bush days and the Vice President of research at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies.

Schanzer tells Al Arabiya News that the U.S. itself has transformed and so has the Republican party. Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, “ it was a different nation, because we were hit”. Today, while the GOP still has “less tolerance than Obama for bad actors” it “is not going to go to war overnight and the American people are more war weary.” Schanzer adds that the “neoconservatives within the party are are less prevalent today, and we will neither witness a prominent return for (the Iraq war architects) Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle nor a push for democracy promotion.”

The Republican party has turned the page on the Iraq war, and even the more hawkish candidates in its ranks such as Senators Rubio, Cruz and Lindsay Graham shy away from defending the invasion and from threatening military action against Iran. Jeb Bush now considers the Iraq war a mistake, and Trump likes to remind that he was against it in 2003.

ISIS and the Isolationists

The aftermath of the Iraq war and the economic crisis gave ascent to the libertarian wing in the Republican party, most notably represented today by Rand Paul. On foreign policy, Paul calls for a more isolationist policy in the Middle East, which involves cutting the military aid to U.S. allies, and cut military sales to the Iraqi government as well as support for the Syrian rebels. His theory as explained in the last debate claims that the U.S. weaponry sent to Baghdad could end up with ISIS. Paul said :"I'm the leading voice in America for not arming the allies of ISIS.” "ISIS rides around in a billion dollars' worth of U.S. humvees . It's a disgrace. We've got to stop, we shouldn't fund our enemies, for goodness sakes.”

The rise of ISIS however, its increased threat to the United States and increasing instability in the Middle East has weakened Paul’s message. “Ironically, it was Barack Obama who really rang the death knell for the libertarian/isolationist wing of the Republican party” says Danielle Pletka, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Pletka tells Al Arabiya News that “because the situation is so bad in the Middle East, around Russia, in the South China Sea...responsible Americans realized that we can’t sit back and hope for the best.”

Obama is criticized by the right for “leading from behind” in Libya, and Syria. Members of his own party including Democrat’s frontrunner Hillary Clinton have differentiated their approach from the White House on the need to do more in Syria and linked inaction there to the rise of ISIS.

“This isn’t an administration that necessarily represents Democratic thinking” says Schanzer of the Obama team, expecting that “if Clinton is elected, she will likely reject the Iran detente, steer a more proactive regional policy, and address the paralysis in Syria.”

Rejection of Iran deal

While the GOP candidates don’t agree on military deployments in Iraq or the question of establishing safe zones in Syria, their rejection of the Iran deal is unanimous and some feel very strongly about it. Trump’s quote “they’re laughing at us back in Iran” was outdone by Mike Huckabee who accused Obama of marching “Israelis to the door of the oven” reveal how deep the schism is on Iran.

Those candidates don’t agree, however, on the best path and timeline to undo the deal. Candidate Scott Walker, pledged “to terminate the deal on day one...reinstate the sanctions authorized by Congress." Jeb Bush on the other hand struck a less ambitious tone stating that on day one “I will not probably have a confirmed secretary of state; I will not have a confirmed national security team in place; I will not have consulted with our allies. I will not have had the intelligence briefings to have made a decision (on the Iran deal)”.

Schanzer anticipates that between now and the inauguration of new President in January 2017, all eyes will be on the senate vote on September 17th, and the implementation of the deal itself, to determine how will the next President address. Key questions will involve whether Iran is making the region more unstable or if it’s cheating in implementing the agreement. Either option could lead to ramping up sanctions on Iran, something that Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush have promised.

Pletka does not hold high hopes for the Iran deal, and expects that the next President “will be confronted by the fall out of this disastrous Iran deal, the failure to manage Assad, the rise of ISIS, the continued strength of al-Qaeda and so much more.” She speaks of a “global nightmare” given that “we are worse off in every way than we were seven years ago, and Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush and Scott Walker and Marco Rubio all know it.”

Faced with four wars in the Middle East, and more unpredictable non-state actors and bellicose governments, rebalancing the U.S. role in the region will be a daunting task for the 45th President. While the Republican candidates aspire for a Reagan-esque foreign policy, the regional picture could restore the George H. Bush doctrine, says Schanzer. One based on enforcing allies, while pursuing selective yet successful use of military force in liberating Kuwait without toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991.