Rewriting Mideast history and geography at Republican debate

Joyce Karam
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"Russia flies in that zone at the invitation of, when you think it’s going to be a good idea to have a no fly zone over Iraq, realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes. If you’re ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq."

-Senator Rand Paul, the Republican debate in Wisconsin, 10 Nov. 2015.

The above quote illustrates the level of inaccuracy and hyperbole on foreign policy that went unchecked at the last Republican debate on Tuesday, hosted by Fox Business. With the exception of Senator Marco Rubio and former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, serious misstatements were made about the Middle East, substituting Syria for Iraq for example, or claiming that China is at war, or viewing Israel’s wall as a model to address illegal immigration in the United States.

While foreign policy is unlikely to be a make or break issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, discrepancies over current affairs and basic geography of the Middle East was all over the debate and should be a cause of concern for the GOP establishment. The higher likelihood of facing the Democratic party candidate Hillary Clinton in the general elections means bare minimum knowledge of the location of Syria, or of U.S. involvement in Iraq is important for winning a debate against the former Secretary of State.

Tuesday’s debate exposed a foreign policy disarray for the Republican Party in being torn between the Putin admirers and adversaries, and in offering a confused analysis over Syria’s war and geography.

Joyce Karam

Where is Syria

The biggest gaffe of the night was Rand Paul’s insisting four times that Russia is bombing Iraq, in an answer to a question about a No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Syria. Paul who comes from the isolationist wing of the Republican party, appeared to be isolated and detached himself from the Middle East political reality. His assumption that a NFZ in Iraq by the U.S. would drag Washington into “another war in Iraq” is so outlandish that it make Donald Trump’s Syrian proposal sounds rational. Moscow is neither bombing Iraq, nor has been invited to do so by the government in Baghdad. Washington, on the other hand, is still bombing Iraq 12 years after promising a bustling democracy in Baghdad.

As whimsical as Paul, was candidate Ben Carson suggesting that China is fighting in Syria. In an answer on the latest U.S. decision to deploy 50 Special Operations forces in Syria, Carson said “well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them there, because they — that’s why they’re called special ops”. Five seconds later Carson added “you know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there.” Carson is recently leading in the states of Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada, and Arizona. However, China is not a faction anywhere in the Middle East and the U.S. Special operations forces are part of a mission to train Kurdish and local forces.

Trump’s wall and Jeb’s Lebanon

Another odd moment in Tuesday’s debate was Trump’s analogy of Israel’s security barrier as a model to his wall with Mexico, attempting to block the illegal immigration on the long border. Trump said “if you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel” ignoring that Israel’s wall is against international law for being built on annexed Palestinian land and covers 650 kilometers compared to the 3110 kilometers needed on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Trump also praised Putin’s efforts in Syria, saying if Russia “wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%.” A small caveat here is that the majority of Russian strikes in Syria exclude ISIS. The U.S. State Department’s spokesman John Kirby estimated on October 17th that “greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against ISIS or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.”

Another far cry from reality came from Jeb Bush stressing the threat of ISIS to a point that “if you’re a Christian, increasingly in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Syria, you’re going to be beheaded.” There hasn’t been any beheadings of Lebanese Christian civilians since ISIS declared its Caliphate on June 2014, albeit the minority feels more threatened in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya.

The debate had many valid attacks on Hillary Clinton’s record including her flip flopping on the keystone pipeline and the trade agreement issues, but one from Senator Ted Cruz did not. Cruz’s statement that Clinton and the Obama administration “abandoned the nation of Israel” is distortion. Coming on the week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington to secure an unprecedented $50 billion in military aid the next ten years, the U.S. approach is nowhere near abandonment.

Tuesday’s debate exposed a foreign policy disarray for the Republican Party in being torn between the Putin admirers and adversaries, and in offering a confused analysis over Syria’s war and geography. It’s a frightening reality for those who could potentially be on the receiving end in the Middle East, and perhaps puzzling for others in China or Mexico.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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