The US Presidential Election: Competing Visions about US Power

Zachary Barker - Assistant Editor

Image credits: Alex Hanson

It is often hard to take seriously the hyperbolic language that is being thrown about in the primaries phase of the US Presidential election, particularly on the Republican side.  Marco Rubio, short-sightedly in my opinion, has vowed to repeal the US-Cuban reconciliation.   Donald Trump seems to revel in evermore bizarre and blood thirsty language about what he would do about the Islamic State if elected.  He is barely more credible or restrained about how he would deal with China.  At face value with the Republicans it is only the darling of right-wing libertarians, Senator Rand Paul, who calls for less flexing of US military muscle.  There is a stark division on the Democratic party side as well between the two front runners; anti-war campaigner Bernie Sanders and acknowledged hawk Hillary Clinton.

The front runners in the Republican Party each seem to be supporting the notion that Obama has allowed the US to retreat from it’s former pre-eminent position in the world.  This viewpoint is summed up in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”.  In this way the Republicans seem to be, either consciously or unconsciously, channeling the spirit of former US President Ronald Reagan.  Reagan is widely seen among Republican voters as the man who won the Cold War and stopped the retrenchment of US power under President Carter.  In my humble opinion this is more of a statement of myth than a statement of fact.  Reagan in my opinion was a serial liar, a poor disciplinarian with his cabinet, a madman who set fire to Central America and merely the last person sitting in the chair of power when the music stopped in the Soviet Union.  However the US Republicans, never ones to let facts get in the way of things, mostly revere Reagan and hope for the second coming of someone who will take his mantle.

So has Obama let American power wain?  Certainly there is some argument for this, but the charge is not a completely fair or accurate one.  Obama’s speech in Cairo heralding a softer approach to the Muslim world based on understanding for some hardliners set the wrong message.  With regards to dealing with the legacy of the two wars he inherited, Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has been mixed.  With the former Obama at the start of his tenure eventually agreed to a troop surge (below the level his chiefs recommended) and then began to draw down US forces, although not completely vacate them from the country.  Obama voted against the Iraq War as a Senator and eventually withdrew US troops from the country.  However with the rise of the Islamic State Obama recommitted US forces to the fight against it, although mostly in the form of air assets.  Obama was rightly accused of “flip-flopping” when Syrian President Assad used Chemical Weapons against his people and Obama did not respond with US air-strikes as he earlier promised.  This helped to make him look like an indecisive leader.  And yet there is no shortage of Obama use hard power during his administration.  The infamous terrorist leader Bin Laden was assassinated in a daring and controversial Special Forces raised he authorised that struck in Pakistani territory.  There have also been far more drone strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border during the Obama Administration than there have ever been under the Bush Administration.  All in all I believe it is easier to charge Obama as being an uncertain leader more than a gun-shy one.

It could be said that the 2016 Presidential election thus far have been dominated by two insurgent politicians; the blunt talking democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders and the Republican establishment challenger Donald Trump.  In many ways they could not be further apart.  Bernie Sanders denounces “big money” with the power and hatred of a charismatic preacher.  The billionaire Donald Trump is about as big money as you can get with the typically condescending and disingenuous US Republican self-professed commitment to the “average Joe”.  However in terms of foreign policy there are intriguing similarities.

Bernie Sanders supports the deployment of US Military power very selectively.  As a Senator he supported the deployment of military force in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and in US actions against IS.  However in addition to having voted against the Iraq War he also has publicly stated that he no longer supports continued US action in Afghanistan.  This positioning is largely consistent with Bernie Sanders’ involvement in the anti-war movement since the Vietnam War.

One of Donald Trump’s main domestic policy campaign pledges to build a wall on the US-Mexican border and make the Mexican Government pay for it would arguably lead to a diplomatic incident.  That is after the Mexican President has stopped laughing and comes to the realisation that this would be a serious request from an allegedly serious US President Trump.  Aside from this and bluster about how he would deal with IS and China, Donald Trump’s, thus far declared, foreign policy is largely remarkably restrained.  Trump has spoken in favour of what he sees as unnecessary projections of US military power.  Trump has specifically cited his concern for the cost of financing US military commitments in Europe, where for years successive US Administrations have encouraged European countries to take more responsibility for their own security.  He has also controversially has openly talked about reducing the US military presence in South Korea being quoted as saying “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?.  When will they start to pay us?”  This is one of the few occasions where Donald Trump does have a point.  The same could be said of US military commitments to Europe.

For all of Marco Rubio’s rubbishing of the Bush dynasty’s latest candidate’s presidential aspirations, his campaign with regards to defence and foreign policy looks decidedly retro.  Readers of his website would be forgiven for feeling some Cold War nostalgia, since the section about Cuba talks about “fighting Communism”.  The Rubio campaign speaks about widening the war against IS and generally speaking about using US hard-power without any reservation.

At the end of the 2007 film “Charlie Wilson’s War”, based on a fantastic book, Congressman Wilson who sponsored the US support of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, pleads with his colleagues.  He argues in vain for US funds to support the reconstruction of Afghanistan now the Soviets have left.  He passionately gives a speech about how the US charges in to foreign countries with their “ideals” but always “leaves” for countries to experience the consequences of their actions alone.  My biggest fear is that after a series of US military misadventures abroad, Sanders and Trump will forget that inaction has consequences too.

It is not right that too many countries and regional groups free ride on US military power to deal with their problems.  But an abrupt and rapid contraction  on US military commitments may have consequences too.  Frankly I don’t think that Trump will care about these consequences, since his overconfident manner and businessman-like occupation with the short term will leave him largely ignorant of them.  For Sanders he may be quicker on the mark to recognise when he is wrong but possibly too in conflict with his principles in order to initiate corrective action.  To this end I would support a ticket that combines the reasonably hawkish tendencies of Hillary Clinton with Bernie Sanders’ caution.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles
Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol's Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1