Of all the many Republican debates that are coming, the one tomorrow (Sept. 16) on CNN will be the one that is most important, in the sense of being meaningful for the most important role that a potential President must perform. The promise is that this debate will deal predominantly with foreign affairs and military policy, which are, in fact, the areas in which POTUS has direct influence (if not total control).
When it comes to domestic legislative policy, none of these candidates have anything worthwhile to say, but then, it is Congress, not the President, that legislates. Economic policy, you could say, is above the President's pay grade: though people seem to rate a President by how successful the economy is during his (her) Administration, the President has very little influence on that outcome. They can do a bit on the margin, as when President Obama's administration had to decide how large of a fiscal stimulus to advocate in 2009, but again: it was Congress that had to pass it, and economists who had to figure out what made economic sense. So, I really don't care too much what the Republican candidates will ever have to say about domestic policy (and what these candidates will say will certainly not be worthwhile).
In theory, there is no reason, though, why these candidates can not make important contributions to the debate over foreign and military policies--generally speaking, they are not partisan issues by their nature: though the desired military budget could be a divisive topic, a better way to think of it is whether a candidate's proposals for that spending make sense in the context of a general strategy for the US' presence and activities in the international arena. I say "in theory", because there are limiting factors that I suspect will be evident: the demands of the campaign may limit the time candidates have to prepare their ideas and arguments, or equally important, to understand what is going on in the world outside the US; they may have little interest in these subjects, or may believe that having mastery of them is not critical to the job of being elected; and then the worst aspect, that most of them seem to think the best strategy, at least as regards getting their party's nomination, is to seem the most aggressively, outrageously macho, making unrealistic claims about all the hypothetical missions impossible they will achieve. And in this, unfortunately, they may be largely correct.
Still, I think this debate could be a valid exercise, one which could demonstrate to viewers of all political persuasions which candidates are not unthinkable in the job. For, if they can do an adequate job of leading the country in its exercise of the critical leadership roles which can hardly be avoided in this era, the rest of it matters much less: the checks and balances in the other areas will operate. We need only to look at the failed presidency of George W. Bush to understand that the inverse of this statement is true.
With this preface/rant in mind, let's go over some of the critical facts which candidates should have digested in order to make some kind of respectable showing tomorrow.
Germany's Brief, Shining Moment
Though the deaths due to negligent or criminal refugee smuggling operations have been in the thousands in 2015, they did not get the world's attention until two recent incidents. The first was a truck full of dead people found just inside the Austrian border with Hungary a couple weeks ago; the second was the image of the dead 3-year-old taken from the water's edge near a popular Turkish beach resort. Maybe it was the racial identify of these victims (middle-class Arabs, as opposed to the predominantly African victims of failed crossings from Libya to Italy which went on for months, with little reaction from the world community), but for whatever reason, the world suddenly became aware that the Syrian refugee problem, which has been building up like a pressure cooker for four years, was ready to blow open.
Germany's heroic response was simply to acknowledge the rules which are supposed to operate in the European Union: political refugees are to be taken in, with an evaluation of the validity of their claim to refugee status at the earliest opportunity. Economic migrants are a different matter, subject to the member countries' policies, capacity to absorb them, with criteria favoring the potential economic contribution of the migrants allowed. Angela Merkel's leadership allowed a happy resolution to the impasse which had developed at the train station in Budapest, Hungary, a country that clearly was not following the EU rules. For this, Germany deserves great credit, probably the greatest moment since the unforgettable days when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
Wading into Mess--
('opotamia, as coined by Stewart, Jon)
The problem with Syria is that almost all the 4 million people who have fled from that country could claim political refugee status, in that their return--to the wrong part of the country, at the wrong time--would mean their likely persecution and possible death. The country is a gigantic mess and nowhere is really safe. Thus, unfortunately, Germany is rapidly coming to the same conclusion that other countries, less welcoming or less observant of the rules, drew instinctively: an Open Door policy can not be maintained, because word gets out and only makes worse the smuggling issue and quantitiy of refugees on the move.
I suspect that the Republican candidates will all have arrived at the same conclusion, whether it is through the route of economic fear of immigrants, distrust of Muslims (though that might permit advocating acceptance of some of the non-Muslim Syrians), or simply the dynamics of a volatile situation. The answer must be found, somehow, in the policy toward the multi-sided, complex, brutal battles raging in Syria (and Iraq), and that is where the full variety of their levels of preparation or sophistication will be demonstrated.
The extreme low end--which may not at all be the least popular--would be some variety of "just bomb them all into submission". I will be looking for the response to two particular recent developments: Russia ramping up its assistance to the minority recognized governmental regime headed by Bashir Assad, and Turkey (finally) entering the battle theater, attacking both ISIS and their most determined enemies, the Kurds.
These are complex problems for American policy: the Russians are working actively on behalf of the leading opponent of our foremost enemy (and target of our air attacks); the Turks activism has included a critical aid to us, its NATO ally, which had been withheld previously: use of the Incirlik air base in Turkey which will greatly simplify our anti-ISIS air efforts. Turkey has previously conditioned aid on agreeing to a no-fly policy restricting Assad's near-genocidal air attacks on its opponents, something highly defensible from a humanistic point of view but that would greatly increase the risk to American airmen. Further, Turkey has pursued its Kurdish opponents--forces we, and the world, rallied morally behind in the recent desperate struggle for the town of Kobane--with at least as much vigor as ISIS, and for transparent motives of domestic self-interest. President Erdogan's authorization of attacks on Kurds, though ostensibly in retaliation for terroristic assaults by affiliated groups within Turkey, appears to have the motivation of finding a way to disqualify, or hamper, the electoral participation of the Kurds' (legal) political wing in upcoming elections, new elections Erdogan called after his party lost control of Parliament due to the entry into it (after reaching a threshold level of 10% of the popular votes) of the same Kurdish party.
These variations--Turkey and Russia's changing involvement--are the critical ones in my view, because Turkey's military is capable of being a game-changer: it could potentially defeat ISIS by itself in a matter of months, if it chose to do so; while Russia has demonstrated great capacity for disruption (in Syria, and also in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Crimea...) There is also a question of prioritization: recently, the US has prioritized containment of ISIS, with resolution of Assad's regime (through the policy of ending it) on the back-burner. The "third force"--not ISIS, not Assad--has not yet materialized in a meaningful way. So, given the urgency of the refugee problem, do the candidates have anything useful to suggest to solve both problems in a reasonable timeframe? Anyway, we will see what, if anything, the candidates can come up with on these difficult topics--it would be somewhat impressive and sufficiently astute just to show some understanding of President Obama's posture on them and contrast their own opinions to his.
Other Questions of Significance That May Arise
(I wil send these to CNN in case they are looking for good questions to ask)
World markets have been spooked recently, particularly by the drop in Chinese companies' valuations. What should US' monetary policy response be, and with what objectives for world markets?
Our neighbor and largest trading partner Canada is heading toward elections which are currently a virtual three-way tie. If you were President now, how would you resolve the Keystone pipeline issue in a way which would not disrupt their internal politics?
It now appears Congress will not pass a resolution to express disapproval of the multi-lateral Iran nuclear deal. Given that it will now begin to take effect, what's your next step?
What is your stance toward North Korea's nuclear weapons, which that country has recently claimed are ready to be used to attack any country? What about your stance toward Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons?
Do you agree with the International Monetary Fund's expressed opinion that Greece's refinancing of its debt needs to include a some recognition of losses by its creditors in order to make it feasible for them to repay them?