The 2016 presidential campaign, which already seems well past its shelf life with more than a year still to go, has provided more than the usual collection of foolishness, pratfalls and dangerous inanities. The Democrats have certainly contributed their share of diversions, led by Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco, an unforced error that has become the mother of all gifts that keeps on giving.
And then there’s the Republican grab bag of contenders. Dr. Ben Carson, for example, has demonstrated the classic maxim that you should “stay in your lane.” His brilliance as a surgeon does not necessarily make his political utterances smart, relevant or even sensible. His observation that the Holocaust could have been prevented if Germany hadn’t had such tight gun control laws is proof positive that Dr. Carson should have stuck to medicine. Ditto for his statement that victims could have blocked a mass murderer if only they’d dare to rush him.
Donald Trump, for his part, has entertained us with insults, bravado and bold if empty promises. The popularity of such candidates shows the degree of citizen anger and dissatisfaction. Many are simply not happy with the country’s direction and support such outsiders to poke a finger in the eye of Washington and the political establishment. It’s an understandable impulse, though it might be better coupled with an insistence on leaders with the experience, ideas and practical ability to actually govern.
The nature of our political discourse
Back in the 19th century we had a major political group called the “Know Nothing” party. The party disappeared long ago, but the label could be applied to much of our political discourse in recent years. If we can’t get our way in Congress, let’s shut down the federal government. If the deficit is too high, let’s stop paying the bills. If dealing with climate change is inconvenient, let’s find a scientist or two who has doubts so we can safely ignore it. Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that guy behind the tree.
If the president doesn’t agree with our ideas, he must be a fascist, a socialist, an alien, Muslim, terrorist or all of the above. A diplomatic deal to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons must be bad because it was negotiated by this man (along with the leaders of all the other major powers, a subtlety we ignore). If we don’t like parts of his health care reform, let’s throw the baby out with the bath water. Rinse and repeat – 50 times.
And if our own party leader dares to compromise occasionally with this chief executive, throw the bum out!
This is not so much politics as war. Most of the Republican presidential contenders reflect this take-no-prisoners approach in their positions on foreign and security policy as well as domestic concerns. If we would only be stronger and tougher, we – and the rest of the world – would be much better off. As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
We already spend more on military matters than the next 10 countries in the world combined – and most of those are our allies. Yet Carly Fiorina offers a general’s shopping list for more troops and planes and ships. She doesn’t say how more U.S. military muscle would help resolve bitter internal conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere around the globe.
World knows what Jeb won’t acknowledge
Jeb Bush’s final answer when asked about the U.S. invasion of Iraq was that the “surge” a few years later was a success. Do you walk to school or take your lunch? The world knows that the United States made a horrendous mistake in attacking Iraq under false pretenses in 2003, whether or not our would-be leaders can bring themselves to admit it. It is also obvious to observers elsewhere that we have failed miserably in a 12-year effort to prepare Iraqi security forces that can be relied on to defend their own country.
The United States helped win two world wars, built the world’s greatest economy, championed democratic values, and has a record of accomplishments second to none. But being an exceptional nation does not mean we are without flaws. In fact, a bit more humility about past errors and limits on our ability to unilaterally influence future developments would increase rather than diminish respect for us abroad.
Americans should insist that presidential contenders engage in less grandstanding and quit mindlessly blaming our incumbent president for all the world’s wrongs. What we need instead is serious debate about how to heal our differences at home and confront our challenges abroad.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He lives in Plymouth.
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