The GOP Field: 14 Candidates Who Would Never Do This
The domestic conversation has focused mostly on the issue of whether or not to accept refugees from this crisis, with every single Republican presidential candidate saying no to Muslim refugees. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have somehow been even worse, saying that they would only allow Christian refugees. President Obama has been overseas all week and has been very consistent that he will not change the process for screening and accepting refugees. At least one Governor, Mike Pence (R-IN) has turned away refugees from him state and about 30 other governors, mostly Republican have said they will do the say.
This post is meant to record my impressions of the tack and my expectations for what will happen next. I will organize the topics roughly from most to least important. And I can remove all suspense by telling you that I don't know how to fix the biggest issues here.
I. Climate Change.
This mess was created by the decision of the Bush administration to depose Sadaam Hussein in 2003 and a drought in Sryria. That drought forced many farmers to abandon their land and head to Syria's cities. The tension in those cities contributed to unrest that coincided with the so-called "Arab Spring" of 2011. This conflict eventually turned into a full-fledged Civil War. The chaos created by that Civil War and the ongoing problems in Iraq created a situation that allowed ISIL to thrive.
If you're reading this and anticipating push back from some obnoxious relative at Thanskgiving: bookmark this link. They won't read it, but they at least you will know you tried.
If you're reading this and anticipating push back from some obnoxious relative at Thanskgiving: bookmark this link. They won't read it, but they at least you will know you tried.
II. The RefugeesIn the days since the attacks, the most pressing issue has been the fate of the more than three million refugees created by the war in Syria. In addition to the aforementioned Governors, Poland and other EU nations have also backed off from commitments to receive refugees.
A lot of these decisions are based on two related fears, which are rooted in very different degrees of reality. The immediate fear was that the attackers in Paris were people who came to Europe as refugees from the Syrian conflict. So far all of the identified attackers were French or Belgian nationals. A Syrian passport found at the soccer stadium may have been a forgery planted by ISIL to spread fear of refugees.
The bigger fear is that somewhere among the more than three million people currently crowding refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan are people trained by ISIS to penetrate the western world and carry out more atrocities. This despite the fact that our screening process for refugees is thorough and exhaustive, taking a minimum of 18 months.
But I don't want to dismiss these concerns out of hand. ISIL is proving to be a lot more savvy with the ways of the world than Al Qaeda ever was. That is probably generational to an extent but it also reflects the influence of ISIL members who were raised in the West. They know how to produce slick videos and how to use social media in ways that earlier incantations of Jihadism never would have thought of. So maybe they can infiltrate the refugee camps. And maybe some of the people displaced by the war are sympathetic to ISIL because they think the real cause of their trouble is President Asaad or the Iraqi government or the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
We have been accepting refugees from war torn countries for a very long time. One of our greatest shames, after slavery, was the decision to not allow more Jewish refugees in from Nazi Germany. And the refugees we have accepted in recent years have committed virtually zero acts of terror here. The only recorded instances of people being granted asylum here and then committing wars are two Iraqis who tried to buy arms to send back to Iraq and the Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing. The Iraqis are in prison for their crime. One Tsarnaev is dead, and his brother is on death row.
The mature thing to say now is that the risk is minimal and we can accept it because the alternative is much worse. ISIL hates these refugees because they consider them traitors for having fled their territory for life elsewhere. Even more importantly, ISIL needs as many people as it can keep under its thumb. It needs soldiers, and workers and most of all, tax payers. ISIL would love for the people of Syria and Iraq to believe there is no hope in fleeing. They want those people to accept life in their caliphate and have made it a state goal to destroy the "grey zone" where Muslims can mix with and live among people of other faiths. We live in that grey zone and we should be very proud of that. ISIL will use any reticence by Western governments to accept Arab refugees as a propaganda talking point. And they hope that attacks like the one in Paris will make Westerners less likely to accept and live among Muslims. Our fear makes us look weak to ISIL and cruel to the people they terrorize.
If we are better than that, we will accept all the refugees we have pledge to, and tens of thousands more. Bu the politics of that is going to be sticky. More on that later.
III. A Word About EmpathyOne of the most common topics of discussion on social media this week was the disparity in interest between this attack and an earlier attack by ISIL in Beirut, Lebanon. The Beirut attacks killed 43 people and although the media did cover these stories, the public reaction was much more muted. The common explanation was that this was rooted in racism. But that's a bit simplistic, considering that ISIL recently bombed a Russian airliner, killing more than 200 mostly European people.
The real issues is empathy. Every Westerner has either been to Paris, planned to go to Paris eventually or dreamed about it as some vague future goal. It is one of the great cities of Earth and it has been romanticized in more movies and books than just about any other. When Americans hear about a rock concert in Paris being shot to hell on a Friday night, we all think, "That could have been me, if I had saved a little more money for that vacation I've been meaning to take."
For as long as I have been aware of the larger world, Beirut has been synonymous with war and deprivation. Of course there are Americans who have been there, or who have family there, but for the rest of us, Beirut is not a place we dream to see one day. When a hotel blows up there, we rest easy because we know we would not have been there at any time and we're virtually certain that no one we know was there either. The same goes for a flight from Egypt to Moscow. I have been to Egypt and I am something of a Russophile. But the odds of my being on that flight are practically zero. The very human instinct of empathy just does not kick into gear the same way when we know that we and our loved ones were never at risk of being hurt.
On the Friday after the Paris attacks another Islamist group took 270 hostages at a hotel in Mali, eventually killing 27 of them. The press covered it. And two days later no one in the West is talking about it. I guess they didn't grow up dreaming of Honeymooning in Bamako.
IV. Allow Me to Upset Everyone.Two broad camps have emerged with very different opinions of the role of Islam in all of this. The left-wing group claims that this has "nothing to do with Islam" so often that the phrase has become a sardonic hashtag for new Atheists and other critics of Islamism. On the right, Islam itself is presumed to be inherently violent. Every single Republican candidate for president has said he or she would refuse to accept any Muslim refugees from Iraq and Syria. Donald Trump has expressed support for monitoring mosques and for requiring Muslims to register as such with the government.
Neither of these opinions are serious. The former is at least well-intended, but that's not a good enough reason to justify it's naivete. For simplicity's sake, I will discuss these two camps as Reactionary and Apologist.
The Reactionary view of Islam is extremely harmful to our national security. Donald Trump's polling numbers have improved since the attacks in Paris, because a lot of people are afraid of similar attacks happening here and he has been most willing to say outrageous things that give the fleeting feeling of comfort. Jeb Bush seemed to toy with the idea of being a grown-up on this situation by half-heartedly denouncing some of the more outrageous statements of the Xenophobes. And then he backtracked to clarify that we should only accept Christian refugees. This made me think of those idiotic Facebook Memes of George W. Bush asking "Miss Me Yet?" As president? Of course not. But as the figure head of one of our political parties? We apparently could do a lot worse. And we are.
Even Marco Rubio, the great establishment hope, has said some truly stupid things this week, desperately flailing to look "tough" on this issue, without giving a moment's thought to how his comments will be received in Muslim-majority nations. He has proven himself to be every bit as much of a demagogue as Ted Cruzy. I will remind everyone of that next summer when the media tries to tell us that Rubio is the serious choice for conservatives. There is no serious choice for Republicans in 2016. The base is over run with the phobias that Fox News has been slinging for the past seven years. They are stuck with 14 childish options. And that is a shame.
But the Apologists are not helping either. Lots of liberals rushed this week to say that ISIL does not "represent" Islam. Indeed they are not representative of mainstream Islam. They are a fringe movement, and a good analogy can be made to the standing of the KKK in Christianity 75 years ago. But here's the thing about a fringe: it is part of the rug.
In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris a lot of Apologists spread a modernized translation of a verse of the Koran translated as: “Whoever kills an innocent life, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity” –Quran 5:32
A noble sentiment. But the Apologist crowd ignores the very next verse:
Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment, -Quran 5:33.
The Reactionaries seem to delight in the brutality of that second verse. But since most of the Reactionaries identify as Jewish or Christian, they would do well to read the Old Testament passages on stoning rape victims (Deutoronomy 22:28-29) or mandating the death penalty for people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14). My point is not that the Quran is especially violent. It is a product of its time, and taken literally, it can have very bad consequences. And Islam's biggest problem is that too many Muslims are fundamentalists.
It's become a canard of the right that moderate Muslims do not denounce terrorism. In fact, they do. By wide margins, and loudly. What they do not do, is state publicly that the Quran is imperfect or subject to liberal interpretations. Opinion polling on these issues is inherently suspect because a lot of people probably answer affirmatively to questions such as "Do you agree with the punishments for adultery as prescribed in the Quran or the Haddiths" because they either don't know what that punishment is or because they feel obligated to answer that way, but would never actually support those punishments being carried out in reality. (For the record the Quran calls for lashing in the case of extra-marital sex. Several Haddiths, statements of the Prophet Mohammed, call for Stoning. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajm.)
Other statistics are more troubling. Substantial minorities believe that Honor Killings, the killing of women by male relatives when she is found to have dishonored her family are permissible, at least under some circumstances. This is true even in moderate, democratic countries like Turkey (32%) and Indonesia (18%). (Source: Pew Survey)
This is relevant because ISIL bases its governance on a literal reading of the Quran. Countless scholars have shredded their views on this point, but the fact remains that Theology is never a settled science. And ISIL is pretty meticulous in justifying its policies by pointing to specific passages of the Quran or to specific Haddiths. There are Jews who believe that the Old Testament should be taken literally. But they are few in number. Fundamentalist Christians believe silly things like that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that Evolution by Natural Selection is a myth inspired by Satan. Happily, the Enlightenment tamed the worst of these movements by making, for example, the burning of people for owning a Bible written in English a capital offense. (But let's remember that Sir Thomas Moore did just that when he was the attorney general of England less than 500 years ago. And Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of Politicians less than 20 years ago.)
I've never heard anyone claim that the KKK represents mainstream Christianity. I've also never heard anyone seriously deny that it was a Christian movement. Islam is not uniquely violent. But it is uniquely fertile ground for violence justified by fundamentalism. That is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. And while we must be careful not to demonize the 23% of the Earth that practices that religion, we also should not ignore this very real problem. Pretending that ISIL does not justify its violence by pointing to sacred Islamic texts is a delusion. And we have to face this problem with the full force of our reason.
V. What Is to be Done?Now the hard part. Every single candidate for President has said that we need to step our efforts against ISIL. When pressed for specifics they usually say this means more airstrikes, especially against ISIL's de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. France reacted to the attacks by dropping 20 bombs on Raqqa and some thought this was a sign of things to come. But not much has happened in the week since, which makes those missions look like they were mostly done for show. Only a few candidates have called for large numbers of American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. And for good reason.
If we send in thousands of American troops, we could route the military forces of ISIL. Most of their soldiers will probably blend back into civil society. And we would suffer some heavy casualties and spend a lot of money. And the biggest question is, what will replace ISIL. Russia and Iran pushing to ensure that President Asaad be allowed to remain in power after all. That seems tempting but is probably a bad idea considering that this conflict arose as a reaction to his barbarity, including the use of chemical weapons. He is not an acceptable player on the world stage. The normally staid Economist suggested this week that the West increase its military strikes and even called for an army of Turkish, Saudi and Gulf Arab soldiers to govern what's left of Syria.
I'm not sure that this would be much of an improvement over ISIL. Saudia Arabia recently sentence a poet to be crucified for having renounced Islam. Last year they beheaded a man for the crime of sorcery. So how a Saudi-led military coalition would be an improvement over the present bunch of fanatics is very much in dispute.
We all know this conflict is not worth World War Three but some politicians are willing to call for actions that would lead to just that. Hillary Clinton and some of the Republicans have called for a no-fly zone to prevent Asaad from terrorizing his people. But no one has yet pressed them on whether this would include a commitment to shoot down Russian fighter jets. Marco Rubio wrote an even more reckless Op-ed which basically calls for a repeat of the mistakes we made in Iraq. That's incredibly foolish but seems predicated on a common, very false presumption that there exists some force in the region which will take power and rule peaceably if only we rallied to its side. That force does not exist and any politician that bases its policies on that fairy tale is being dishonest.
ISIL has styled itself as a Caliphate, which is a necessary component of the Quanic End Times. Al Qaeda did not got so far as declaring that status for themselves. They lacked the geographic region or blood ties to the Prophet Mohammed to make such a claim plausible. ISIL feels otherwise. The most hopeful sign is that ISIL has not expanded it territorial control in many months, and has recently lost some land, including the city of Sinjar, Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of ISIL, the proclaimed successor to Mohammed. Killing him will be a big blow to their claims of Quranic legitimacy, so a targeted strike that takes him out may do some good. But realistically, ISIL will not fold just because their leader dies. They may point to the Quran as their inspiration now, but they've had enough earthly success to just fold up after a setback like that.
And if they do fold, if their members do slip back into civilian life, the issue will not go away. If we procure peace in this region, it will be tenuous at best. The scare of the civil war and the effects of the drought will not go away no matter what military and political solution the world comes up with. An all out effort will cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. Nine months later we'll begin reading about some new shitty acronym and the pundits will rush to declare them worse than, or nothing compared to ISIL. This cycle is reality for the present and the names are more likely to change than the underlying facts.
If you want to see what "victory" looks like in this war, consider these photos taken after the Western Powers and Kurds "liberated" Sinjar, Iraq from ISIL: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2015/11/sinjar-aftermath-isil-151120063256291.html
It just may be time for us to admit that we have to live with this situation for now. The Kurds have performed admirably and they deserve our support. But we have to remember that their demand will be recognition of a Kurdish state when this war is over. They will probably deserve that but the consequences for Turkey, Iran and what ever is left of Syria and Iraq will be enormous. The West is in no position to make that promise now.
We lose about 30,000 Americans every year to gun violence. A majority of that is lost to suicides. But about 12,000 are murders and a substantial number are accidental deaths. We have made the collective decision to live with those numbers because the alternative, surrendering the right to bear arms is too great. In the more than 14 years since the 9/11 attacks, only 71 Americans have died in domestic terror attacks. But we seem willing to spend any price to combat this threat, including more than 5,000 members of the armed forces, well over a trillion dollars in military expenditures and significant curtailment of our civil liberties.
Barack Obama has made this observation many times, usually in the context of calling for more gun control laws. Maybe the first grown-up to make it in the context of calling for a deescalation of the War on Terror should be the next President of the United States. More likely we will be choosing between two watered down versions of more of the same.
VI. Politics.It may seem in poor taste to discuss that subject in the aftermath of a large slaughter of civilians, but for the past year this blog has focused mostly on the 2016 Presidential election and I want to indulge in some speculation about what this means for the candidate.
The short-term reaction has been very clear. Donald Trump jumped up in the polls, mostly at the expense of Ben Carson. Ted Cruz has also seen a bump, defying the expectation that Marco Rubio was about to begin consolidating the establishment vote. The base seems to think that Cruz is built for this fight a little better than Rubio. The Democrats continue to coalesce around Hillary Clinton. Bernie might win New Hampshire but he has not built a serious national operation and O'Malley remains stuck in very distant third place.
Trump continues to double-down on nativism and fears of terrorism. Today he claimed to have watched "thousands" of Arabs in Jersey City celebrate the 9/11 attacks. No evidence of these celebrations exist, but he says he saw it "with his own two eyes", albeit on television. Carson has also been a profile in cowardice, comparing refugees to rabid dogs. John Kasich, another semi-serious candidate has stooped to calling for the creation of a department of the federal government to promote "Judeo-Christian values". Even Rand Paul has said some stupid things about the need for more military action. Apparently he realized that Paris obviated his flirtations with defense sanity.
This is ugly. And the first caucus is only ten weeks away. If Carson's support continues to slip, Iowa is anyone's game. But Cruz might be best positioned to win there. Trump seems destined to win New Hampshire now and Rubio will need a win in SC or NV to stay relevant. By March 1st, this will probably be a three way race, and I can see any of the three winning.
As for the general election, the Democrats have to be worried. Another major attack, even in Europe, will hurt their credibility, fairly or not. Next fall Hillary will need to distinguish herself from President Obama and she might be tempted to run to the right. But that's not a great way to beat any of the likely Republican nominees, any of whom will be willing to say things far crazier than what she might say. She admirably resisted the temptation to say "radical Islam" during the recent Democratic debate. I hope she keeps her senses about her, because as bad as the politics of trying to out crazy the Republicans on this issue are, it's an even worse method for governing. And the world of 2017 can not afford a President Trump, a President Cruz or a President Rubio. That much is clear.