Debate about regime change offers scant comfort
In his opening remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pursuant to his confirmation as President-elect Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State in January, 1981, former Army Gen. Alexander Haig risked the wrath and votes of liberal Democratic committee members by declaring bluntly that "The assurance of basic human liberties will not be improved by replacing friendly governments which incompletely satisfy our standards of democracy with hostile ones which are even less benign."
The allusion couldn't have been more clear. ABC News continued to toll the 400-plus days of the Iran hostages' incarceration by a revolutionary Islamic regime, whose seizure of power both Haig and Reagan believed to have resulted no little from the Wilsonian proclivities and diplomatic fecklessness of the Carter administration.
Which is why it's a more than a little ironic that Tuesday's Republican presidential debate highlighted a profound division on that very same issue, this time not between squishy liberal Democrats and hawkish conservative Republicans, but rather among the latter.
The split principally pits Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul the so-called "outsider" candidates against Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, considered by political pundits to be preferred by the Republican Party establishment.
Stated baldly, the first three uniformly attack the Obama administration for supporting regime change against Middle East autocrats such as Libya's Muamar Gadhafi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Syria's Bashar al Assad without sufficient regard for the risk that the resulting destabilization might simply open the door to Islamist extremists such as ISIS.
Thus, Ted Cruz pointed out during the debate that support of regime change in Libya and Egypt had led to chaos in both countries, and argued that removing Syria's President Bashar al Assad threatened to repeat the error. "If we are to defeat our enemies," he insisted, we need to be clear-eyed that toppling a government and-putting ISIS or Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of yet another state in the Middle East is not benefiting our national security."
Trump earlier had advanced the same argument, repeatedly blaming former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for encouraging Islamist extremism. "She is the one that caused all this problem with her stupid policies," he declared last week on Fox News. "You look at what she did with Libya, what she did with Syria. Look at Egypt, what happened with Egypt, a total mess."
But perhaps the most explicit objection to regime change as a policy objective unsurprisingly came from Rand Paul: "What we have to decide is whether or not regime change is a good idea. ... Out of regime change, you get chaos. From the chaos, you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam. So [those seeking regime change] want to do something about terrorism and yet they're the problem because they allow terrorism to arise out of that chaos."
In contrast, for the "establishment" candidates, the virtues of regime change outweigh its liabilities. Thus Marco Rubio: "As long as Assad is in power, you're going to have in place someone that creates the conditions for the next ISIS to pop up, for the next ISIS to emerge. This simplistic notion that 'leave Assad there because he's a brutal killer, but he's not as bad as what's going to follow him,' is a -dangerous misunderstanding of the reality of the region."
Chris Christie offered more or less the same argument in an interview with The Atlantic the week prior to the debate, declaring that "ISIS is in part an outgrowth of Assad's conduct. So I don't understand how it gets fixed if Assad is there. I understand the problem of, who's next. If you're asking me how it could get better if he stays, I don't know how it could."
Note that, apart from Donald Trump, whose positions have ranged from "Let the Arabs do their own dirty work" to "Bomb them into the Stone Age," none of the candidates opposes continuing U.S. military engagement against ISIS. On the contrary, all repeatedly have criticized President Obama for what they deprecate as an ineffectual military strategy.
Even Rand Paul seems at least temporarily to have abandoned his long-time opposition to military intervention absent a truly existential threat, for which ISIS scarcely qualifies. Mutual charges and counter-charges by the candidates of "isolationism" and "interventionism" therefore ring utterly hollow.
Nor would voters preferring the nation to adopt a more restrained military policy find a great deal of encouragement among Democratic candidates. For their part, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley have largely evaded foreign policy issues, while front-runner Hillary Clinton's advocacy of "humanitarian" intervention and regime change remains unfazed by the unhappy results of the earlier interventions in Iraq and Libya for which she was a vocal cheerleader.
All which will make it even harder than usual for those who resent wasting lives and treasure on futile efforts to tame an unruly Islamic world to pull a presidential lever in voting booths next November.