Time to Test the Presidential Candidates

by Henry Precht

There is a school of political scientists that argues candidates for high office ought to be selected by examination rather than ballot. It’s not a very significant or noisy school, to be sure. But it’s a thesis that bears examination.

Let’s say that those in the presidential contest were sat down behind desks for an essay exam. Let’s say that the subject was a frequently discussed one: How would you, dear candidate, deal with the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS or IS)? 

The following sound-bite answers (unidentified as to author) are taken from their many pronouncements. The comments are my red pencil notes thereon.

The Candidates on IS

Bring back torture, starting with waterboarding. Apart from violating international and national law, this idea—according to experienced experts—doesn’t work. A committed terrorist either won’t talk or will mislead.

Surge the number of intelligence agents working on the problem. In my data collecting/analyzing experience, CIA officers prided themselves on doing more with less or fewer. Enlarging the bureaucracy is not apt to generate efficiency.

Carpet-bomb the area and make the desert sands glow. Could there be a reason why our military hasn’t turned to this option? Could it have to do with turning innocent civilians who suffer losses into newly minted, vengeful terrorists?

Go after the terrorists’ kinfolk. The Russians regularly apply this option against the Chechens and, reportedly, it seems sometimes to work. The Israelis have long been destroying family homes without winning their struggle. When it comes to the US, our ideology rejects punishing the innocent for the crimes of others, kin or not.

Push regional Arab states into taking effective action against IS. The starting point for this initiative is the fact that IS and its mates were originally funded and assisted by Sunni supporters in the Gulf and Turkey. Although their attitudes might have changed somewhat, they regard Shia Iran, not their fellow Sunni IS, as their chief enemy. Additionally, when it is suggested that the US might put the squeeze on Saudi Arabia for more dough, that kind of pressure is unlikely to produce a willing and cooperative ally.

Ban Moslem immigrants from our shores. Assuming we want the help of Moslem Near Easterners, this kind of blanket insult is unlikely to generate warm friendship among sought-after allies. The 1.2 billion members of the faith will feel collectively insulted.

Patrol Moslem neighborhoods in the US and record dwellers therein on a database. Ditto.

Tear up or renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran and avoid any cooperation with Tehran. We have few real and effective allies in the fight against IS. Iran is one of them. It makes no sense to turn them away, just as it makes no sense to join Turkey in hostility towards the Kurds, who are the best fighters against IS.

The Assad regime, backed by Russia, has to go. Leaving what kind of governance behind? If the Syrian state is beaten, IS and other militant Sunni and secular groups will fight over the spoils. The US and its allies will face a far more difficult challenge from a failed state housing terrorists than from one that still has structure and a degree of order.

What’s Missing from the Test Responses

Not one of the aspirants for the job defending America prescribes the use of US forces on the ground to wipe out the enemy. That tells you something about how seriously this Middle Eastern threat is perceived vis a vis an aroused and unhappy electorate.

In none of the discussions (with the sometime exception of Bernie Sanders) is there any effort to relate IS to its origins and current manpower sources in the corrupt and bumbling autocracies of the Middle East and the slums of Western Europe. (For an enlightening description of some young men who sign up, see “Exporting Jihad” by George Packer in The New Yorker.) Nor is there (excepting Sanders) much discussion of the consequences of the disastrous Bush initiative to invade and “rebuild” Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once the facts of history are set forth, the question becomes: what is to be done to not repeat them. That, alas, is another question no one wants to try to answer in a sound-bite campaign.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.