January 6, 2016
News from the Middle East brings word of 47 executions in Saudi Arabia. The dead are all Shia Muslims, including a prominent cleric. The Saudi ruling family and most of the populace are Sunni.
Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Saudis broke off diplomatic relations with (majority Shia) Iran. So far the Obama Administration hasn’t done much. It’s tempting to say pox on all their houses. This is why it often seems there’s no hope in the region.
Particularly on the GOP side, national security has vaulted up the list of campaign issues. Unless this all goes away very quickly and is not a precursor of anything else to follow, things just got a bit more complicated.
Since figuring out an easy solution is almost impossible, let’s focus on how it impacts the domestic presidential campaign.
The candidates are not affected equally:
As we know, The Donald is often extremely light on specifics. He doesn’t like to show his hand. Detractors assume this is because he doesn’t actually have a plan. Regardless, chaos helps his case.
For voters who think Trump is the only thing standing between them and Armageddon, here’s more evidence the world is out of control. As events continue to shift, the importance of declaring positions a year ahead of inauguration diminishes.
It also helps his argument that nobody is a friend, nobody is an enemy, everybody is a potential deal. Trump has spoken kindly of Vladimir Putin and basked in the czar’s praise. Many criticize this and with reason. Why cozy up to a dictator who murders journalists?
The Donald is willing and ready to do whatever he thinks is to the immediate advantage of the United States. You may disagree with him being America First, you may question his command of the details, but that’s the pitch.
Saudi Arabia was the Establishment Approved imperfect actor. If they can act this way, and have the U.S. government stay silent, where’s the line?
Meanwhile, Iran burning down an embassy is a reminder of who the Obama Administration just made a deal with. For the many Reagan Democrats thinking about Trump it also recalls what happened to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Trump fans will stay on board and a few others may begin drifting his way.
More good timing for the Cruz campaign. He’s spent the past month jousting with Rubio on foreign policy. Marco is the interventionist, Ted the skeptic.
Cruz argues we should attack ISIS aggressively from the air, put very few boots on the ground. More bombs, less people, no nation building. He spends much less time mentioning international coalitions than most of the non-Trump candidates.
There is no anti-ISIS coalition without the Saudis. Having the government take lethal action against Shias doesn’t preclude them from participating. After all, Cruz is one of the many Republicans who criticize the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from Libya.
The catch is the executions are a signal the Saudi rulers find themselves on shaky ground. The House of Saud has controlled the country since Ibn Saud unified it 85 to 90 years ago.
This was done with the help of the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Muslims, a large group in the country and a very traditionally-focused one. The most extreme elements spawned a certain Osama bin Laden.
The royal family has benefitted tremendously from foreign oil investment in the kingdom and has straddled the line between some modernization and keeping with strict Sharia Law. It’s a delicate balance.
Unlike the rest of the region, Saudi territory was not a British protectorate or otherwise part of the empire, moving from Ottoman control to independence. American involvement in Saudi Arabia came a little earlier and more separately from the U.K. than elsewhere in the Middle East.
While these details may not work their way into stump speeches, the complexity is an argument against the community approach to solving ISIS. That helps Cruz, who isn’t billing himself as the Great Conciliator.
This is really good news for Hillary. Why you ask? Things are messy and getting messier. People who support her or are willing to consider supporting her believe Clinton is smart, capable and willing to do what is necessary.
They aren’t voting for an idealist, aren’t concerned if she may have told a fib or seven. If you think the Middle East is beyond hope, that Cruz should turn it into a parking lot, you weren’t considering Hillary anyway.
However, if you do think experience matters, do think it’s worth engaging with the various players in the region, this certainly plays to her strengths. The Sanders “build a coalition” plan winds up sounding extra thin.
For those who would criticize her involvement in Libya, Syria, and other areas that are a toxic grease fire, this serves as a reminder that the Middle East lacks easy answers anywhere and argues you can’t blame it all on her.
Depose Qaddafi and look bad. Talk up the Saudis, eh, that’s not that safe either. Might as well let Hillary just do her thing. That’s how this is good for both her and Cruz even if they aren’t up for the same approach.
Christie is all about protecting the homeland. He’s leveraging his prosecutorial experience for all it’s worth (and then some). It’s a dangerous world out there and Chris will keep us safe. That or something close is his pitch.
The bigger a mess the Middle East is, the less it seems like there’s somebody we can safely work with, the more Christie looks better than his rival governors.
Iran’s response plays very well into Christie’s criticism of the Iran deal. His complaints are mostly a mainstream version of Trump’s.
At this point he would also prefer discussing terrorism and national security than his record in New Jersey.
Mixed. The positive part is Bernie has resolutely voted against sending American troops to the Middle East. He opposed both Iraq wars, isn’t big on regime change, thinks there are limits to what America can accomplish over there.
Trump and Cruz voters are opposed to nation building and wary about sending lots of troops, but they’re up for things like blowing people up and taking oil. Sanders voters are more inclined to just stay away, something they have in common with Rand Paul supporters.
For Bernie’s core voters, this is another reason to turn out, to volunteer for the campaign, to make sure it isn’t business as usual for another four years.
Unfortunately, the Hillary leaners that Bernie needs to start converting, particularly in Iowa, have shown so far that they rally to her when disturbances occur. For them, her perceived hard-eyed practicality is necessary.
Bad. Rubio is fluent on this stuff and you can expect to see him on at least one Sunday show talking about what he would do and why Obama-Clinton were wrong. It won’t cost him any existing supporters.
But it also won’t help him peel anyone back from Cruz or Christie in New Hampshire. It is one more thing that puts him with Jeb Bush on the establishment side, rather than being a compromise option between Tea Party and establishment.
If he can clear the field and narrow this to Trump, Cruz, Rubio at the earliest possible opportunity, perhaps when things like this come up, he can rally the interventionist side with his response. For now, not a help.
Somewhere between not good and awful. Jeb suffers from the same problems as Rubio, except worse. Rubio at least is running fairly decently in the polls and isn’t dealing with “why did your campaign collapse” questions.
Rubio’s dad, as he likes to remind us, was a bartender. Jeb’s dad had a very strong relationship with the House of Saud. I seem to remember his brother may have a hand in the current Middle East situation too.
Bush is showing signs of life in New Hampshire, connected to Commander-in-Chief issues, where he scores better than his overall polling. There is enough of a crowd in the Granite State that appreciates the “adult” approach Jeb takes to these issues.
Jeb’s national narrative is still very negative. This will add to that. Most Bush voters could stomach Rubio, Christie, or Kasich. If they perceive he’s dead in the water, they won’t waste a primary vote on him.
In a world where Rand Paul was a contender, grabbing plenty of Independent and crossover support, this would really help him. He believes we have no place officiating these type of disputes.
In the present, it’s helpful too, but probably not anywhere near enough to help him enough to make it something to analyze.
Carly Fiorina is struggling to get attention, but is well-suited to have effective responses to the new developments. She’s very willing and able to toss specific knowledge around (without getting in to the weeds, just enough to show background).
Her pitch is an effective middle ground between Rubio and Cruz, part of why she was ahead of both in the polls for a few minutes after the second debate. There’s little chance she gets a hearing soon, but is well positioned should it happen.
I’m curious what John Kasich has to say. Unlike the others, I can’t predict his position. Unfortunately, outside of a few corners of New Hampshire, nobody else is curious.
If this impacts Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Martin O’Malley in any way, it’s lost on me.