The Missing Peace: US Presidential Candidates

Op-ed: Liz Hume is the Senior Director for Programs and Strategy at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

The 2016 American presidential election marks a critical moment in world history. With violent conflict across the globe and the increasing threat of violent extremism, the new president will inherit an unstable, violent, and rapidly-evolving world. Unfortunately, many presidential candidates have responded to the threat of violent extremism with divisive and bellicose rhetoric—useful for scaring up votes, but counterproductive to building sustainable peace and stability. While the Alliance for Peacebuilding does not endorse one particular presidential candidate, we urge voters to cast a vote for peace by educating themselves about the issues and supporting the candidate they believe will usher in a new era of international peace and stability.

Members of the peacebuilding field have been working toward resolving conflict and building just and inclusive societies throughout the world for decades—and the Alliance for Peacebuilding represents a global network of over 100 organizations committed to these ideals. We believe that political platforms advocating violence as the sole means of addressing violent extremism and other security threats both domestically and internationally, serve only to create a more unstable and dangerous world. To confront these threats, the next President of the United States must balance reactive military responses—which can sometimes even fuel violence and extremism—with peacebuilding. Peacebuilding offers powerful, cost-effective tools for resolving violent conflict by analyzing the drivers and root causes of violence, and creating sustainable solutions for durable peace.

Peacebuilding is an integrative field, recognizing the complexity of conflict, and working across many different sectors, all in the service of creating the integrated responses necessary to sustainably resolve conflict dynamics. Peacebuilding programs create resilient communities by increasing immunity to violence and addressing the key drivers of conflict—such as corruption, marginalization, human rights abuses, poor security, and dysfunctional governance.

All of the presidential candidates proclaim that “keeping Americans safe” is their highest priority, but have very different ideas of how to achieve this vision. In general, the Republican candidates advocate increased spending on the military, asserting that America needs to show “strength,” while Democratic candidates argue that military action is not enough, and that we must begin to address the root causes of radicalization.

All three of the remaining Republican presidential candidates have pledged to strengthen the military and defeat or destroy the Islamic State. They also call for a tougher line on terrorism, which they suggest will quickly lead to victory—without elaborating on what that “tougher line” would involve, or specifying the costs in manpower and funds. Such rhetoric feeds our fears of terrorism and insecurity, but offers no real solution.

As of February 29, Donald Trump’s website has no posting on foreign policy issues. In recent debates, his national security policy has amounted to little more than a series of soundbites. On February 6, he said “I’ll build the military stronger, bigger, better than anybody up here.” On the Islamic State, he said we would “knock the hell out” of ISIS, “bomb,” “take the oil,” and “take away their money” by eliminating “back channels of banking,” claiming this would “very much weaken” the Islamic State “fairly quickly.” At the February 6 debate in New Hampshire, he endorsed the use of torture, saying: “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians. Not since medieval times have people seen what's going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Further, in an interview with Fox and Friends, Trump advocated killing the families of ISIS fighters stating, “they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.” The murder of civilians is considered a crime against humanity under the US-signed Hague Conventions.

On his website, Ted Cruz calls for rebuilding American’s military. He pledges to defeat the Islamic State, starting by “calling the enemy by its name – radical Islamic terrorism – and securing the border.” In the February 6 debate, he defended his pledge to “carpet bomb” ISIS by saying the strategy is “not indiscriminate,” but “targeted” at oil facilities, oil tankers, command and control locations, infrastructure, and communications, adding that a Jihadist University “should be rubble.” He said the Islamic State will have to be defeated “by a ground force, made up primarily of Sunni Arabs” that will need to be “backed up with more U.S. special operation forces and air strikes, adding that we are going to have to strike them, not just in Iraq and in Syria, but in every other part of the world where they have now created hubs of operation.”

On his website, John Kasich called for $102 billion in increased defense spending over the next eight years. On the Islamic State, he advocates a “complex, collaborative strategy involving mutual defense action by NATO and regional allies,” and “intensifying international intelligence cooperation, increasing support to the highly-effective Kurdish military, creating safe havens and no-fly zones, combating human trafficking in refugees, a NATO and regional coalition with ground troops, and more aggressively fighting the war of ideas to discredit ISIS.” On December 9, Kasich advocated for ground troops stating that, “we will all be on the ground sooner or later. Sooner is better than later.”

In contrast to the Republicans’ policies that focus solely on the use of force and torture, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both focused on diplomatic and peacebuilding approaches rather than military solutions alone to address international problems, including violent extremism. Both candidates have rejected the use of torture.On her campaign website, Clinton pledges to “strengthen our current partnerships and work to build new ones,” leading for the long term to build and engage civil society. On the Islamic State, she argues we should “confront and defeat them in a way that builds greater stability across the region, without miring our troops in another misguided ground war,” by “empowering our partners” and “ramping up airstrikes.” Clinton advocates that we, “press forward on both sides of the border, in the air and on the ground, as well as diplomatically…[to] crush ISIS’s enclave of terror.” On her plan to counter extremism, she states that, “overlapping conflicts, collapsing state structures, widespread corruption, poverty and repression have created openings for extremists to exploit” and any response to defeat international terrorism must be proactive by “empowering moderates and marginalizing extremists; supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law; creating economic growth that supports stability; working to curb corruption, helping training effective and accountable law enforcement, intelligence and counterterrorism services.” Clinton’s strategy would involve blocking terrorist financing as well as countering extremist ideologies. She stated, “we are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate,” also noting that “Islam is not our adversary.”

On his website, Bernie Sanders observes that we “live in a difficult word” where there are “no magical solutions,” and argues that America must “seek diplomatic solutions before resorting to military action.” On the Islamic State, he says participating in “an international coalition, led and sustained by nations in the region” is the “only way to defeat ISIS and to begin the process of creating the conditions for a lasting peace in the region.” In addition, he argued that “we must begin to address the root causes of radicalization, instead of focusing solely on military responses to those who have already become radicalized.” Sanders opposes the use of ground troops in countering extremism because he is, “worried about American troops getting sucked into a never-ending war in the Middle East.”

Our partners at the Alliance for Peacebuilding have conducted groundbreaking research in the field of violent extremism, and conclude that the primary drivers of violence include perceptions of marginalization and injustice, exposure to violence, feelings of isolation, and the belief that joining a violent movement holds the best prospect of achieving justice or purpose. Preventing and ending violent extremism and conflict is a complex issue that requires addressing fundamental social problems and political drivers through a whole-of-society, comprehensive approach not dictated by fear and short-term thinking and the use of force, exclusively. The causes of violent extremism and conflict cannot be solved with a military campaign alone, a reality the Republican candidates seem to be missing. While AfP will not endorse a candidate as the election approaches, American voters will be entrusted with the responsibility of electing our next leader, and we urge you to choose peace.

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