Column for Netgazeti.ge, January 15, 2016
The U.S. presidential election is approaching.
Who will be the most desirable president—for Georgia?
By no means is it apparent which party’s candidate will win on November 8, 2016. Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is the undisputed favorite for the nomination. Though Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will likely win the first two primaries, in Iowa and, especially, in New Hampshire, it is still doubtful that the self-described democratic socialist will garner enough delegates in the aftermath, particularly in the Southern states.
Clinton engenders distrust even in her own party. The House Select Committee on Benghazi has long been trying to determine whether the then-Secretary of State neglected her responsibilities in 2012 in Libya, as the U.S. diplomatic compound was attacked by Islamic extremists. Four American citizens, including the ambassador to Libya, were killed. Questions of corruption surround the Clinton Foundation’s multimillion-dollar donations from foreign donors and governments alike in her years as Secretary of State. Another weighty scandal is the discovery that Clinton used a personal email address, located on a private server, to conduct the business of the highest official in the State Department. Thus she was putting classified communications in danger of getting into the hands of foreign secret services and hackers. Clinton has been caught red-handed on numerous lies in the process of the emails scandal. But this will only hinder her candidacy if the FBI presses charges against her, which is improbable. It’s at the Justice Department’s discretion to take such steps officially. And the Department is led by the officials put in charge by the current President.
Clinton, in comparison to Obama, entertains a more centrist campaign. However, since being painfully attacked by Sanders on the left, Clinton has intensified talk about a new 4-percent tax for the rich. In other regards she presents herself as an almost unchanged successor of Obama’s domestic policy. For Georgia’s future foreign relations, of course, her probable approach to foreign policy is more significant.
From this point of view, it is essential that Clinton co-authored the “reset” policy with Russia. It has not only stopped any notable confrontation with Russia after the 2008 war; it also contributed to the fact that an encouraged Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimea, and led a bloody campaign to subdue eastern Ukraine.
Clinton also supports Obama’s supposedly important achievement of a nuclear agreement with Iran. Its anticipated result, within the next several days, will be the return of 100 to 150 billion dollars of funds frozen by the sanctions previously imposed on Iran. At the same time, the mechanism to actually control Iran’s nuclear program externally has never been guaranteed. It is also uncertain how much more effective the steps a President Clinton would undertake to defeat ISIS actually would be. After the latest terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Istanbul—all carried out by the affiliates of this so-called caliphate—the only change in Obama’s passive policy was a slight increase of air strikes. Many military experts argue, however, that without ground troops in Iraq and Syria it is impossible to destroy ISIS.
The “Georgian Dream“ has an ostentatiously weak relationship with the United States. A large part of the Coalition is involved in spreading latently or manifestly anti-American and, moreover, anti-Western sentiments. The deepening of cooperation with NATO is not happening at the pace that would be necessary to develop adequate safeguards against possible threats from Russia or ISIS, because this is not in the interest of the Coalition informally lead by Bidzina Ivanishvili. On the contrary, they increasingly try to direct Georgia’s foreign policy towards Russia, as confirmed once again by the recent negotiations with “Gazprom.” It is probably in the interest of “Georgian Dream” for a U.S. presidential candidate who is not bent on the active promotion of democratic development in Georgia and the Caucasus region to succeed. Clinton is the best match for this. But on the Republican side things are not so clear, either.
Donald Trump, the failed “Batumi Trump Tower”-licensing billionaire from New York, is currently leading the polls with 30 to 35 percent among nearly a dozen Republican Party candidates. The primary system in the U.S. gives much weight to the first ballot castings—in Iowa on February 1, followed by New Hampshire, then South Carolina. In Iowa, Texas senator Ted Cruz is the frontrunner. Cruz, Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina are considered the most influential outsiders, who in this election cycle present an unexpected challenge to Republican establishment candidates.
Cruz, along with establishment darling Marco Rubio—a senator from Florida—is a descendant of a Cuban immigrant. Behind Cruz are gathered a variety of evangelical Christian groups, a growing number of libertarians—as their candidate, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, falls in the polls—supporters of the Tea Party movement, and conservative voters referred to as “Reagan Democrats.”
If Rand Paul demonstrates a great propensity towards isolationism, due to which he supports neither Georgia’s nor Ukraine’s NATO membership, Trump, whose true political orientation is not easy to discern—despite his strong anti-immigration statements—doesn’t consider this a priority, either. Trump plays an ethnocentric card, requiring, unconstitutionally, that all Muslims be temporarily banned from entering the United States, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” A candidate with a tangible pro-Georgian track record, backed by senator John McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina already had to suspend his race. His support for the enhanced arming of Ukraine is well-known. Rubio also advocates a more active foreign and military policy, in the Middle East in particular. And Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and brother of George W. Bush, will no doubt continue his brother’s foreign policy—the “Bush Doctrine.” Contrary to Obama’s liberal internationalism on the one hand, and to an indiscriminate interventionism on the other, it aims to promote democracy in countries bordering other democracies, including by overthrowing authoritarian regimes. However, the association with the Bush dynasty has so far only hurt Jeb.
This neoconservative credo is hardly of any interest to Trump. Ted Cruz promises, if elected president, to “tear up” the agreement with Iran on the first day in office, and to “carpet bomb” ISIS. What position Cruz will take towards the Caucasus region and Georgia remains to be seen. Clinton, like Obama, refuses to even use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Such formulations had already disappeared from the political dictionary of the Democrats, by a magical nominalist trick of sorts, about 2008. It is possible that Ted Cruz, in the case of Trump’s defeat in Iowa, will gain a crucial opportunity to strengthen his position in the next primaries. The coming weeks will show how the situation unfolds. It is no less possible that Georgia’s pro-NATO parties will have to deal with Cruz rather than a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush. And perhaps it is advisable that they already do so. Meeting with the Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for instance, who displays similar positions, but has little influence, will hardly be enough.
The establishment’s two other candidates, Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich from Ohio, do not seem to have much of a chance. All seems to come down to a decision between the hardly predictable real-estate tycoon, the Florida senator Rubio, and the charismatic Texan evangelical, who—according to a self-described tradition—cooks his bacon “a little differently,” by wrapping it around the barrel of a machine gun and firing rounds.
On Thursday, the next debate between the Republican candidates takes place in South Carolina. Which way the scales are tipped will become more apparent then. Yet the first palpable results will be brought by the Iowa primary caucuses on February 1. So will come the future, whatever it may be.