Casey Brunelle's picture
Debate rhetoric ignores humanitarian dimension
Posted on Feb 16, 2016

The Ninth Republican Presidential Debate on 13 February in South Carolina, laden with the typical rhetorical clashes that audiences have come to expect (and seemingly laud) started off with a reading from the works of George Washington – that the “truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light.”

During this last debate in particular, the candidates of the GOP, while certainly saturated in conviction, were sorely lacking in understanding and, through it, strategic foresight. This is especially true when it comes to most candidates’ vision for proposed intervention within the Syrian Civil War.

The pains that have sought to bring these truths to light reveal that those already in top positions of power within the U.S. policy establishment – and now contending for the presidency itself – either discount by default or willingly dismiss the true narrative of the conflict.

The painting by candidates of a supposed dichotomy to be chosen between Assad’s regime and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) serves as a disservice to a factual and insightful understanding of the war’s origins and its current situation. At the most basic of arguments, this grossly simplistic equation ignores other relevant stakeholders, especially the marginalized and disenfranchised civilians living within their respective areas of influence, and those to whom the humanitarian realm should most be dedicated.

Whether one is labeled as a Sunni, Shia, Kurd, or any number of the other unique ethnic and religious sects in the region, it is disconcerting that those U.S. presidential candidates – who speak of seemingly universal values such as freedom and liberty – wholly discount those who are affected most by the conflict, regardless of which belligerent party is beyond the atrocity of the day. The black and white dichotomy proposed by most of these candidates in “choosing” either Assad or ISIL illustrates a vision of foreign policy that is short-sighted, ignorant, and irresponsible to both global stakeholders as well as their respective domestic constituents.

To equate ISIL as being representative of some sort of monolithic and unified Islamist extremist movement plays exactly into the so-called “caliphate’s” propaganda aims.  At the same time, to label those marginalized citizens that have come to believe in ISIL’s tenants as a seemingly legitimate socio-political alternative as simply “irrational barbarians” who are not afforded the opportunities of the neoliberal institution, is also an ahistorical diagnosis of highly complex and globalizing issues.

Too often is there a misrepresentation in equating the understanding of extremist motivations with an effort to justify them. While certainly not serving as an endorsement for either the contending foreign policy visions of Clinton or Sanders, the rhetoric deployed by most members of the GOP candidacy reveal evident gaps in understanding not just for what is best for the U.S. voter, but also for the average global citizen.

Once more, the same imperialistic and universalist frame of mind within the U.S. policy apparatus that catalyzed a descent into chaos for the Middle East threatens to destabilize any chance for a sustainable and equitable peace in the region. As comforting as it might be to fledgling politicians to spew fear-mongering rhetoric that suggests either all those within the Islamic World are complicit with ISIL atrocities, or that those who support them are simply “barbarians” beyond the reach of the neoliberal institution, the fact is that such discourse is not only ignorant, but that it proves as a disservice to those whose life and liberty is entrusted to such policymakers to safeguard.

From knowledge is borne understanding, and from understanding might strategic foresight be developed that will bring about real and sustainable improvements for what has swiftly become the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time. Rather than seeing such a crisis as an opportunity to exploit the fear and fatigue of U.S. voters, a wise and accountable aspiring policymaker might rather see it as an opportunity to further regional and global dialogue in a way that has been actively prevented by prior administrations. It is only through such discourse that the peace eluding this troubled region might be rooted in the needs of those who demand it most.

Yes, the words of George Washington ring true, both within the constituencies of the U.S. primaries, but also globally. There must be pains taken to bring the truth to light – and it is indeed frightening to assess exactly what action will follow now that these truths are known.


Casey Brunelle is an intelligence advisor with more than five years' service in both the public and private sectors. A graduate of University of Ottawa, he recently completed an internship at UN Headquarters with OCHA.