In last week’s Republican presidential debate in Colorado, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie garnered huge applause after a moderator’s question about whether fantasy football should be regulated like gambling. With his famed Jersey bluntness, Christie exclaimed, “Wait a second. We have 19 trillion dollars in debt. We have ISIS and Al-Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football?! Can we stop?!”

The Egyptians with whom I stood in Tahrir Square during their mass uprising four years ago would have applauded along with the audience in Boulder. They too are concerned about ISIS and contend with frequent attacks by ISIS sympathizers. Their economy is crippled by debt and one in four people in their country of 90 million lives below the poverty line, including hundreds of people I have met during twenty years of research in the country.


For the next year, people in the Middle East, from Tahrir to Tehran, will be looking to our presidential election campaign. They want to see if the superpower that shapes so much of their lives will devise new concrete political and economic initiatives that level the national and global playing fields. Like Americans, people in the Middle East want U.S. leadership whose policies address these issues. They want leadership whose policies lead to peace and prosperity.

But by the looks of the 2016 presidential race, they’re going to get fantasy football.

The current foreign policy platforms of the major Democrat and Republican candidates will not make the lives of people facing ISIS any better. They will not make the region more stable and peaceful. Without explicit plans to address the economic conditions in the poorest countries of the region, violent movements like ISIS will only grow, and may eventually reach U.S. shores.

Take former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE, for example, the likely nominee for the Democrats. Her platform focuses on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and strengthening ongoing alliances with particular states (especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt). It also focuses on fighting ISIS through building “Iraqi military and governing capacity, our commitment to Afghanistan’s democracy and security, and by supporting efforts to restore stability to Yemen and Libya.”

Further, Clinton’s laser focus on Iran’s nuclear weapons, which is partly motivated by alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, ignores the fact that this second largest country in the Middle East has a massive youth unemployment rate of 18 percent for men and 39 percent for women. And those youth are 60 percent of the population. Lifting sanctions as a result of the nuclear deal will help Iran’s economy, but only certain parts. How can we ensure that the benefit extends to youth across society?

Nor does “supporting efforts to restore stability to Yemen and Libya,” in Clinton’s formulation, help Middle Easterners or Americans be secure from ISIS. Her platform is mainly military in nature, which has involved vast destruction caused by bombing campaigns often led by our so-called ally Saudi Arabia. As we know from military follies in Iraq and Afghanistan, such destruction destabilizes society and encourages the growth of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Republicans are playing fantasy football too, Christie’s comment notwithstanding. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHouse passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' MORE (R-Fla.) has the most elaborated Middle East platform. Like Clinton, he views Iran through the prism of the Israeli alliance and nuclear weapons, but he also wants to impose sanctions back on Iran no matter what. His plan to defeat ISIS also focuses on military solutions and has nothing to say about the structural economic and political causes of youth dissatisfaction that play into the hands of that group.

The positions of Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas), Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson are nearly identical to those of Rubio and Clinton. Perhaps surprisingly, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE, although lacking any specific platform on the region, at least criticizes past military adventures, cautions against new ones, and warns against unsure alliances. He recognizes that the astro turf is too dug-up to play a decent game.

None of the major candidates’ official platforms, however, take into account the citizens of Middle East countries. This includes an old man I met in Tahrir, who protested the theft of his state pension for investment in the free market created, in large measure, at the insistence of the Americans. It also includes the poor father I met who came to Tahrir because he couldn’t properly feed and educate his young son. And no candidate is recognizing how the regime’s bullets and tear gas used against protesters were often manufactured in the United States. Their platforms don’t connect to ordinary people.

If one of the main lures to joining ISIS is the promise of the good life, one would think that the presidential candidates would have a real plan for raising the standards of living in the poorest countries of the region. But then you’d have to actually have to take into account the wallets of the spectators in the football stadium, not just those of the offensive tackles.

The candidates need to see past the main players of the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and into the crowds. They need to truly recognize the daily difficulties of people in the Middle East whose lives could improve or grow worse based on our foreign policy. Until the candidates do, defeating ISIS and bringing stability to the Middle East will remain in the realm of fantasy.

Winegar is the Harold H. and Virginia Anderson associate professor of Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University.