One dove and a cast of hawks
With the exception US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, all of the Republican presidential contenders for the 2016 election hold positions on Iraq and Syria considerably more hawkish than that of the Obama administration. However, only one such contender has specified the number of US troops he would introduce to the battle; the rest speak in generalities, avoiding specifics as they assess the winds of public opinion.
Most of the Republican candidates have pounced on US President Barack Obama for being “ineffective” in addressing the threat from the Islamic State (ISIS). They have generally adopted a common position: Obama should have kept a residual US military force in Iraq; he underestimated the ISIS threat; continued instability in Iraq is allowing Iran to exert even greater influence in Iraq; the US training mission of moderate rebels in Syria is inadequate; and Obama lacks a real strategy.
The challenge for the Republican candidates is to offer more than criticism of Obama’s policies and distinguish themselves from their competitors for the party’s nomination.
Although former Florida governor Jeb Bush has been scoring rather low in opinion polls, he has raised substantial donations from the Republican establishment and is considered by many pundits to be the front runner. It is thus no surprise that Bush’s Republican competitors were happy to see him fumble when asked about his brother’s 2003 Iraq war. In the course of one week, Bush enunciated at least three different positions on that war, providing fodder to his competitors to show that he was out of his league when it came to foreign policy.
After shaking up his campaign staff, Bush is now trying to stay on a consistent message
The most hawkish of the candidates is Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who regularly calls for US military intervention in world crises.
On May 18th, he said he would send 10,000 US troops to Iraq, adding ominously that the longer ISIS is “allowed to survive in Iraq and Syria, the more likely they are to attack us here at home”. In June he said he didn’t blame the Iraqi army for “not joining us after we cut and ran on them” — a clear swipe at Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq and at US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s position that the Iraqi army lacks the will to fight.
The most flamboyant Republican contender, businessman Donald Trump, avoided the issue of US “boots on the ground”, saying instead that he would use US air power to “blast the hell out of that oil” that ISIS is selling.
Other Republican candidates are short on specifics. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin stated in early June that it was not necessary to send US combat troops to Iraq now, but he “would not rule out boots on the ground” — even in Syria — in the future.
Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, says US troops on the ground are needed to defeat ISIS, but he hedges on the numbers. He also claims that the United States “could have stopped ISIS before they got out of Syria” — another criticism of Obama. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie backs a “coalition of the willing” to fight ISIS, saying US allies in the region should do more. Like Walker, Christie said he did not think US combat troops were needed at this time, but “you can never rule anything out”.
Marco Rubio, the young senator from Florida, echoes this view, saying he would keep all options, including the use of US ground troops, on the table.
Standing alone on these issues is Paul, who long has been critical of US military intervention abroad, a reflection of his libertarian views. On ISIS, he argues that there should be “Arab boots on the ground” as opposed to US troops because vital US national interests are not at stake.
Paul’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Perry, who described Paul as “ignoring the chaos that has engulfed Iraq” and criticised him for “drawing his own red line along the water’s edge, creating a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world”.
Republican presidential contenders certainly are reading opinion polls, some of which suggest that a slight majority of Americans now favour US military intervention to fight ISIS. But Paul is counting on other polls that suggest a majority of Americans are fearful of being dragged into another quagmire.
Although Paul is likely to win a significant share of Republican primary voters, it seems unlikely that he will win the nomination. The majority of Republican voters are more in tune with the hawks — even if the hawks are vague on specifics.