US Republican candidates vague about ISIS
For all their criticism over US President Barack Obama’s alleged failure to craft a comprehensive strategy to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), the ever-more-crowded field of Republican contenders is also struggling for a winning formula — one that will appeal the party’s hawkish base but not frighten away independent and moderate voters in the 2016 general election.
What course of action the Republicans decide will be critical for the Middle East. Following May’s humiliating defeat in Ramadi, the United States may make a few tactical adjustments in the way it conducts airstrikes and speed the delivery of weapons to Iraqi forces.
But it is also clear that the Obama administration has no intention to produce a new game-changing — much less game-winning — strategy to defeat ISIS. Basically, Washington is in a holding pattern, playing for time until Obama leaves the White House in January 2017.
So bring on the GOP. Absent a divine miracle in Baghdad or Damascus, the Republicans may well end up guiding — or strongly influencing — the course of the war after the November 2016 election. And there’s no doubt that ISIS will still be around, and quite possibly an even greater threat if Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government collapses.
When it comes to dealing with ISIS, however, the Republican presidential field, which numbers at least 15, is proving more adept on the “babblefield” than the “battlefield”. For the most part their message is clichéd, muddled and carefully parsed to make it seem like they are saying more than they are.
With few exceptions, no Republican White House contender has offered anything like a detailed proposal on how to defeat ISIS that a) is distinctive enough from Obama’s, b) can win over a war-weary American public and c) has even the remotest possibility of success if implemented.
Take, for example, remarks by George Pataki, among the latest to join the race. Pataki, who was governor of New York during 9/11 attacks, called for a more robust US military presence in the Middle East. Then, however, Pataki quickly added he was not talking about sending “a million soldiers” and spending “a trillion dollars” on democracy projects. Instead, he would “send in the troops, destroy their recruitment centres, destroy the area where they are looking to plan to attack us here and then get out.”
Presumably he was not referring to ISIS “recruitment centres” in Britain, France or Belgium or, for that matter, in Minnesota.
On the hawkish end of the spectrum are Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Each wants to send 10,000 US soldiers to Iraq and accelerate the bombing campaign. Santorum went so far as to tell a conservative gathering in February that if ISIS wants to establish a seventh-century caliphate, “let’s oblige them by bombing them back to the seventh century”.
Bombing has made American wartime politicians feel good about their manhood since the Vietnam War because it makes them think they are doing something without risking big casualties of a ground war. So it’s no surprise that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have all called for intensified air strikes. Never mind that generals in the Pentagon have said publicly air strikes alone will not beat ISIS.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and others want more weapons sent to the Kurds and Sunnis, even though that could worsen the sectarian and ethnic tensions that in turn fuel ISIS. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a foreign policy novice, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie talk about how the United States must appear strong — with few specifics how or even what that means.
Talking about Iraq has proven especially challenging for Jeb Bush, who is saddled with the legacy of his brother.
The decision by president George W. Bush to invade Iraq is widely seen as the biggest US foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War. So for Jeb Bush, the less said the better when it comes to Iraq.
Last month the former Florida governor tied himself in rhetorical knots for days trying to defend his brother’s decision to invade Iraq, finally concluding it was a bad idea. He recently said the United States should embed troops with Iraqi units to train them and help identify targets. That is not much different from what US troops in Iraq are doing already.