The events in the war-torn Middle East were given a back seat by many voters until radicals in the ISIL videotaped the beheading of two American journalists, and voters were outraged. It was civilization versus barbarians, and we weren’t going to take it lying down.
That outrage, however, quickly comes up against a deep-seated opposition, in both parties, to putting more Americans in harms way. Far too many American military and civilian personnel have been shot or blown up by radicals dressed in the uniforms of our allies in the region to make that a comfortable option. Moreover, the wars seem to drag on and on, with no end in sight.
The problem is that both sides are ignoring what most experts, especially in the military, say is obvious: You cannot defeat the well-armed, well-financed ISIL – the Administration’s preferred term – which now controls considerable territory, including important towns and cities, by air power alone. At some point, our side’s boots have to be on the ground, a no-no in the higher ranks of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Between this rock and a hard place, Republicans and Democrats have been struggling to come up with a policy and political strategy that will appeal to both the voters’ anger over ISIL’s atrocities and their opposition to sending more troops to the region. Not surprisingly, the struggles have revealed significant foreign policy fissures in both parties.
For the GOP, the hawkish sentiment that prevailed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union has come to the fore, but so has an even older instinct, isolationism, if you will, a viewpoint that was strong among Republican conservatives prior to World War II.
US Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the party’s top hawk and its 2008 presidential nominee, in a feisty exchange with former Obama press secretary Jay Carney on CNN, placed the blame for the current crisis on President Obama’s decision to remove troops from Iraq despite the military’s recommendation that they stay there to maintain the newly-won post-surge victory. But McCain stopped short of advocating sending troops in any significant number back to the Iraq, much less to Syria, where much of ISIL’s infrastructure is located.
Similarly, US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Senate’s leading hawk second only to McCain, said of the President’s speech: “Here’s what I ask of the President – Look the American people in the eye and say ‘We have to win, we will win and I will do what is necessary to win.’ ” He added, “The American military… they’re tired, but they’re not too tired to defend this country.” He also said, reported Bradwarthen.com, “If we take on ISIL and lose, we will unlock the gates of hell. And hell will come our way.” Strong words indeed. However, while he danced around it, Graham never said, Let’s put American troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), arguably the most outspoken Tea Party-type potential White House contender, said following the President’s speech, “What we didn’t see tonight was a commander-in-chief focused on U.S. national security interests who stood up and said, ‘There are radical Islamic terrorists who have declared war on the United States, who are murdering Christians, who had murdered two American journalists and who have promised to take jihad to America, and we will respond with overwhelming air force to take them out.’” But here again, no advocacy of use of US ground troops.
Another likely presidential candidate, US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), gave the President some credit, but not too much. “I believe the President is in a much better place than where he was a few week ago.” He added, however, that he was also concerned by Obama’s “view that we should try to replicate what we’ve done in Yemen and Somalia, which remain dangerous places because of the terrorist threat.
But US Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the GOP presidential prospect most opposed to an interventionist US foreign policy, did not lay the blame at the President’s feet. Rather, Paul argued that previous US military operations in the Middle East have led to the spread of radical Islam. However, he named neither Obama nor former President George W. Bush. Paul also emphasized that the US “is going to need allies from civilized Islam.” Previously, however, Paul had criticized Obama for not moving more aggressively against Islamic radicals in Syria.
On the Democratic side, party insiders view the Obama and Clinton foreign policies as distinctly different. Former President Bill Clinton has been supportive of President Obama’s ISIL strategy since his televised address last week, but Hillary Clinton has not given the President high profile support on his new ISIL strategy. Before Obama’s speech, in a recent issue in The Atlantic, she said that President Obama’s decision not to arm the Syrian rebels “left a big vacuum, that the jihadists have now filled.” Indeed, prior to the speech, Hillary Clinton’s former aides and supporters were describing her as more decisive and action oriented, compared with Obama’s hesitancy and caution, indicating the Clinton camp wanted to draw a bright line between Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy and that of President Obama.
This approach brings with it some risks for Clinton. While it might help her in the General Election, when Republicans tend to call Democrats “soft” on which ever enemy the nation faces, it could hurt her in the primaries, when many liberals might yet rally around an anti-war candidate. Indeed, liberal TV commentator Bill Maher said recently that he would consider voting for Rand Paul if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, saying in an interview with The Hill, “I’m not crazy about how warlike she is.”
But here again, no one in the Clinton camp is calling for US “boots on the ground.”
In sum, there are interventionists and non-interventionists in both parties. But none of them are facing up to the sad truth that the crisis requires a stronger response than the nation is willing to provide.