The politics of the War on Terror

The politics of the War on Terror

By Hastings Wyman –

The ideological divide that splits this nation has been starkly illustrated by the primary approach of the two political parties to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as inEgypt, Lebanon and Mali.

For the Republicans, the main focus has been opposing the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States. This approach has several advantages for the GOP. For starters, refugees don’t vote. Illegal immigrants are already unpopular with Republican voters and this is the same church, different pew.

And given ISIS and its tactics, it is not unreasonable to assume terrorists would use the exodus of Syrian refugees as cover to slip into this country and do harm. Moreover, some experts say the organizational structure to vet refugees isn’t in place in war-torn Syria.

Upon closer inspection, however, barring Syrian refugees isn’t an ideal solution. The procedure for admitting Syrians fleeing the violence in their own country takes about two years and it is unlikely – though not impossible – that there are radicalized Islamists among them.

In addition, by focusing so much attention on Syrian refugees, politicians – mostly Republicans – give the impression they are hawks in the War on Terror. This way, they can avoid the trickier question of whether we should send US ground troops to Syria,Iraq or Afghanistan. The partisan nature of the dispute in the South is evidenced by the fact that eleven Southern states with Republican governors have all objected to Syrian refugees coming into their states; the two with Democratic governors, Kentucky and Virginia, have said they will continue to accept Syrian refugees.  (The Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, however, recommended internment camps for Syrian refugees, citing their use for Japanese Americans in World War II.)

President Obama by contrast has been outspoken in his criticism of Republican opposition to Syrian refugees, saying his GOP critics were “scared of widows and orphans,” and defends his current policies as working. According to the Washington Post, “Obama has wearily defended his strategy against the Islamic State, saying time and again that he will not change course after Paris.” Even the non-Fox News television commentators have made the point that if his policies were working, the recent spate of terrorist attacks would not have occurred.

Thus, we have two points of view dominating the discussion, neither providing a very effective response to the growing power of radicalized Islamist terrorists: Republicans focusing on barring of Syrian refugees and the Democratic President insisting that the current strategies do not need to be changed.

Two Republican candidates for president – Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham – have advocated stronger measures, including the sending of Americans to fight in the Middle East.

In response to proposals to bar Syrian refugees, Graham told CNBC, “There are 20 different ways to get to America. There’s no substitute for destroying ISIL in Syria andIraq.” Graham should have gained in the wake of recent events, but his lack of visibility in the debates and very poor poll numbers mean that voters don’t recognize him as a viable alternative. Moreover, sending Americans to fight in the Middle East may have temporary support, but risks becoming unpopular in the longer term.

Bush has used the sudden prominence of foreign policy and defense issues to focus on his leadership skills. Last week at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military academy, he urged a declaration of war against ISIS, a no-fly zone over Syria, more US troops in the Middle East, more defense spending, and extending the law allowing bulk collection ofUS phone data by the National Security Agency. (US Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has proposed extending this program from Nov. 29, as it now stands, until January of 2017.)

One proposal which could curtail the ability of radicalized Islamists to enter the country has been proposed by US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein has introduced legislation, co-sponsored byUS Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), that would withhold visa waivers for European citizens coming to the United States who have spent time in Syria or Iraq over the past five years. Feinstein, on MSNBC, said “I read the intelligence faithfully. ISIL is not contained, ISIL is expanding.”

In addition, lawmakers in both parties are looking at other ways to reform the visa-waiver program, which allows persons from participating countries to enter the USwithout a visa. It is noteworthy that there are reports that the White House, probably sensing the President’s vulnerability on this issue, is preparing to announce its own provisions for reforming the visa-waiver program.

For now, however, the big political beneficiary of the Paris and other attacks has been – not surprisingly – Donald Trump. In the latest NBC News/Survey Monkey online poll of Republicans and Republican-leaners, Trump came in first with 28%, with 18% each for Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, followed by 11% for Marco Rubio, with the rest in single digits. And a Reuters Survey showed that when asked which candidate was best qualified to deal with terrorism, Trump came in first with 36%.

Trump’s improved showing is due in part to his strident and aggressive style, which seems better suited to combating an enemy than more reasoned discourse, and in part because his proposals are, as the first President Bush might put it, iron-ass, as well as easy for voters to grasp. Trump’s proposals have included, in addition to bombing “the s— out of them,” closing mosques in the US.

The NBC News/Survey Monkey poll registered a loss for Carson over the past month, probably because he’s viewed as too soft-spoken to wage war, as well as because of the negative news stories about his personal recollections, and a gain for Cruz, who is about as hard-line as they get. Rubio was the only “establishment” GOPer to score in the double-digits. Rand Paul, of course, who opposes more defense spending and favors a more non-engaged approach to such crises, has been hurt by the turn of events; he has concentrated on blocking Syrian refugees from entering the US. He has also advocated a 30-day waiting period for refugees traveling from countries in the visa-waiver program, as well as blocking arms sales to countries with jihadist movements.