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“Let’s Talk Specifics”: Seven Things That Show The GOP Candidates Are Clueless About The Islamic State

As everyone knows, when it comes to fighting the Islamic State, Barack Obama is a weak and feckless president who has no strategy to defeat this terrifying enemy. The Republicans running to replace him, on the other hand, are ready to go with their strong and decisive strategies — just put one of them in office and let him implement his strategy, and this whole thing will be mopped up forthwith.

That’s what they say, of course. But the truth is that they have no clue what to do about this problem. To a degree, you can’t blame them — if there was an easy solution, the administration certainly would have been more than happy to use it. The trouble is that there are nothing but bad options. But presidential candidates aren’t supposed to express caution and concern about unintended consequences. They have to be confident and strong, assuring voters that there’s no problem they can’t solve.

But if you want to know how to spot a candidate who has no idea what to do about the Islamic State, a good place to start is this interview with Ted Cruz by Molly O’Toole of Defense One. O’Toole does exactly what I’m constantly begging reporters to do — not accuse the candidate of being a hypocrite or asking him to criticize his opponents, but demand specificity. That’s how we learn whether he’s just blowing smoke. Unfortunately, Cruz is a champion smoke-blower, and he evades most of her questions until they get too uncomfortable, at which point he literally shuts a door in her face (an elevator door, in this case).

In the course of this brief interview, Cruz hits on most of the key tells that make clear Republicans have no more of a strategy for the Islamic State than anybody else. Here’s a list of things to watch out for when candidates are talking about their “strategies”:

  1. We need a leader who leads, with leadership. This idea is expressed in various ways; in this case, Cruz starts explaining how he’d fight the Islamic State by saying that “We didn’t win the Cold War until we had a president who stood up and led…” Another way of putting it is, as Marco Rubio and others have said, that Obama lacks the proper “sense of urgency” about the problem. But that’s not a strategy, it’s a feeling. Saying “I’ll feel differently than Obama does when I’m in the Oval Office” doesn’t tell us anything about what a candidate would actually do.
  2. Bomb the hell out of them. This sounds strong and resolute, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’ve been bombing pretty much every target we can find. According to the Air Force, as of the end of November we had dropped 31,873 bombs and missiles in this operation. It’s true that the military has taken care not to kill significant numbers of civilians, which is a challenge because the Islamic State controls a number of cities. In theory we could just “carpet-bomb” those cities, as Cruz proposes (he says “carpet-bomb ISIS,” but when it’s pointed out to him that they’re located in cities, he evades the question of whether he actually wants to carpet-bomb cities), but that would be extraordinarily counter-productive, not to mention morally abominable and probably a war crime. And yes, despite what Republicans would have you believe, we are bombing their oil facilities. So “Bomb them, but, you know, more” isn’t a strategy either.
  3. Arm the Kurds. This sounds like a good idea — the Kurds are our allies, and they’ve been extremely successful in fighting the Islamic State where they have chosen to do so. The problem (other than the fact that our ally Turkey is deeply opposed to anything that would strengthen them) is that the Kurds have their own agenda in Iraq and Syria, one that isn’t exactly the same as ours. They’ll happily fight to take control of Kurdish areas, but they aren’t interested in becoming an occupying army in Arab areas. You can make a case that arming the Kurds is a good thing, despite Turkey’s objections. But giving them more arms isn’t going to rout the Islamic State out of most of the places where it exists.
  4. Get somebody else’s boots on the ground. With the partial exception of Lindsey Graham, all the Republican candidates acknowledge to one degree or another that an American invasion is going to cause more trouble than it’s worth. So the answer many offer is to assemble an army of boots from our coalition partners, preferably Sunni Arabs, who can go in there and occupy the area without generating so much resistance and resentment from the local population. And how will they convince countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have been unwilling so far to contribute those troops to do so? Well…they just will. With strength and resolve, I guess. If they can’t say why those countries will be willing to do a year from now what they’re unwilling to do today, they’re expressing a fantasy, not a plan.
  5. A no-fly zone. There are reasonable arguments for and against establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. But it has nothing to do with the Islamic State, which doesn’t have an air force. If you want to argue that a no-fly zone is necessary to stop Bashar al-Assad from bombing civilians, that’s fine. But you can’t pretend it does something to hasten the Islamic State’s demise.
  6. Do whatever is necessary. This is a clear tell that the candidate has run out of ideas, but just wants to communicate toughness and resolve. Ted Cruz says this a lot. It’s a way of saying you’ll do something without actually saying what you’ll do. And of course…
  7. Call it “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” This magical incantation, once uttered by the commander in chief, is supposed to bring us to the very brink of victory. But how? Here’s a question I’d like to hear a Republican candidate answer. Let’s say that tomorrow, President Obama said, “You know what? My critics are right. We are facing Radical Islamic Terrorism.” What would change?

The answer is: nothing. And if someone is arguing that the most important thing we need to do in order to accomplish a goal is something that will do nothing to accomplish that goal, it’s a good sign that they don’t have any actual ideas.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, December 11, 2015

December 15, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, ISIS, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Lot More Than Two Sides”: Winning Isn’t Everything — Especially In Syria

An awful lot of people think about foreign relations the way they think about football. That is, they view the United States as the beloved home team perennially competing for victories in a season that never ends.

Trumpism, you might call it. To hear him talk, you’d think his followers’ personal prestige and happiness depended upon Team America being perennially ranked Number One.

The New York blowhard is far from alone. Lots of people are yelling: “Let’s you and him fight.”

Talking to a group of Gold Star Mothers recently, President Obama said, “Right now, if I was taking the advice of some of the members of Congress who holler all the time, we’d be in, like, seven wars right now. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve been counting.”

Challenged, a National Security Council spokesman listed seven places where Obama has sent combat forces: Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Anybody who’s paying attention could add Iran, Ukraine, and the South China Sea. Sarah Palin wants troops sent to Lithuania and Estonia, although NATO just completed war games there. I’ve lost track of the countries John McCain and Lindsey Graham want to bomb.

So no, Obama wasn’t exaggerating.

“Nationalism,” Orwell wrote in 1945, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception.” With the smoke still rising from Europe’s ruins, he distinguished militant nationalism from patriotism, or love of kin and country.

He saw it as a kind of moral and intellectual disease: “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Few are immune. Even normally sensible Washington thinkers are troubled by Obama’s disinclination to kick ass. Washington Post editorial page director Fred Hiatt concedes that “the next president will inherit an America in better shape—better positioned for world leadership—than the nation that George Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama.”

“So why doesn’t it feel that way? Why does it feel as if we’re losing?”

Brilliant New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is made deeply uneasy by what he calls the president’s Doctrine of Restraint. “Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago” he frets “has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.”

He concludes that “Obama has sold America short…Not every intervention is a slippery slope.”

“Syria,” Cohen thinks, “is the American sin of omission par excellence, a diabolical complement to the American sin of commission in Iraq — two nations now on the brink of becoming ex-nations.”

It’s a clever formulation, gracefully expressed. But what should Obama do? Cohen never really says. Is there any reason why Syria and Iraq should remain intact because Britain and France drew lines on a map to divide their spheres of influence 100 years ago?

Should the United States send ground troops to fight there? Against whom? In support of what? There are a lot more than two sides, you know. Spend a half hour pondering the interactive maps and charts on the New York Times website, and then tell me which should be our allies, and which our enemies.

OK, the Kurds. We’re already on their side, although our other allies, the Turks, continue to fight their own Kurdish separatists. Does anybody believe that Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites can live together in peace?

The 2003 U.S. invasion that deposed strongman Saddam Hussein broke the country apart, and the fabled “Surge” so beloved of GOP pundits basically created ISIS. “Quit making us kill you, and take this money and these weapons,” Gen. Petraeus essentially told the remnants of Saddam’s army. “We’ll soon leave you to each other.”

As for Syria, University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole explains that he has no dog in the fight: “I despise the al-Assad regime, which is genocidal and has engaged in mass torture. But I absolutely refuse to support any group allied with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda or which envisions Syria as a hardline Salafi emirate where Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds (altogether maybe 40% of the population) as well as secular Sunni Arabs (another 45%) are second class citizens…. For the fundamentalists to conquer Alawite Latakia or the Druze regions would result in an enormous tragedy.”

“Fundamentalists” includes just about all the “moderate rebels” the Russians are bombing. Putin argues that even the Assad government beats no government, and represents the only hope of avoiding genocide.

Is he wrong just because he’s Russian and a cynic?

Yes, President Obama’s 2011 “red line” was a bad mistake. So were Secretary Clinton’s toothless pronouncements that Assad had to go.

But that was then. This is now.

Fareed Zakaria gets it right: “[I]f Russia and Iran win, somehow, against the odds, they get Syria — which is a cauldron, not a prize.”

And if the U.S. fights and wins? Same deal.

 

By: Gene Lyons, Featured Post, The National Memo, October 21, 2015

November 4, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Middle East, Syria | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Trouble Is With The Messenger”: Rubio Targets Trump, But Leads With His Chin

Donald Trump’s first real interview on matters of foreign policy and national security clearly didn’t go well. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt pressed the Republican frontrunner on a variety of key issues – the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah, for example – and the GOP presidential candidate not only struggled, Trump dismissed the questions themselves as “ridiculous.”

The second-day question, of course, is whether a candidate’s ignorance has any effect on his or her standing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), talking earlier to CNN, clearly hopes to make Trump’s difficulties as consequential as possible.

“If you don’t know the answer to these questions, then you are not going to be able to serve as commander and chief,” Rubio told CNN in an interview here.

 “This should be part of the reason why you are running because you understand the threats that the world is facing, you have deep understanding and you understand what to do about it,” Rubio added. “And if someone doesn’t, I think it is very concerning.”

At face value, there’s probably something to this. Even if someone were to give Trump the benefit of the doubt – maybe he confused the Quds Forces and the Kurds because it was a phone interview and he misheard the host – major-party presidential candidates should know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah. Heck, anyone who reads news articles once in a while about the Middle East should know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah.

If Rubio wants to make the case that interviews like the Trump-Hewitt exchange point to a candidate who’s probably unprepared for national office, it’s a credible message.

The trouble, however, is with the messenger.

Rubio, a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, is basing much of his campaign on his alleged expertise on international affairs. The far-right Floridian would love nothing more than to be seen as the candidate who has a “deep understanding” of “the threats that the world is facing.”

But Rubio has run into Trump-like problems of his own. Just last week, in a big speech on foreign policy, the GOP senator told an embarrassing whopper about military preparedness, touching on an issue Rubio should have understood far better.

In June, Rubio was asked about his approach towards Iraq. Told that his policy sounds like nation-building, the senator responded, “Well, it’s not nation-building. We are assisting them in building their nation.”

Just this year, Rubio has flubbed the details of Iran’s Green Revolution. His criticisms on the Obama administration’s approach towards Israel were quickly discredited as nonsense. His statements of nuclear diplomacy were practically gibberish.

In the spring, Rubio had a memorable confrontation with Secretary of State John Kerry, which was a debacle – the senator stumbled badly on several key details, and Kerry made him look pretty foolish.

Soon after, Rhonda Swan, a Florida-based journalist, wrote that the Republican senator “should be embarrassed.” Swan added, “By his own standard that the next president have a ‘clear view of what’s happening in the world’ and a ‘practical plan for how to engage America in global affairs,’ Rubio fails the test.”

What’s more, as readers may recall, when Rubio has tried to articulate a substantive vision, he’s relied a little too heavily on shallow, bumper-sticker-style sloganeering, rather than actual policy measures. Rubio declared “our strategy” on national security should mirror Liam Neeson’s catchphrase in the film “Taken”: “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.”

Soon after, the candidate’s team unveiled the “Rubio Doctrine,” described by Charles Pierce as “three banalities strung together in such a way as to sound profound and to say nothing.”

Rubio said this morning, “If you don’t know the answer to these questions, then you are not going to be able to serve as commander and chief.” That may be true. But is there any reason to believe the Florida Republican knows the answer to these questions?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 4, 2015

September 6, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Foreign Policy, Marco Rubio, National Security | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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