We continue to promise to provide a critique of the fourth Republican Debate and what it portends for the progress of the campaign. Before getting to that, however, we felt a need to comment on the responses of Democrats, Republicans and the President to the Paris outrage.
In the Democratic Debate, which came on the heels of the Paris attacks, Hillary Clinton, at first sounded a bit more muscular than President Obama, suggesting that we must do better, and saying that ISIS “cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” However, she quickly retreated, by cautioning, “But it cannot be an American fight. And I think what the president has consistently said — which I agree with — is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS.”
Governor O’Malley respectfully disagreed, “This actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight.” Like Clinton, Senator Sanders saw the United States’ role as supporting “the Muslim nations in the region, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, all of these nations, they’re gonna just have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground.”
Among the GOP candidates, Jeb Bush has been among the strongest in calling for greater action against ISIS. On Meet the Press on Sunday, he proclaimed that, “We should declare war and harness all of the power that the United States can bring to bear, both diplomatic and military of course, to be able to take out ISIS.” Bush also spoke of creating no-fly and safe zones in Syria, “directly” arming Kurdish peshmerga forces, and embedding U.S. personnel in the Iraqi military. When asked if he would deploy “boots on the ground,” Bush replied “Absolutely,” adding, “And it ought to be designed by our military without their hands tied.”
Senator Rubio characterized the conflict with ISIS as a “clash of civilizations,” but was vague in prescribing a response, tweeting that we needed “to improve our defenses, destroy terrorist networks, and deprive them of the space from which to operate.”
Governor Kasich called for action by NATO via Article 5, which provides that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Ben Carson has been characteristically vague and only marginally coherent, but the award for the looniest response clearly goes to Donald Trump who blamed the seriousness of the loss of life on Paris having too strict gun control laws, “Had there been some guys with a gun, there would have been a shootout and probably the primary people that would have got whacked would have been the killers.” Carson and Trump joined other Republicans in opposing the admission of any Syrian refugees, citing the risk that ISIS would infiltrate those admitted. The only variation from this position came from Governor Bush and Senator Cruz who suggested that we could admit Christian refugees.
President Obama spoke, and responded to questions several times, on November 16. He doggedly insisted that his strategy was succeeding and that he saw no reason for a change in it. According to the President, “there has been progress being made,” and the Paris attack was merely a “setback.” Noticeably, the only point at which the President spoke with any passion, or even animation, was when he attacked Republicans who had opposed admitting Syrian refugees, or proposed admitting only Syrian Christians.
We believe, along with numerous political leaders, that the President’s claims of continuing success in the conflict with ISIS are, to put it as kindly as possible, unrealistic. That is by no means an exclusively Republican view. As reported in U.S. News and World Report, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, had clearly distanced herself from the President on this issue:
“I have never been more concerned,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told MSNBC Monday, speaking about the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. “I read the intelligence faithfully. ISIL is not contained. ISIL is expanding. They’ve just put out a video saying it is their intent to attack this country.”
The article continued by reporting that “Democrats are now joining with Republicans in calling for more substantial intervention,” and as an example cited Senator Ben Cardin:
“The strategy is to take back the territory that they have so that they do not control any territory, in Syria, in Iraq or in any country,” says Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who serves on the Foreign Relations subcommittee that deals with counter terrorism and has expressed doubt that Obama’s decision to send a small group of special operation forces to Northern Syria would do enough. “We have to be able to have the capacity on the ground to be able to keep the territories that we gain.”
Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director under Obama, minced no words. On Face the Nation, he put it bluntly: “I think it’s now crystal clear to us that our strategy, our policy vis-à-vis ISIS is not working and it’s time to look at something else.”
On November 16, the current CIA Director, John Brennan also spoke out with a sense of urgency on the need for more effective surveillance. In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan referred to ISIL as a “grave threat” and said that the Paris attacks were not a “one-off event.” In a broad and informative talk, Brennan expressed concern as to both the restraints placed on NSA surveillance programs in the post-Snowden era and the development of new technology making surveillance more difficult (See, e.g., The New York Times, November 16, 2015, “Encrypted Messaging Apps Face New Scrutiny Over Possible Role in Paris Attacks.”) It would have been difficult to hear or read Director Brennan’s speech and feel assured that our current strategy is adequate.
In fairness to President Obama, neither Republicans, nor critical Democrats nor outside observers, have pointed to a clear path ahead. Nevertheless, there are a number of ideas afloat that deserve serious consideration.
No-fly zones. No-fly zones have been called for not only by Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush, but Hillary Clinton. We have pointed out in previous posts that such zones are easier to call for than to implement. And as Senator Paul pointed out, establishment of no-fly zones in Syria would increase the risk of a direct conflict with Russia. We are not, in general, sympathetic with Senator Paul’s views on national security or foreign policy, but here we think he has a point. Nevertheless, as we have also said before, the proposal merits careful exploration.
NATO involvement under Article 5. As we have noted, invoking Article 5 is a matter to be determined by France. But even if Article 5 were invoked it is not clear how much real support it would produce, particularly in ground troops. Indeed, it is not clear that France itself would be willing to send ground troops to Iraq and Syria.
Declaring War On ISIS. A “Declaration of War” might strike some as rather quaint, a step not bothered with for recent conflicts. Such a Declaration would have the effect of clearing the public’s mind, but it is unlikely to be forthcoming. Short of such a Declaration, however, Congress really should get serious about at least passing an Authorization for Use of Military Force. The Administration requested such an authorization in February, 2015, but has not pressed very hard for it, and with differences between hawks and doves unresolved, it has sat in limbo.
Introducing Ground Combat Troops. Although we do have ground troops in Iraq and Syria, the Administration has made it clear (and only occasionally a little less clear) that they are not there to do any fighting. The most specific plan for deploying ground troops has come from Senator Graham and includes sending 10,000 troops to Iraq. It is not clear however that such a force level would be sufficient and, interestingly, Graham’s current plan makes no mention of sending troops to Syria as he has previously urged. Jeb Bush has called for ground troops without specifying a number or their role.
We believe that introduction of ground combat troops is probably essential and we would support doing so. While the Administration appears to acknowledge the fact that ISIS cannot be defeated by air power alone, they insist that it can be done by local forces aided by air strikes, logistical support and training from the United States. We, and many others, see little likelihood of that happening in Iraq and even less in Syria. Nor do we think that in Syria the task can be outsourced to Russia, which has seemed preoccupied with preserving its ally Assad. It is possible that an effective ground force could be assembled with troops from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but such a force is more likely to be created if it also includes a significant component of American troops who are there not merely to train but to fight. And, contra Hillary Clinton, we believe that, although we need all the help we can get, it is our fight.
If all that were not difficult enough, there remains the nagging question of what would happen if ISIS is defeated. The region would remain torn by conflict between Sunnis and Shia, with a prospect of some sort of grim reprise of what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Jeb Bush, for example, said that we should defeat ISIS militarily “ And then, you need to forge political consensus to create a stable Syria and a stable Iraq. Then we leave.” Easier said than done, as Jeb’s older brother discovered to his cost. We suggest that if a plan to defeat ISIS militarily involves significant American troops, it is likely to command broad support only if it has a plausible strategy for what would follow. That is at least a matter deserving of more attention than it has received from advocates of more forceful intervention.
Finally, as to refugees, we believe that Republican concerns over security in connection with the admission of Syrian refugees are legitimate, but overstated. The proposed number of 10,000 is, after all, quite small in comparison with the hordes who have poured into Europe. The vetting process now in place is reported to take approximately two years and it can be closely monitored by Congress. If ISIS is determined to infiltrate the United States, we think it likely that it can find far more efficient ways of doing it. As for the suggestion of limiting admission to Christians, we think that while there is some surface logic to the idea, it is probably impractical and not worth the terrible message it would send to millions of peaceful Muslims.
Sadly, some of the arguments today with respect to Syrian refugees are reminiscent of those voiced in the thirties when few visas were granted to Jews attempting to flee Europe and, in the most dramatic incident, the MS St. Louis, carrying 900 Jewish refugees, was turned away from docking in Florida. We can do better.