Thursday a hopeful President Barack Obama told an ABC News interviewer that U.S.-led airstrikes have “contained the momentum that (Islamic State) had gained” in the Mideast. Friday brought slaughter in Paris. And in their debate Saturday, three Democrats who want Obama’s job offered … vague thoughts on how to thwart terrorists who’ve expanded their reach:
Bernie Sanders, invited in the first question to discuss Paris, spoke 39 platitudinous words before pivoting to America’s “rigged economy” and “corrupt campaign finance system.” Martin O’Malley offered little beyond “new thinking, fresh approaches and new leadership.” Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded viewers that picking a president is “about choosing our next commander in chief.” She then disowned the current commander in chief, her former boss: “(Islamic State) cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” Yet three times she said with emphasis that doing so “cannot be an American fight.”
We can’t say the Republican candidates, given the same 30 hours to prep for that obvious question, would have been nimbler. What’s clear, though, is that voters attuned to national security (and personal vulnerability) may look for a different kind of leader than this presidential field, both parties, reckoned. Beyond dealing with Islamist extremism, issues such as defense spending, closing Guantanamo and whether to welcome Syrian refugees will demand explicit answers from candidates of both parties.
Some candidates are unprepared:
In last week’s Republican debate, front-runner Ben Carson was borderline incoherent: He wants to make Islamic State “look like losers” by “destroying their caliphate. … Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I’ve learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there.” And Donald Trump’s potentially good idea — “I’d bomb the hell” out of the lucrative oil fields Islamic State controls — is essentially his only idea.
On Sunday, Jeb Bush suggested on NBC that Obama doesn’t have the strategy, or the will, to defeat Islamic State and unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad. Bush’s proposals, including a no-fly zone over Syria and better arms for Kurdish fighters, outclass those of Carson or Trump but aren’t as convincing as Marco Rubio’s 14-point “Stand against ISIS.”
But Clinton is the candidate most convulsed by the prospect of a race now swiveling to security issues. Republicans blame her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state for much of the Mideast turmoil. Yet Sanders and other liberals never will forgive her Senate vote to invade Iraq. Can she placate the Democrats’ anti-war base with “cannot be an American fight,” separate herself from the disintegrating situation on Obama’s watch and convince security-minded general election voters that she’ll forcefully protect their country from terrorists? Tall order.
Nor does she start from a clean slate. Gallup’s polling in September found once again that Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats on national security issues. Asked which party would better protect the U.S. from international terrorism and military threats, 52 percent of respondents chose Republicans; 36 percent chose Democrats.
The takeaway for voters is that many of their candidates for president aren’t demonstrating readiness for the kinds of decisions that confront Obama now: Should the U.S. devote more military resources or merely sound more menacing but not change strategy? Should the president acknowledge that his goal of extricating the U.S. from warfare is impossible given the lethal threat? Should he keep hoping for a winning force of regional allies and indigenous militias or admit that without bolder U.S. leadership, no alliance can defeat Islamic State?
That group thrives on the grinding combat Obama pledged to end and his successors may have to wage. Like al-Qaida, it has grown potent enough to launch sophisticated, far-flung assaults without the West’s elaborate intelligence community detecting its plans. Islamic State’s rising credibility forces this president — and the next — to take seriously its weekend oath that these Paris attacks are merely “the first of the storm.”
We don’t know whether American voters will continue to be content with fighting Islamic State or, after Paris, will demand that their government defeat it.
That would even further upend this presidential race. Expect the candidates to argue, one by one, not that he or she will do something, but that he or she finally will do enough.