In the wake of September 11, the United States was reeling from the worst attack on American soil in its history. Among the changes wrought by the tragedy was a fundamental reframing of American policy. Finally, it seemed, American foreign policy made sense again. President Bush drew clear battle lines, vowing to “win the war against terrorism.” Fourteen years later, the world is every bit as scary as it was before. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught us something: there are limits to the long-term political changes that the American military can impose. The lines are blurred.
Recognizing this, President Obama has been treading a careful line in dealing with ISIS: tactical support and limited arms, rather than flooding the region with weapons; thousands of airstrikes, but no boots on the ground; and cautious diplomacy with Russia and Iran. To be sure, this lacks the “grand vision” many may be familiar with. But rebuilding Syria will not come solely, or even primarily, through a military solution. While some hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have specifically called for American boots on the ground, many politicians—and most Americans—are too war-weary to consider this palatable. American military leaders, too, seem skeptical about deploying troops.
Enter the prospective Republican presidential candidates. As 2016 draws closer, many Party favorites are speaking out on foreign policy issues—including ISIL. Naturally, they seek to draw contrast between themselves and President Obama. However, given the complexity of the current crisis, this has proven to be somewhat difficult (with the exception of those calling for ground troops).
Take Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), for example. When asked by Sean Hannity at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention how he would deal with the threat of global terrorism if he were president, Sen. Rubio took a page out of Obama’s book: the United States needed to send intelligence and logistical support, launch airstrikes, and build a coalition of Middle Eastern states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc.) to combat ISIS. Despite tacitly admitting that Obama was on the right track, the Senator simultaneously accused Obama of “not putting in place a military strategy to defeat ISIS” because he is afraid of upsetting Iran—despite the fact that Iran has been heavily involved in combatting ISIS and has called on other nations to join in the fight.
In a recent interview, another likely presidential contender, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused the Obama administration of failing to adequately arm the Kurds (despite the fact that the US has sent over 3 million pounds of ammunition to the Peshmerga) and accused the President, who authorized over 2,100 airstrikes on ISIS targets, of “leading from behind.” Rand Paul, in anticipation of Hilary Clinton’s likely run for the White House in 2016, recently said he “blamed her for a lot of this”. Paul argued that the United States’ 2011 intervention in Libya created a “breeding ground for terrorists” and voiced opposition to the Obama/Clinton plan to provide arms to Syrian rebels. Remarkably, in the same interview, Paul did an about-face on arming rebels, suggesting that Obama needed to arm Kurdish militias and “do much more.” Perhaps the most embarrassing 2016-fueled response to ISIS came from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who assured Americans that his experiences in “dealing with” peaceful Wisconsin protesters made up for his lack of experience and an actual plan.
Fortunately, the GOP rank-and-file seems largely unwilling to obstruct or interfere with the President’s response to ISIS, for now. Further, many Republicans who are not running for President in 2016, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, seem ready to engage in a serious debate about what form the United States’ continuing struggle against ISIS should take. With the serious exception of sending a controversial letter to the leaders of Iran in an attempt to undermine the United States’ uneasy relationship with a now critical regional partner (like it or not), we must hope that if Republicans participate in foreign policy making (as they should), they set aside election politics and do so in a responsible and constructive way.