Graeme Wood recently headlined the March issue of The Atlantic with his piece What ISIS Really Wants. It’s a broad reaching and disturbing look at the underpinnings of their organization, their goals, and ultimately what likely is the best course of action for the United States in containing and ultimately defeating ISIS. What’s troubling, besides the goals of ISIS and their destruction so far wrought, is how much the West has gotten wrong about them. Wood mentions President Obama’s poorly chosen statement last year referring to ISIS as a ‘jayvee squad’ in relation to Al Qaeda (Wood highlights how ISIS is actually at odds and in conflict with AQ) along with a senior military official flat out admitting he didn’t understand the appeal of ISIS. With the foundation the article lays down, Wood argues that ultimately the best of no good option for the US against ISIS is to basically continue what we’re doing: airstrikes with support for our Muslim allies who ultimately will be the ones that need to take the fight to ISIS on the ground.
With this in mind, I want to look at what the field of likely Republican Presidential contenders has said in regard to ISIS. Their statements are important because what they say will likely carry a lot of weight in the upcoming election. Republicans routinely poll higher in regards to foreign policy and military matters. What we’ve seen so far from them, though, leaves a lot to be desired.
First, the focus of all the Republican hopefuls seems more on criticism of the President than in presenting a clear alternative. In a moment when the nation faces a truly evil and despicable enemy, a chance to stand in unity and to put partisan politics aside is lost in hopes of scoring a few points for the upcoming election. There’s been a lot of focus over the last week of moves by Walker and Bush to show their foreign affairs credentials. How do simple speeches and trips abroad (neither of any consequence) rank as important moves compared to actually showing real leadership by either standing with the Commander-in-Chief in the shared vision of how to continue this war (and let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve been at war with ISIS for months now) or by presenting a clear and real alternative course of action based on solid understanding of the problem at hand?
Mark Shields on the PBS NewsHour this last weekend touched on a moment of real leadership in the 2008 Presidential campaign. When confronted by a conservative crowd questioning Barack Obama’s origins and love of this country John McCain had the courage to stand up to his base and say it was a non-issue. Shields was referencing this moment not over ISIS, but in regards to the recent comments of Giuliani. In reference to the upcoming Republican race he said “this is going to be an arms race about who hates Barack Obama and who can say he’s less of a patriot.” His comments could have just as easily been applied to how Republican hopefuls have handled ISIS to date. Their concern is more with scoring points, casting blame, than in standing up and showing real leadership in addressing what is one of the biggest foreign policy issues in our time.
Though the Republican hopefuls have generally agreed with Wood’s prescription, that’s not necessarily a positive thing. For starters it’s not clear that they have this view because they believe, like Wood argues, that that is actually the best course of action. On the contrary many have made comments that boots on the ground is an option that should always be on the table. Public weariness from two misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan seem more of the reason they are less likely to push for that option than they believe it’s the best strategic course of action to take. What they have said actually aligns with what President Obama has already done.
In the end we may just stumble down the right course of action in regards to our strategy on ISIS. I suppose that’s better than getting it wrong and being of strong conviction in doing so.