Tough talk on terror is playing very well right now, particularly in the Republican primaries.
Every candidate is using dramatic language in vowing to destroy ISIS. In the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, each contender wants to project an image of strength.
Donald Trump says he will bomb the S out of ISIS. Ted Cruz says he will carpet-bomb until the sand glows in the dark. Chris Christie says he'll declare a no-fly zone in Syria and shoot down any Russian planes that violate it.
At the same time, it's been pretty clear for years that most Americans are weary of war. After a decade of military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the prospect of another Middle East quagmire is daunting.
At the Las Vegas debate, says the Washington Post, the Republican Party’s “strikingly hawkish response to threats at home and abroad” was on display, “with the candidates vividly channeling the alarm and fear coursing through the GOP base.”
This isn’t happening in a vacuum. For one thing, the sense of fear and anxiety is palpable. For another, even President Obama’s supporters admit he misjudged the mood of the country in his initially tepid responses, though even the president has used a series of do-overs to employ more aggressive language.
And it was no coincidence in Vegas that time and again, the contenders kept referring to “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” almost like a mantra, to tie the former secretary of State as closely as possible to her leader.
Clinton, who has been a bit more hawkish than Obama, said Tuesday that “shallow slogans don’t add up to a strategy. Promising to carpet-bomb until the desert glows doesn’t make you sound strong — it makes you sound like you’re in over your head. Bluster and bigotry are not credentials for becoming commander in chief.”
Wonder who she’s referring to with that last line.
There’s little question that the new focus on national security and terrorism has helped Trump. At the same time, Trump frequently touts his early opposition to George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion.
Chris Christie has been talking about the ordeal of 9/11 and his experience as a federal prosecutor who’s handled terrorism cases.
The campaign’s shift should be helping Jeb Bush, but perhaps his family ties are too stark a reminder of the roots of the current Mideast mess.
Marco Rubio has hammered Cruz on his vote to limit NSA surveillance, which was popular in some circles as a blow for civil liberties but now can be assailed for surrendering an anti-terror tool.
Even Rand Paul, an outspoken opponent of GOP hawks who keep pushing war as a solution in the Middle East, has toughened his rhetoric. But it was the Kentucky senator who took a shot at Christie and his no-fly plan during the debate, saying, “If you’re in favor of World War III, you’ve got your candidate.”
The New Jersey governor fired back on CBS, saying Paul is “unfit” to be commander-in-chief and that “folks like Senator Paul…don’t realize that we’re already in World War III.”
We are indeed in a war against terrorism. But prosecuting that war without a major commitment of American ground troops is a daunting challenge that requires nuanced answers—not the kind of sweeping declarations that play well on a debate stage.