Combating ISIS: Another Cold War
MANCHESTER, N.H. – Although last week’s hawkish Republican presidential debate was held in Las Vegas, the voters foremost in the candidates’ minds reside here, in New Hampshire, site of the first real primary election of the 2016 campaign. The question is whether the GOP presidential contenders are paying heed to the concerns of New Hampshire Republicans—or pandering to their fears. It can be hard to tell the difference.
The topic of the most recent debate was national security, and with rare exceptions, the Republicans auditioning to be America’s next commander-in-chief are a bellicose crew. “America is at war!” warned Ted Cruz. “If I am elected president, we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS.”
“We have to get rid of all this PC stuff,” added Ben Carson. “People are worried … that I’m Islamophobic or what have you. This is craziness because we are at war.”
Donald Trump went further, suggesting that the U.S. military kill family members of terrorists. Jeb Bush, to his credit, dismissed this gambit as unserious, while Rand Paul pointed out that it would violate the Geneva Conventions. But Bush and Carson, along with Carly Fiorina, called for the U.S. to arm the Kurds and were among the five candidates calling for a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over Syria.
“We must have a no-fly zone in Syria,” said Fiorina, “because Russia cannot tell the United States of America where and when to fly our planes.”
Chris Christie was asked if a President Christie would order Russian fighter jets that encroached in the no-fly zone be shot down. “Yes,” replied New Jersey’s governor. “We would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling.”
This characterization caused heads to nod in unison on the Nevada stage—and in Republican households in New Hampshire. On this subject, the fractious field of Republican presidential candidates has reached consensus: President Obama, they assert, is an ineffectual commander-in-chief whose faintheartedness is exemplified by his unwillingness to even accurately name the opponent.
“Our enemy is not ‘violent extremism,’” Cruz said. “It is not some unnamed malevolent force. It is radical Islamic terrorists.”
Polling among Republican voters indicates that Cruz & Co. are on solid ground with the GOP base when they talk this way. A survey done in late October and early November by a reputable New England firm, MassINC Polling Group, found that 83 percent of New Hampshire Republicans say “defeating ISIS” is a major national priority. This was the highest ranking of any issue surveyed, including stopping illegal immigration (72 percent), simplifying the tax code (67 percent), repealing Obamacare (62), and reducing federal regulations (61).
If anything, these numbers have become starker since then. Steve Koczela, president of MassINC, notes that this poll was done before the jihadist massacres in Paris and San Bernardino. “New Hampshire voters were already there in terms of ISIS,” he told me.
There’s nothing inherently unreasonable about this, but there are pitfalls for Republicans. The most immediate is that their primary electorate is more hawkish than the independent voters likely to determine the outcome of the 2016 general election. Rand Paul spoke for many of them when he responded to Christie’s blithe willingness to blow Russian pilots out of the sky by saying, “If you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.”
The other issue for Republicans to contemplate is more subtle, but crucial. Yes, they’re critical of a Democratic president’s handling of international affairs. That’s commonplace for the opposition political party, and it’s not new.
But Republicans expecting this president, or any president, to “win” the global fight against Islamic-inspired terrorism are misreading the nature of what the civilized world is up against. They are underestimating the task ahead. In other words they are doing exactly what they accuse Obama (and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders) of doing: minimizing the challenge.
This fight is the new Cold War. We don’t have as catchy a name for it yet. Although both this president and his predecessor deemed it counterproductive to include the word “Islam” in the name of the conflict, “Global War on Terror” doesn’t do it justice. Then again, “Cold War,” a phrase coined by George Orwell and popularized by Walter Lippmann, wasn’t terribly precise either. In many years, the Cold War was a hot war—a shooting war.
The first casualty was John Morrison Birch, an American missionary to China who became an intelligence officer in the Second World War. He was shot for no reason by communist Chinese forces on August 25, 1945. The last was Arthur D. Nicholson, also a U.S. Army intelligence officer, shot in the back by a Soviet sentry in East Germany. In between were many others, and not only on our side. Some 37,000 Americans died in Korea. If one adds the total number of Korean deaths, north and south, including civilians, and the horrific losses suffered by Chinese troops, estimates range as high as 3 million. By some estimates, the total deaths in Vietnam were even higher, including 58,220 Americans.
The first president to fight the Cold War was Harry Truman; the last was George H.W. Bush. It’s undeniable that some were more effective than others. To my thinking the most effective were Truman and Ronald Reagan. But none of the nine Americans who served in the Oval Office from 1945 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, shirked their duty. Republicans who give credit to Reagan for “winning” the Cold War are being fanciful.
On a recent trip to Iowa, Ted Cruz vowed to “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State “into oblivion.” He also ruminated about seeing “if sand can glow in the dark.” This kind of talk does not prepare Americans for the fight ahead, one that may last even longer than the Cold War. It’s also not how Ronald Reagan spoke about the challenge.
In 1976, when he ran unsuccessfully for president—and at a time policymakers considered the Cold War a more or less permanent feature of geopolitics—Reagan shared his ideas with future White House national security adviser Richard Allen: “My theory about the Cold War is simple: We win, they lose.”
Reagan helped effectuate that vision as president. The last American to die in the Cold War, Arthur “Nick” Nicholson, was killed on his watch. But Reagan kept his rhetoric in check, so much so that when a reporter suggested that he had not expressed “outrage” at the killing, Reagan replied, “A lack of outrage? You can’t print what I’m thinking.”
Sometimes that’s what is needed in a statesman.