Elections

How the GOP looks more like Obama on war than it thinks

GOP candidates clash over Homeland security and immigration in Las Vegas

The fifth Republican debate of 2015 revealed friction between the candidates and highlighted their priorities around issues of protecting America against threats both at home and abroad, including ISIS, the Internet, and immigration.
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The fifth Republican debate of 2015 revealed friction between the candidates and highlighted their priorities around issues of protecting America against threats both at home and abroad, including ISIS, the Internet, and immigration.

Sure, it was a Republican debate, but President Barack Obama might have fit right in much of the time.

As they did in their latest debate Tuesday, Republican presidential candidates are eager to say they’ll be tougher on terrorists than Barack Obama. And they differ by degrees in emphasis.

But as they grapple with the balance of national security and such things as civil liberties at home and Muslim alliances abroad, they mostly offer variations of the same policies as Obama. Send in special troops to target our airstrikes? Obama’s doing that. Keep our combat troops at home and get the Arabs to fight? That’s Obama’s plan. Stop the targeting of all Muslims lest that drive away potential allies? Obama again.

The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.

President Barack Obama in Dec. 6 address

Start with the idea of sending in U.S. combat troops.

Obama won’t authorize large numbers of American ground troops against the Islamic State, saying his military advisers believe that would be a mistake. A larger American presence, Obama said, could wind up meaning an American occupation of Syria or Iraq, creating the sort of quagmire that dogged the United States in Iraq for years.

When pressed, as in the debates, top Republicans also shy away from committing U.S. troops to defeat the Islamic State.

“They must be defeated on the ground by a ground force. And that ground force must be primarily made up of Sunni Arabs themselves,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

“The boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

What about special operations troops?

Obama has authorized 50 special operations troops in Syria. Republicans also call for embedding special ops forces, either to target airstrikes or to help local forces.

“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed . . . and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“We will have to embed additional American special operators alongside them to help them with training,” added Rubio, “to help them conduct special missions, and to help improve the airstrikes.”

“Do the same kind of thing that we did with Sinjar a few weeks ago,” added Ben Carson, “working with our embedded special forces with the Kurds, shut off the supply route, soften them up, then we go in with specials ops followed by our Air Force to take them over.”

What about stopping all Muslims from entering the U.S.?

Obama stresses that the U.S. should not label the entire religion as suspect, in part because that would push away Muslim countries needed as allies. “We are not at war with Islam,” Obama said, but at war with people “who have perverted Islam.”

Donald Trump stands by his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. But other Republicans sounded very much like Obama.

“It’s not a war on a faith,” said Cruz. “It’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.”

“If we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS?” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

There are still differences with Obama, of course.

Some Republicans want to more tightly seal America’s borders. More urgently, Republicans attacked Obama over the government’s not reviewing social media background checks for foreigners seeking visas to enter the United States.

Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani woman who with her husband killed 14 people in San Bernadino, California, earlier this month, entered this country last year on a fiance visa. She had reportedly had online discussions about jihad, and the Obama administration is reviewing its policy.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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