The good news about our incipient war on the Islamic State is that there’s widespread agreement on what our ultimate goal is. President Obama, his Democratic supporters and the Republican hawks in Congress all have the same objective in mind: for the United States to use its awesome military might to “destroy” the terrorist group.
Even the most vocal critics of the strategy Obama laid out for taking on ISIS agree that the ultimate goal of U.S. policy should be the destruction of ISIS. “The objective should not be Iraq or Syria. The objective should be taking out ISIS,” Ted Cruz said on CNN last week. “We should do what is necessary, using overwhelming force, to take ISIS out before they secure control.”
Sen. Rand Paul also agrees, at least for the moment, that the United States must “destroy” ISIS. He told the AP that, were he president, he’d “seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.” In his speech on the Senate floor yesterday, he reiterated that objective several times. “Must we act to check and destroy ISIS? Yes,” he said at one point. “ISIS is now a threat, let’s get on with destroying them.”
Where Cruz and Paul criticize the administration is in its willingness to get the U.S. involved in the civil war in Syria and to mediate political unrest across the region. That’s a perfectly reasonable criticism to make, but when you pair it with a stated desire to “destroy” ISIS, you’re not actually making any sense. In fact, by doing so both Cruz and Paul are pushing for less responsible and less effective strategies than the White House.
And that’s saying something, because the White House’s strategy leaves tons to be desired. When Obama gave his big speech announcing the plan to take on ISIS, he promised to “destroy” and “eradicate” the group, but also to degrade it to the point of it being “a manageable problem.” The Pentagon later clarified saying that ISIS can’t be defeated through military means alone. “The only way you're going to destroy an organization like this is by defeating their ideology,” the Pentagon press secretary said. That’s a tall order, and the regional allies that the administration hopes will shoulder a large part of the burden in achieving it aren’t exactly enthusiastic at the prospect. We’re looking at a years-long slog in an area of the world marked by chronic instability being sold to a public that is weary of conflict in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans don’t think the administration has a clear plan for taking on ISIS.
But the White House is the very picture of responsibility compared to critics like Ted Cruz.
The Texas Republican wrote an Op-Ed for CNN laying out his plan for taking on ISIS. “First and foremost,” writes Cruz, is “border security.” (That would be the U.S.-Mexico border.) Step two is revoking the citizenship of U.S.-born ISIS fighters. Step three is “a coordinated and overwhelming air campaign.” He dismissed “impractical contingencies, such as resolving the Syrian civil war, reaching political reconciliation in Iraq or achieving ‘consensus’ in the international community.”
Cruz went on Fox News this week and elaborated on his disdain for anything not military-related when it comes to ISIS. “It's not our job to be social workers in Iraq and put them all on expanded Medicaid,” Cruz said. “It is our job to kill terrorists who have declared war on America and who have demonstrated the intention and capability to murder innocent Americans.”
So Cruz wants a bunch of bombs and scoffs at the idea of engaging anyone in the region. How deviously simplistic! This is precisely the sort of hackery that foreign policy expert Brian Fishman warned about when the ISIS war drums started beating:
No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. And no one will, because none exists. But that has not prevented a slew of hacks and wonks from suggesting grandiose policy goals without paying serious attention to the costs of implementation and the fragility of the U.S. political consensus for achieving those goals.
Say what you will about Cruz, but at least you can define some of the contours of his strategy. That’s not really the case with Rand Paul. His positions on ISIS have been changing rapidly, sometimes in as little as a few hours. The one thing he is sure of is that President Obama is wrong. His speech on the Senate floor yesterday was an impassioned case against the administration’s plan to send arms to the rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Intervention when both sides are evil is a mistake,” he argued.
So what does Rand Paul want to see done? It’s unclear. He supports airstrikes of some variety. And, as noted above, he wants to “destroy” ISIS. But he also doesn’t want any sort of involvement in the Syrian civil war or on the ground in Iraq. Instead, Paul issued a call to “civilized Islam” to “crush radical Islam.” Part of his strategy, it seems, involves demanding that “civilized” Muslims formulate a strategy and browbeating them for dancing instead of fighting terrorists:
The voices aren’t loud enough. I want to see civilized Islam on the front page of the newspaper, international TV saying what they will do to wipe out radical Islam. I want to see them on the front lines, fighting. I don’t want to see them sipping tea or in the discotheque in Cairo. I want to see them in front line fighting a war to show Americans, to show the world there is form of civilized Islam that doesn’t believe in this barbarity.
I’m no expert, but “prove to us that you’re civilized” doesn’t seem like the best strategy for recruiting allies to the struggle. Also, dancing in a discotheque seems like a pretty good way to flip the bird to religious fundamentalists.
These are terrible strategies. But this is the argument we’re having right now, in which everyone is fighting over which awful plan to follow toward the common objective of “destroying” ISIS. No one leading the charge to deepen U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria is being forthright about the costs, even as they talk up the objective.