The incredible realignment of national security politics that Barack Obama engineered in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s foreign policy disasters looks like it’s been officially undone. Obama was elected on a “no dumb wars” policy and became an unlikely symbol of foreign policy strength in the first half of his administration, leaving Republicans baffled and sputtering that a Democrat – a Democrat! – could be taken seriously in the manly arts of blowing stuff up. But that was last term, and now that Obama’s gotten himself neck deep in precisely the sort of dumb war he decried, his once formidable approval numbers on national security are in the toilet.
This has allowed Republicans to transition back into their traditional role as muscle-flexing “Daddy Party” hawks who try to scare people into voting for them by warning that America will violently die at the hands of feckless Democrats and nigh-unstoppable terrorists who are probably hiding in your attic right now.
We’ve seen this sort of behavior from the usual suspects, like Lindsey Graham, who warns that the Islamic State will come to the U.S. and kill anywhere from several thousand Americans to the entire population of the country. The National Republican Campaign Committee is putting out ads with grainy, ominous footage of terrorists holding flags and training on monkey bars, and warning that Democrats are putting us “at risk.” It’s a throwback to the heady days of Campaign 2004, when top Republican officials would talk freely about Al Qaeda’s preference for weak, Democratic rule. The message conveyed is simple and unsubtle: vote Republican, or you will die.
The latest Republican to rediscover this classic campaign technique is Scott Brown, the one-time Massachusetts senator who’s mounting an underdog campaign to unseat Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. Brown just recently put out his own ad going after Shaheen on national security, and warning that “radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country.”
ISIS is going to “cause the collapse of our country”? How? Are they investing in mortgage-backed securities?
You might think, based on that statement, that Brown is irrationally terrified and doesn’t really understand the threat posed by ISIS. But no. According to Brown, it’s Obama and Shaheen who just don’t get it: “Barack Obama and Sen. Shaheen seemed confused about the nature of the threat. Not me. I want to secure the border.”
Secure the border! That would be the U.S.-Mexico border, the same border that Brown and other Republicans very much want you to believe is ripe for infiltration by ISIS, even though there’s absolutely no reason to think that’s happening.
Looking to capitalize on the sudden injection of national security into the national political debate, Brown delivered a speech at a New Hampshire college laying out his vision for America’s foreign policy:
When any president is clear and resolute in defense of America’s interests, it won’t matter to me if we’re of the same party or not – I’ll be there, with my support and my vote. But where there is confusion, indecision, and incoherence in foreign policy, I will challenge, question, and never just fall in line with anyone. One hundred percent of the time, I’m going to do my own thinking, and speak for the independent spirit of our state.
Scott Brown favors being “clear and resolute,” and he disfavors “confusion, indecision, and incoherence.” It’s a vacuous and rote vision of leadership that easily impressed right-wing pundits are calling “smart.”
Brown’s speech featured no shortage of attacks on the president’s foreign policy – “maxed out, worn down, devoid of ideas” – but didn’t address the actual armed conflict the U.S. is fighting at this very moment. He observed that ISIS is “exterminating innocent people including mothers and children, murdering Americans on camera, and declaring a caliphate that is drawing even more jihadists to the scene each and every day,” but couldn’t spare a line or two in his big foreign policy speech to address the actions the U.S. government took in response.
He did, however, go on at length about the need to close the border, because “ISIS thugs have been saying for months that they’re going to send people here to kill Americans on as big a scale as they can.” And he also endorsed legislation to revoke the citizenship American-born people who’ve joined up with ISIS, which would raise a number of thorny legal questions.
But mainly the speech was an attack on Shaheen as an Obama acolyte. Brown attacks her specifically for supporting the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011, and in doing so blames her for the rise of ISIS:
We needed to leave a transition force there to help guide and assist the newly elected government. It was obvious to us, and to the commanders we had spoken to over there, that a residual force was essential to preserve America’s hard-won gains. Leave all at once, and right away, and that pullout would be seen as a victory by our enemies all across the Middle East. And all kinds of bad actors would move in – exactly as ISIS has now done.
I’m not sure she realizes – even now – the disastrous consequences of the complete military withdrawal that she supported. For most of 2014, the jihadists of ISIS have been storming across two countries, going from one conquest and atrocity to the next. So far as I can tell, she never even mentioned ISIS in public until last month. This is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee we’re talking about, and it’s been nothing but silence on the most urgent national-security threats that we are facing.
This idea that a residual force of U.S. soldiers would have had a salutary influence on the government of Nouri al-Maliki is popping up more and more in Republican circles. It’s a fantasy. Maliki’s autocratic rule and hostility towards Iraq’s Sunnis is largely to blame for the country’s post-2011 unraveling. As Kevin Drum points out, the Maliki government was inept, corrupt and hopelessly sectarian even when U.S. military and political involvement in Iraqi affairs was at its highest, so “what possible hope is there that a small residual force would have had any leverage at all?”
More importantly, Brown’s retelling of the Iraq withdrawal is carefully sanitized. The timeline for pulling out all U.S. forces by the end of 2011 was agreed to by the Iraqis and President Bush in late 2008. The Iraqi government – the same one Brown says we needed to “help guide and assist” – would not agree to adequate legal protections for any residual U.S. force. We helped prop up a sovereign Iraqi government, and that government made it clear that it did not want U.S. forces in the country. These are unwelcome facts that Republicans and conservatives persistently ignore in order to transfer blame for the Iraq debacle from Bush to Obama.
This may all sound like doom-and-gloom, but near the end of his remarks, Brown injected a note of hope. “Even in this dangerous time,” he said, “we Americans do not have to live our lives in fear.” That’s right, the guy who’s warning that ISIS is going to “cause the collapse of our country” and is “going to send people here to kill Americans on as big a scale as they can” is reassuring voters that they don’t have live their lives in fear. They just have to vote that way.