It's not as bad as 2002. Let's just get that out of the way. We are not in a political climate where it's downright fatal for a member of Congress to vote against a ground war when they're up for reelection. We don't have the president and all of his advisers making up a case for a ground war and warning of the "mushroom cloud" on American soil that will be the cost of inaction. Those who are weary of limited (for now) of military action in Syria and Iraq are not roundly being castigated in the press and within their social circles as traitors who belong in dungeons or -- even worse -- France.
But it's also not wholly unlike that craziest of times. There are still political prices to be paid for speaking reasonably about the threat that ISIS presents to the United States. There is still a natural tendency towards threat elevation fostered by a tight midterm election season. Fearmongering still presents shiny rewards to those who channel it, and the more shamelessly, the better. And this is why, as a country, we still can't have nice things.
There's no better example of the political risks associated with foreign policy truth-telling than the Colorado Senate race. Rep. Cory Gardner and affiliates are hammering Sen. Mark Udall for being a big old Democratic wuss when it comes to fighting terrorism. Here's a new attack ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that is terrible, and therefore probably effective. It shows footage of scary ISIS people doing scary ISIS things, in the Middle East. And then it quotes Mark Udall, saying, "ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation." "REALLY?" the shocked, shocked narrator says, before adding, "Can we take that chance?"
It's the consensus of the American intelligence community that ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or the Electric Boogaloo Terrorism Squad, whatever you want to call them) does not represent an imminent threat to the homeland. Even the president, who has an interest in playing the fear card as much as possible to rally the public behind his new bombing campaign, has been relatively modest. "While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland," Obama said in his primetime address, "ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies." He added that "ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities" and "could pose a growing threat beyond that region" if "left unchecked." Whether you agree or not with his choice to go on the offensive against ISIS, he's done a fair job of not getting carried away with language about how ISIS bogeymen are crossing the southern border with nukes and hiding under your bed in the suburbs. The threat, for now, is Over There.
Udall and Obama both argue that the only "imminent" threat ISIS may pose is, in Udall's words, "to U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East." Udall sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence and has access to the good stuff. Meanwhile, Gardner sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee -- a powerful and important committee that has nothing to do with overseas intelligence gathering. And yet here's Mark Udall being the one who's on defense for being too much of a wuss, because LOL nothing matters.
That Gardner is running an ad as stupid as this means that threat elevation is performing well in focus groups. Politico writes today about how even liberal Democrats facing the most barely of serious challenges this November, like Jeff Merkley and Al Franken, have shown no hesitancy in voting to give lots of guns to mysterious Syrian rebels. It's no surprise why Democrats, who need to look super-tuff but also can't alienate liberals wary of further Middle East military involvement, would rather not vote on a clear authorization for the ISIS campaign before the elections.
It's a shame.