Scott Walker's ISIS problem: Why he's so clueless about foreign policy

He and other GOP presidential candidates want to sound tough on ISIS -- but here's where they draw the line

Published February 3, 2015 4:25PM (EST)

Scott Walker                                        (AP/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Scott Walker (AP/Kamil Krzaczynski)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is in good shape for the presidential race. He has an actual record of conservative accomplishment in the face of adversity and the whole "3 wins in 4 years in a blue state" thing going for him. The movement and business wings of the party both like him, and Iowa polls are beginning to reflect his potential. He suffers from a "charisma deficit," but that's not the end of the world. Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are plenty charismatic, but they are also clown people.

This does not mean that Scott Walker, in January 2015, has all the answers. Consider his interview from over the weekend with ABC's Martha Raddatz:

RADDATZ: You don't think 2,000 air strikes is taking it to ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

WALKER: I think we need to have an aggressive strategy anywhere around the world. I think it's a mistake to —


RADDATZ: But what does that mean? I don't know what aggressive strategy means. If we're bombing and we've done 2,000 air strikes, what does an aggressive strategy mean in foreign policy?

WALKER: I think anywhere and everywhere, we have to be — go beyond just aggressive air strikes. We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately, we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that's what it takes, because I think, you know —

RADDATZ: Boots on the ground in Syria? U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?

WALKER: I don't think that is an immediate plan, but I think anywhere in the world —

RADDATZ: But you would not rule that out.

WALKER: I wouldn't rule anything out. I think when you have the lives of Americans at stake and our freedom loving allies anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared to do things that don't allow those measures, those attacks, those abuses to come to our shores.

As Mother Jones' Kevin Drum writes, Walker is "still clearly a work in progress." Right: he has no clue what he's talking about when it comes to foreign policy. He is not unique in this situation, and this represents the flip side to the "governors make the best presidents" theory that's been most popular with Republicans since Senator Barack Obama took office. Governors have had to show "leadership" and make "difficult decisions" instead of just prattling on about nonsense in the occasional Senate floor speech and raising money. But governors, unless they previously served in the Senate or House or worked in international affairs, do not know anything about foreign policy -- the realm over which the president exerts most authority. These governors will visit Israel or England at some point, shake a few hands, and come back pretending they've got all the answers for conflicts rooted in centuries of bitterness. Obviously they will have to do some learning on the job. That's fine. It's funny to watch them pretend otherwise.

But Scott Walker's difficulty in annunciating a clear ISIS position will not be limited to him and his fellow green governors. This is going to be a party-wide problem: How do we call Obama's airstrike-only, "counterterrorism" operation against ISIS a failure that won't work without ground troops... without calling for ground troops immediately? Walker settles on the phrase that doesn't exactly make any sense, but does suffice when you're waist-deep in a difficult interview: "We have to be prepared."

I laughed a little reading the transcript of the Walker interview, because it more or less matches a question-and-answer sequence from my interview with John Bolton. This is the basic structure.

Q: What do you want to do about ISIS?

A: We need to kill 'em!

Q: Isn't that what the president's doing, by bombing them?

A: No that does nothing, we need to show "strength" and "toughness" and be "aggressive"!

Q: So like, ground troops?

A: We have to be prepared to send in ground troops.

There's some slack here. They establish as a given that President Obama's more "limited" campaign (bombing people in two countries for years!) is doomed to failure without ground troops. But they won't firmly commit to saying that we should send in ground troops. They only say that we have to be "prepared," or that the option should be "on the table." Then what's the timetable for these preparations? When will that option be picked up from the table? If you say that the war is lost without ground troops, then what's with all this hesitation about sending them in right away?

The problem is that stating firmly that you believe the U.S. should get involved in a ground war in Syria and Iraq sounds insane, because it is insane. Oh Christ, they're thinking in these interviews, I can't say "we need to the U.S. to launch a ground war in Syria and Iraq," that would be insane! I'll go with this "prepared" thing. 

And man, would it ever be insane. Let's consider the example of one of the dark-horse potential candidates, Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham is perhaps the only one of the candidates who will commit to sending ground troops to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. What's his plan? Send in 10,000 troops. How would that play out? A lot of those 10,000 troops would die, for starters. And there's no way that 10,000 troops would achieve the stated goal of "destroying" ISIS. So then the U.S. would be in the all-too-familiar position of escalating troop numbers indefinitely until some semblance of face-saving can be reached, after a decade or two.

Who's up for that? You? You? Anyone? Not many people are up for that. So, with the exception of Lindsey "Ham Biscuits" Graham, hawks -- or should we say, those who reap political rewards from deploying hawkish language -- will keep their talk of ground troops, STANDING UP TO THE TERRORISTS, and so forth, at this subtle rhetorical remove.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Editor's Picks Gop Hawks Iraq Isis John Bolton Military Scott Walker Syria The Right