CPAC hawks defeat ISIS with lots of angry hand-waving

What's the CPAC consensus on how to defeat ISIS? By... defeating them, that's how!

Published February 27, 2015 4:24PM (EST)

Marco Rubio                                    (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Marco Rubio (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

The speakers at CPAC simply do not care for the Islamic State. Who does? ISIS sucks. And the speakers are also certain that the only reason ISIS, and violent Islamic extremism in general, persists is because President Barack Obama chooses to let it. So what would they do differently than Obama? They would choose to eliminate ISIS! And that's about as detailed as it gets.

At least Lindsey Graham, crazy Lindsey Graham, has the decency to put a number out there. He wants 10,000 ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (And, hypothetically, once he gets 10,000, he'll want another 10,000, then another 10,000, et cetera and so forth until the end of human history.)

Well, Lindsey Graham isn't speaking at CPAC. And those who are are wise enough to know that this audience doesn't want policy specifics. They want feelings, specifically the feeling of "anger" and ill-defined resolve towards the ill-defined goals of "destroying" ISIS and eliminating the problem of terrorism from the globe.

We got retired Maryland neurosurgeon/top-tier presidential candidate Ben Carson's answer for how he'd defeat ISIS first thing in the morning yesterday: he would tell the military to defeat them! Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who wants to be president but would probably settle for understudy to the Secretary of Commerce, was foaming at the mouth describing how badly she wants to kill the fuck out of ISIS. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal also wants to defeat ISIS by defeating ISIS by defeating ISIS by defeating ISIS. Rick Perry -- bless him, he's trying his best -- just names a lot of countries in the Middle East to show off what he's learned, and then he says that evil people are evil. Down with evil people! Everyone claps. Why get into more detail than that, especially when you have no idea what those details might be?

Then there's the early frontrunner, Scott Walker.  He has fallen into the belief that the best way to counteract criticism about his flatness, his lack of personality or charisma, is to roll up his sleeves and speak very loudly. It is difficult, rhetorically, to build up to a crescendo when you're cranked to the red the whole time.

Walker, too, bravely contends that ISIS is bad. And he, too, was asked after his speech for his specific plan to defeat ISIS. He started off by mentioning that he gets a threat assessment everyday from the FBI in his capacity as governor of Wisconsin, so he understands the dangers of foreign terrorism. This ranks right up there with "I can see Russia from my house" in the annals of Governors Pretending That They Have Foreign Policy Experience. As does his now-infamous line that came afterwards: "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same around the world." Some took offense at this for lumping union members and sympathetic protesters together with members of ISIS. I saw it more as another comically forced example of a candidate trying to tie his greatest strength to all other aspects of his pitch. It's probably a line that will be workshopped out. As my colleague Joan Walsh just noted, even conservatives like National Review's Jim Geraghty took issue with it:

That is a terrible response. First, taking on a bunch of protesters is not comparably difficult to taking on a Caliphate with sympathizers and terrorists around the globe, and saying so suggests Walker doesn’t quite understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups.

Of course this is true. But this particular line of criticism is not specific to Walker. Nothing that any of these candidates say suggests that any of them "understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups." It's strange that it takes a modest gaffe from Walker to have conservatives point out that taking on ISIS and terrorism is a complex problem requiring complex, imperfect solutions.

The only candidate who's come even close to offering a more nuanced plan for battling ISIS is Marco Rubio. We're being generous with "nuanced" here -- meaning anything with a second dimension beyond RAH RAH RAH DEATH SPLAT. And what was Rubio's plan? That ISIS can be defeated if the U.S. contributes aerial support, intelligence, and training while an alliance of Middle Eastern countries does the fighting on the ground. He got a lot of applause for this. And yet it's the exact same plan that the Obama administration has, the exact one that Rubio claims is the administration is too cowardly to adopt. So.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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