If you spent any time in front of your television or the Internet this weekend – and good for you if you shut it all off and sat in a field full of quiet and dandelions instead – you could be forgiven for thinking you were living in an updated version of a World War II newsreel trying to get you pumped for war. Jerry’s on the march! Time for our boys to meet force with force! Buy war bonds!
Or maybe you just thought you had woken up in the fall of 2001, when every idiot with even the remotest connection to the government or the national security establishment was all but wetting their pants into their panelist’s chairs on “Meet the Press” as they warned us that Al Qaeda was coming to kill us all in our beds.
Of course we have seen mass casualty terrorist attacks by jihadis since then – the Madrid train bombings in 2004, London in 2005, Bali, Mumbai, and dozens of others in cities like Baghdad and Beirut all come to mind. But there are a few differences that made the Paris attack a little more frightening for those of us watching our leaders and would-be leaders react and wondering if this was the one that would send us the country careening deeper into the Middle Eastern abyss.
One was the rise of social media, especially Twitter, which gives these sorts of events a real-time immediacy and amplification that leaves you feeling even more overwhelmed with the flow of information than if you were relying solely on the sonorous tones of Wolf Blitzer blaring from your old cathode-ray television to tell you what’s going on.
There are two other factors, both of which are related. They are the 2016 presidential election, and the GOP’s continuing devolution from a political party into a loose collection of screeching reactionary head cases animated almost solely by utter hatred of President Obama and progressivism in general, and lacking even the most tenuous grip on reality or basic humanity.
Those two strands came together this weekend as the Republican presidential candidates flopped all over themselves proclaiming themselves tougher and more ready to lead the fight against ISIS than the next. But their policies are both nonsensical and irrelevant, or already being pursued by the Obama administration. It was as if each of them spends all their downtime asleep in hyperbaric chambers, trucked from one appearance to the next, thawed out, shoved in front of a camera or a cheering crowd to spout nonsense fed through an earpiece by handlers, and then put back in stasis until the next event.
Take Ted Cruz’s demagogic guest spot on Saturday morning’s “Fox and Friends,” or appearances by boy Senator Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush on “This Week” and “Meet the Press,” respectively, on Sunday. All three tried to draw a contrast with Obama’s approach to ISIS but really all their policies are similar to what he’s doing, only more so. American airpower, but more of it! Arming the Kurds! (Which the administration has to do through the central Iraqi government, since it is forbidden by law from arming autonomous regions directly, and which could cause major problems with both Turkey and Iraq.) Leading with more leadership in some undefined way!
Jeb! also demanded we declare war and added, “You destroy ISIS. And then you build a coalition to replace this radical Islamic terrorist threat to our country and to Europe and to the region with something that is more peace-loving.” Which sounded a bit like Donald Trump’s vague plan to repeal Obamacare and “replace it with something terrific.” Real masters of policy we’re seeing in the GOP field.
But where does all of this chest-thumping lead? We’re already bombing ISIS and have been for months. Our airpower is already giving the Kurds cover to take back some of the territory ISIS has occupied, as they did just last week. The natural expansion of all this jingoistic anger is a major commitment of American soldiers to invade, conquer and essentially occupy ISIS’s territory (and then stand around stuck in the middle while the entities in the area – Iraq, Syria, the Kurds, to name a few – fight it out for control of that territory).
And certainly none of the candidates can explain why the Paris attacks, horrible as they are, differ in any significant way from any other jihadi attack of the past decade. Or the past half-century, for that matter. Fanatical terrorism is not new, nor is it an artifact exclusive to the Obama presidency.
But ISIS is a specific creation of our meddling in the Middle East by invading Iraq, and we can’t completely disengage from that part of the world no matter how much we might want to. We need some new and creative ways of attacking this problem to at least mitigate its danger a little, if that’s even possible. I don’t know if President Obama or any of the Democratic candidates have the capacity to come up with those solutions. But I’m damn sure that the Republican field doesn’t have the faintest clue. And I’m also damn sure anyone of them will make things a lot worse.