It's been obvious for some time that the Republicans were gearing up for a national security election. Part of this is simply because they're desperate and this is one issue on which they are almost always seen as having an advantage. They have portrayed Democrats as weak on defense for decades, often using gendered tropes to drive the point home, so the prospect of facing a woman in the general election offers them an unprecedented opportunity to drive home that theme in ways that feel both familiar and new.
When Jeb Bush entered the race, it was clear that the establishment believed that enough time had passed for people to forget their last disastrous turn at the helm and they could start beating their war drum once again. Up until this past weekend, they had been nibbling around the edges of the ISIS debate mainly because there just aren't any simple answers. Sen. Lindsey Graham was the designated hysteric on the issue, pretty much fashioning an entire presidential campaign around repeated warnings that terrorists are coming to America to kill us all. (The fact that his candidacy is mired below 1 percent might speak to the fact that nobody cared about that -- but it's more likely the messenger than the message.) Most of the field had subsumed their usual fear-mongering over foreign threats into the immigration debate, particularly with the emergence of Donald Trump and his deportation and wall-building scheme. His rhetoric of "criminals and rapists" infiltrating our country hits the same hot nerve as Graham's handwringing and Trump offers a much more satisfying solution.
But Friday night's terrorist attack in Paris refocused the national security debate on terrorism, at least for the time being, and the Republicans were all forced to respond. Graham, naturally, came out with his patented dead-eyed pithy pearl clutching:
If you really want to make a difference, go into Iraq and Syria with an international coalition on the ground and destroy these guys. Every day they’re allowed to survive is a day that we can get hit.
Basically he reiterated his earlier call to launch another invasion of Iraq, but only this time don't shilly shally around -- invade Syria and anyone else who looks at us sideways. There's no word on how this would make an attack like Paris less likely, but Graham's not the only one who persists in believing that bombing, invading and occupying Middle Eastern countries is the solution to terrorism around the globe. One might think they would have reevaluated this assumption after our experience with invading Iraq -- and the many terrorists it created and acts of terrorism that followed -- but they clearly haven't.
The GOP frontrunners' reactions to Paris were even less coherent than usual. The night before the attack, Trump had said that his solution to ISIS was to "bomb the shit out of them." He was speaking about bombing the oil fields to dry up their source of wealth (and, in the process, create a massive environmental disaster). He didn't explain how this would stop terrorist attacks in other countries either, although he did offer some advice for Europeans about how to deal with these terrorist attacks a couple of days later:
"When you look at Paris — you know the toughest gun laws in the world, Paris — nobody had guns but the bad guys. Nobody had guns — nobody. They were just shooting them one by one, and then (authorities) broke in and had a big shootout and ultimately killed the terrorists." "You can say what you want, but if they had guns — if our people had guns, if they were allowed to carry — it would've been a much, much different situation."
Apparently, Trump is unaware that Beirut, where a similar attack took place just a day before, is a full-fledged open carry city. Suicide bombers present unique challenges that even a quick-draw cowboy like Trump can't easily solve with his concealed carry permit.
CARSON: And I would make sure that the Russians understood that we are going to do that.
WALLACE: If I may press my point, what do you do if – after we shoot down a Russian plane, they shoot down one of ours?
CARSON: If they violate it, we will, in fact, enforce it. And, you know, we’ll see what happened. You know, too, for us to always be backing down because we are afraid of a conflict, that’s not how we became a great nation, Chris.
WALLACE: But you’re talking about getting potentially into a shooting war with Russia over Syria?
CARSON: Well, if we established a no-fly zone and we make clear the rules, if they violate it, that’s why you have a no-fly zone. That’s the very definition of a no-fly zone. You can’t fly there.
This is actually a welcome evolution from his earlier stance that "rules" in war are a form of political correctness. (This, by the way, is the man who former CIA director Michael Hayden says has all the right instincts.)
So much for the frontrunners, the men who are between them garnering over 50 percent of the Republican Party's support right now. But what about the other candidates?
Well, John Kasich gave a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness monologue during which he offered this solution: "The way you prevent these kind of things from happening is that you know they're going to happen." Ted Cruz, meanwhile, called for some good old fashioned shock and awe, apparently, under the logic that we need to be less tolerant of civilian casualties because the terrorists are intolerant of civilian casualties. As with the other candidates, it's unclear how this will help prevent terrorism in other countries, but it seems to get the crowds excited.
Chris Christie attacked President Obama and promised "action" on the world stage again. Carly Fiorina said she was angry at Hillary Clinton. Bobby Jindal said "it is time for us to be honest about the enemies we face." Mike Huckabee has a serious plan to "bomb the absolute stink out of them. It’s going to have to be an aggressive air campaign followed up by a group of ground troops.” Rick Santorum shrieked something and nobody paid any attention.
After that frightening array of frothing and incoherent warmongers, it was with some anticipation that we waited to hear from the two establishment candidates with reputations for an intelligent understanding national security and foreign policy. Marco Rubio has been heavily touted as someone with a very sophisticated grasp of these issues. (Except, that is, for those times when he doesn't know that Iran is a Shia country in opposition to ISIS.) This weekend, he confidently declared: "This is clearly an act of war and an attack on one of our NATO allies, and we should invoke Article 5 of the NATO agreement, and bring everyone together to put together a coalition to confront this challenge."
That sounds very forceful but like everyone else, he's a little short on what comes next. Presumably he means some kind of war, but invoking Article 5 doesn't mean all that much when the coalition is already working together. The French dropped a whole bunch of bombs on ISIS targets in Raqqa on Sunday in retaliation, with the support of the U.S. Rubio did babble something about having more airplanes closer to the battle because too many planes are coming from aircraft carriers, but it didn't make a lot of sense. But "invoking Article 5" sounded smart, so perhaps that's all it takes.
This, however, did not sound smart. Railing against Hillary Clinton for failing to use the Republican's designated phrase "radical Islam," Rubio said:
That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves.
That's an excellent analogy. I wonder if he came up with it himself?
Finally, there's Jeb. Yes, he may have been faltering lately on the trail, but surely this kind of thing is in the DNA. If there any issue on which he should shine it's this. Well, the results weren't good.
"You take it to them in Syria and Iraq. 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. We have to be engaged in this. This is not something you can contain. Each day that ISIS exists, it gains new energy and more recruits around the world.
"We should declare war, and harness all of the power that the United States can bring to bear, both diplomatic and military, of course, to be able to take out ISIS...We have the capabilities of doing this. We just haven’t showed the will.
"Lead. That’s what I want him to do. I want him to lead.”
There you have it. Stirring words, I'm sure. But when a Bush starts talking about "leading" and "taking it to them," you are wise to ask "take what and to whom and to what end?" It's not always clear.
To his credit, he rattled off a few specifics: Declare a no-fly zone over Syria, directly arm the Peshmerga forces in Iraq, reengage with the Sunni tribal leaders, embed with the Iraqi military, and"be able to create safe zones in Syria." (Whatever that means.) And he thinks we should garner the support of our European allies and the traditional Arab states. These are all pretty mainstream ideas, most of which are already being done (or, otherwise, there are complicated political and strategic reasons not to) and none of these things are likely to prevent what happened in Paris. On the other hand, he didn't call for carpet bombing anyone, so in that regard he at least did not sound completely insane.
Aside from an exhortation for the president "to lead," the one thing the candidates (except Jeb) agreed upon -- even Rand Paul, who didn't have much else to say -- was that we simply must not allow any Middle eastern refugees into the country, regardless of whether any are proven to have been among the Paris terrorists. Ted Cruz stepped up to say we need to allow the Christian refugees in, and Jeb Bush agreed they should get priority. (If I had to guess, quite a few of Trump's GOP base voters don't see much difference, if you know what I mean.) Some of the compassionate conservative candidates recommended that the refugees build some nice camps in the desert to live in.
One suspects that this refugee issue is the way for them to weave together the currently raging domestic xenophobia with the threat of terrorism to create a roiling stew of fear and loathing. (Or what Republicans call "get out the vote.") It's even possible that it will work. (After all, the establishment Politico magazine is already running articles entitled "On terror, we’re all Right-wingers now.") But judging from their early reactions to the Paris attacks, their answers to the problem all seem to boil down to some version of "we're going back to Iraq," and that may be a harder sell.