Paris changed American politics, though no one can say how much, or for how long. Republicans hope to turn the 2016 election into a referendum on "national security." House Republicans got the ball rolling with a bill to effectively bar all Syrian refugees from entering the United States. As a public safety measure, it’s an odd first step, given how few Syrian refugees we resettle and the microscopic threat they pose to our security. But no one familiar with the facts thinks Republicans act out of concern for our safety.
In five years of civil war, 200,000 Syrians have died and 9.5 million have fled their homes. Germany has taken in 38,500 of them. The United States: 1,854. Half are children. Most of the rest are women or elderly. Two percent are single men of combat age, the demographic from which most terrorists hail. (The 9/11 hijackers’ average age was 24. The elder Boston marathon bomber was 26.) Vetting a refugee takes up to two years and produces a fat dossier, which is why so few terrorists try to get in that way. We say the world looks to us for leadership, but every other nation that might join a coalition against ISIS is doing more than we are to meet this crisis. They no longer want our "leadership" -- just our soldiers, our arms and our money.
Since the attack, feckless Republicans have hatched one hare brained scheme after another: closing borders to Muslims (Ted Cruz); opening them, but only to Christians (Jeb Bush); closing down mosques and even requiring Muslims to register with the federal government (walking, talking ISIS recruitment poster Donald Trump). And yet they’re winning the debate. All evidence says the GOP bill won’t make us safer, that even debating it makes us appear foolish and weak. But if it dies in the Senate it will be by parliamentary maneuver, not popular mandate.
A year ago most Americans supported the Iran nuclear pact and opposed sending troops back to Iraq. Today they oppose the pact and narrowly support sending the troops. In a September Pew poll, a bare majority backed Obama’s plan to take in more refugees. In a Friday Bloomberg poll, 64 percent opposed it. Trump’s approval ratings rose this week. Obama’s fell.
Democrats say this is a natural reaction to a severe trauma. They argue that the fever’s confined to the Republican wards; when we recover our senses, we’ll want a tested leader at the helm, or at least an adult. In other words, it will all work itself out. Perhaps. Meanwhile, Trump’s numbers are rising in general election as well as primary polls. The public reversed itself on the Iran pact and Iraq troops long before Paris. It can’t all be a passing mood.
Democrats have been losing the national security debate for years. Most aren’t any good at it. Some don’t even try. Few have the courage or conviction to challenge failed doctrines. So they crouch in the cellar praying the storm will soon pass. If this one doesn’t, its blood-dimmed tide may sweep a Republican into the White House and the country into a limitless, trackless war. To keep that from happening Democrats must find the courage and skill to lay out a clear, credible alternative to the reflexive militarism of the past. As things stand, they aren’t even close.
The first obstacle they must overcome is their fear of national security issues. Republicans use real wars to fight culture wars (See Karl Rove and Iraq) and never fight fair. (See Karl Rove and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) Show maturity or restraint and they paint you as weak. It’s a hustle, but frightened voters make easy marks. Democrats are the real prey, so when talk turns to national security they talk as tough as they can and move quickly on to other topics.
Democratic consultants tell their clients to stay off their opponents’ turf which is one reason why at the Iowa debate, Bernie Sanders allotted just two sentences of his opening statement to Paris. But national security shouldn’t be Republican turf, and wouldn’t be if Democrats challenged them on it relentlessly, with facts and fearless logic. Their consultants say that in an age of "messaging" no one has to explain anything, but in reality the reduction of defense issues to mere themes and tropes is what enables Republicans to use them as political cudgels.
Democrats no longer know how to make a case let alone on issues as complex and tender as these. They once exposed illegal military and intelligence operations. No more. Republicans have issued seven reports on Benghazi; Democrats not one on the lies that lured us into Iraq. The Center for Public Integrity found 260 false statements made by Bush in the ramp up to war. He told Congress “our intelligence sources” told him Saddam tried to buy aluminum tubes “suitable for nuclear weapons production.” Our intelligence sources said no such thing and our nuclear weapons experts said the opposite. His claim was thus a lie. Pardon him if you like, but establish the record, and with it the principle that henceforth, lies of such magnitude and consequence will be deemed impeachable offenses.
After 9/11 Democrats should have played every point. When Bush said “they hate us for our freedom” Democrats should have said, "No, they hate us because we arm rulers they are at war with’."When he said “we fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” they should have said, "No, they’re here because we’re there, propping up petrol states with guns and bribes.: When he said “the world’s a better place without Saddam in it,” they should have said "not for the hundred-thousand Iraqi dead or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who fled their homes; not for our killed or wounded soldiers or their loved ones. Nor is America better off as a bankrupt, nor is the Middle East better off in a permanent state of bloody chaos."
Bush was wrong about everything. When experts told him the key to defeating Al Qaeda was law enforcement not military power, he presumed to ridicule their “pre-9/11 thinking.” Iraq laid bare the vulnerability of our military to the asymmetrical tactics of jihad, but 13 years later Democrats have yet to make a solid case for junking what we no longer need. The reorganizations of intelligence and homeland security were bipartisan boondoggles. The tragic mistake was of course the invasion of Iraq. It’s worth recalling that a majority of Democrats voted against it, but also that most did so quietly.
Democrats have shown themselves little better at defending their own policies. Obama’s handling of foreign policy and defense topics is far too casual, as when he drew a “red line” over Assad’s chemical weapons, called ISIS a “JV team” after it took Fallujah and assured the nation multiple times in the fall of 2012 that Al Qaeda was “on the run.” If you want to be the adult in the room you can never indulge in juvenile tough talk. If you want to call out those who play politics with foreign policy, you can’t play politics with it either, not even in the waning days of a close election. If you want us to trust in your protection, you can never be heard to underestimate our enemy.
When an aide used the phrase “leading from behind” to describe the U.S. role in toppling Muammar Gaddafi, Obama should have said that after Iraq any U.S.-led invasion would be bad for everyone. When he first took flak for avoiding the root word ‘Islam’ when discussing terrorists, he should have said that by widening the war George W. Bush made himself Osama Bin Laden’s tool -- and that he was determined not to repeat the mistake. When they went after his claim that ISIS had been "contained," he should have elaborated. ISIS has recently shrunk a bit, but ISIS is more than the land it controls and jihad is more than ISIS. It’s why neither can be snuffed out on a battlefield. It was a perfect teaching moment, if he only remembered that in answering his critics he spoke not just to them but to all of us.
Republicans want the election to be about external threats. Democrats want it to be about domestic reforms. Bernie Sanders’ fast pivot in Iowa reflected their faith that the way to keep the Republicans from hijacking the agenda is to "stay on message." They could lay waste the feeble Republican case, but they so fear being painted as sissies they back off even when logic and the facts are all on their side. They trust in their consultants’ magic, but it isn’t strong enough. To get the focus back where they want it, they must engage and defeat the Republicans on the issue of the hour.
On Thursday Hillary Clinton tried to do just that, traveling to Manhattan’s Upper East Side to share her thoughts on ISIS with the Council on Foreign Relations. Clinton is plenty fearless and knows as well as anyone how to make a case. The problem lies in the case she makes, and this is the Democrats’ biggest problem: their frontrunner is an avatar of a spent foreign policy establishment.
In her speech Clinton called for a U.S. enforced no fly zone in Syria. In so doing she bid adieu to Obama, Sanders and Martin O’Malley and joined every major Republican candidate but Rand Paul and Trump (he’s thinking it over). She also adopted a favorite Republican ploy by not saying what she’d do if Russia continued bombing. Sadly, none of the assembled sages thought to put the question to her.
Clinton said her strategy has three main elements: defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq; “disrupt and dismantle” its global infrastructure and “harden our defenses” against “external and homegrown threats.” In another departure from Obama she said “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS.” On the less abstract question of whether to send in ground troops she left the impression she stood with Obama, but a closer reading of the text left a different impression:
Like President Obama I do not believe we should again have 100,000 American troops in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here.
Wait, 100,000? A whole field army is 80,000. President Obama opposes sending any. Clinton also said “we may have to give our troops greater freedom of movement, including… embedding in local units” If she thinks that means something other than combat, it doesn’t.
Not unlike a certain leading Republican, Clinton lists goals with barely a nod as to how to reach them: moving Putin off Assad, getting the Iraq government to deal in the Sunnis and Kurds; getting the Saudis to focus on ISIS; getting the Saudis to stop funding terrorists; a second ‘Sunni Awakening’; an “intelligence surge,” a political resolution of Syria’s civil war and, quaintly, an end to partisan sniping here at home. It’s a rickety structure; the moral equivalent of Rube Goldberg. To reach any of its goals you must reach all or at least most of them. Clinton cites every kind of “smart power” but her constant theme is military mobilization on a scale big enough to “smash the would-be caliphate.” She leaves no doubt as to who’d be in charge: “This is a world-wide fight and America must lead it.”
Near the end of her speech Clinton mumbles some words about opportunity and “working to curb corruption” but the “three main elements” of her plan amount to little more than an endless war on symptoms, fought with soldiers, police officers, drones and electronic surveillance on a scale heretofore unseen. Not once does she note that all these strategies have already failed; this despite 12 years in which she bore daily witness to their failure as senator and secretary of state.
We know now our safety lies not in military intervention but in the rule of law. We know our unilateralism must give way to multilateral conflict resolution. (Seldom in the last ten days have we read or heard the words ‘United Nations’) We know our crusades spread more corruption than democracy. We know globalization lifts millions out of absolute poverty but not into the middle class. We know what we have done to secure and protect our interests and we know the time has come to undo much of what we have done. We begin by telling those who don’t yet know.
Between now and Iowa the Democratic National Committee has allowed just two debates. It isn’t enough for Democrats to just say no to Republican xenophobia. They must show the American people they have a better way to make us safe and heal the world. Hillary Clinton won’t, so Bernie Sanders must. It isn’t his métier, but it as much a part of what ails America as any issue we face and by now it must be clear: to get to the hope we have to get through the fear.