How the Paris Attacks are Influencing U.S. Presidential Campaigns

November 17, 2015

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National security issues were expected to feature prominently in the 2016 presidential election. And yet, Lindsey Graham’s laser-like focus notwithstanding, candidates have mostly chosen to stick to the economy and other domestic issues. Last Friday’s tragic attacks in Paris have changed that, at least for now. Candidates are facing tough questions about how they would respond as president and what a U.S. strategy to combat the Islamic State should look like. It’s an opportunity to see how each candidate views the threat, the depth to which each understands it, and how each calculates political opportunities and vulnerabilities that arise as terrorism becomes a core issue of the campaign.

Here’s how each candidate has talked about the Islamic State and threats to U.S. national security since the Paris attacks (Democrats first, then Republicans, both roughly in order of national poll numbers).

Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s tenure in the Obama administration clearly represents a risk that her opponents will aim to attach Obama’s perceived failures to her. In the debate, her strategy to thwart attacks along those lines appeared to be two-pronged: First, counter the assertion that Obama administration decisions did in fact contribute to the Islamic State’s rise; and second, position herself as a dissident within the administration.

To that end, she placed the blame for sacrificing the United States’ hard-won gains at the feet of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: “I think that what happened when we abided by the agreement that George W. Bush — made with the Iraqis to leave — by 2011 is that an Iraqi army was left that had been trained and that was prepared to defend Iraq. Unfortunately, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, set about decimating it.”

Next, she claims to have argued for a more assertive strategy in Syria than the cautious, incremental approach Obama ultimately adopted: “And then with the revolution against Assad — and I did early on say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be — extremist groups filling the vacuum.”

Bernie Sanders

Sanders did in fact point the finger of blame at Clinton, although not because of her role as secretary, but her vote in favor of the Iraq War: “Of course international terrorism is a major issue that we’ve got to address today. And I agree with much of what the secretary and and the governor have said. I only have one area of disagreement with the secretary. I think she said something like, ‘The bulk of the responsibility is not ours.’ Well, in fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely. And led to the rise of Al Qaeda and to ISIS.”

So what to do now? Sanders stuck to the politically safe ground of suggesting that the United States needs to act, but within the context of a coalition: “Now, in fact, what we have got to do — and I think there is widespread agreement here — because the United States cannot do it alone. What we need to do is lead an international coalition. … Nations in that region are gonna have to fight and defend their way of life.”

As for who needs to carry more weight in the fight against ISIL? “The Muslim nations in the region — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, all of these nations — they’re gonna just have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground. … We should be supportive of that effort. … But those Muslim countries are gonna have to lead the efforts. They are not doing it now.”

Sanders was also asked whether he still believed, as he argued in the last Democratic debate, that climate change remains the greatest threat to U.S. national security. He doubled down, and even linked the issue to terrorism: “Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say you’re gonna see countries all over the world — this is what the C.I.A. says — they’re gonna be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops. And you’re gonna see all kinds of international conflict.”

Martin O’Malley

O’Malley agreed that U.S. action in the Middle East must include allies, but offered among the most unequivocal statements of the three Democrats that this is a fight the United States must engage in: “This actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies. America is best when we are actually standing up to evil in this world. … We took out the save haven in Afghanistan but now there is undoubtedly a larger safe haven. And we must rise to this occasion in collaboration and with alliances to confront it.”

He also reiterated a theme he has touched on before, that U.S. HUMINT capabilities are lacking: “The great failing of these last ten or 15 years, John, has been our failing of human intelligence on the ground. … [We must] invest in the future in much better human intelligence so we know what the next steps are.”

Donald Trump

Trump, not alone among GOP candidates, focused on semantics: “We have a president that doesn’t even use the term, and won’t use the term, ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ … Hillary Clinton didn’t want to use the term the other day at the debate. … If you can’t define the problem, you’re never going to solve the problem.”

He also argued that the United States should be targeting oil fields from which the Islamic State derives revenue: “I would absolutely obliterate their source of wealth [oil]. … I’d attack [the oil] but I’d keep it … We never keep anything.”

Trump insisted that he also isn’t opposed to shutting down radical mosques in the United States: “You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques. … I would hate to [shut down mosques], but it’s something you’re going to have to strongly consider.”

Writing for Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump’s particular brand of nativism is exactly what a particular subset of GOP voters might want.

Ben Carson

Carson appeared on Fox News on Sunday Morning and gave what might charitably be described as vague answers. Reviews have not been good. The interview has been called a “nightmare” and a foreign policy test that Carson flunked.

A few specific themes could be identified in Carson’s answers: He refused to commit to a number of U.S. troops that might be needed to defeat the Islamic State; he avoided several direct questions about which countries should be included in a military coalition; and he deferred on many questions to generals and senior advisors who have more experience in national security. None of these positions is inherently controversial. In fact, they’re mostly smart politics. But when combined with a rapid series of vague and superficial statements, a doubling down on his strange recent comments about Chinese involvement in Syria, and a reference to the size of the human frontal lobes, the interview was difficult to watch without wincing.

Marco Rubio

In a statement released on his campaign website the day after the Paris attacks, Rubio called them a sign of the “clash of civilizations” pitting the West against groups like the Islamic State. “This is not a geopolitical issue where they want to conquer territory, and it’s two countries fighting against each other,” Rubio said. “They literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that Rubio’s statement about the attacks is wrong on multiple levels.

Ted Cruz

In an interview with Fox News, Cruz reiterated his view of the conflict with the Islamic State: “These attacks underscore that we are facing an enemy who is fierce, who is relentless, who is at war with us even if our own president doesn’t understand that it is at war with us, and who will not stop until it is defeated. That enemy is radical Islamic terrorism.”

And that enemy will be defeated with boots on the ground — just not American boots: “In a Cruz administration we would be using overwhelming airpower and the Kurds as our boots on the ground.”

As for how this attack should impact the decision about accepting refugees into the United States, Cruz is clear on his view: “It makes no sense whatsoever for us to be bringing in refugees who our intelligence cannot determine if they are terrorists here to kill us or not.”

He does seem to believe an exception should be made for Christians, continuing: “Now, on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide or persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them.” This is undoubtedly a position that will resonate with some among his supporters, but it earned him a rebuke from Obama, who called what is essentially a religious litmus test “shameful.”

Jeb Bush

Bush argued that the big problem is the lack of a coherent strategy from the White House: “They have declared war on us, and we need a strategy to defeat them. We can’t coexist with them. We do have American forces in Iraq and in Syria, but there’s no strategy. A strategy would require American leadership, to create a no-fly zone, to create safe havens. … There needs to be a strategy. … There needs to be a strategy, though. We can’t just react to each event. This is the tragedy of the Obama administration, and it looks as though the Democratic candidates want to continue this.”

But while arguing in favor of U.S. leadership, he hinted at a larger direct U.S. role while avoiding specifics about whether a major U.S. troop deployment to the region is necessary: “We ought to listen to the commanders and say ‘what is the strategy necessary to defeat ISIS?’ And I think it would require more boots on the ground, if you will … more special operators, more people that are embedded in the Iraqi Army, for example, more training for the Peshmerga forces, more engagement with the Sunni tribal leaders, more involvement for sure, but in a leadership role. … [But] I can’t speculate on [whether he would favor a major U.S. deployment].”

He also made the argument, presumably aimed at earning support from a particular segment of the GOP, that although perhaps Christians warrant special treatment: “We have to have a reality-based immigration policy, for sure. There should be really thorough screening. And we should focus on creating safe havens for refugees in Syria rather than bringing them all the way across to the United States. But I do think there is a special, important need to make sure that Christians from Syria are being protected because they’re being slaughtered in the country, and but for us, who? Who would take care of the number of Christians that right now are completely displaced?”

In a separate interview, he pointed to the NSA’s role in keeping Americans safe: “I think we need to restore the metadata program, which was part of the Patriot Act. I think that was a useful tool to keep us safe and also to protect civil liberties.”

Rand Paul

Paul is most politically vulnerable if the GOP race hinges on national security, as Igor Bobic notes in the Huffington Post. He has been largely reluctant to discuss what the United States should do on the ground in the region, and has focused mostly on border security: “Two, three years ago, I introduced … an amendment, to the immigration bill that would have provided for more scrutiny of people coming into our country: refugees, immigrants, students. They would have had background checks and they would have had a much higher degree of scrutiny. … And then Rubio and Schumer and all of the authors voted against any conservative amendments. And I think that was a mistake, not only for the bill, but also for our national security.”

John Kasich

Kasich was the first to specifically call for a formal NATO response to the Islamic State threat: “Today, NATO should invoke Article 5 of our NATO agreement, which basically says an attack on an ally is an attack on us and an attack on all of the Western world. We as Americans must assert leadership and we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with France and the French people. This is a moment to bring us together.”

Carly Fiorina

Fiorina spoke at a summit in Florida a day after the attacks, alongside other candidates. Significantly, she used her entire time to speak about the attack, a likely reflection that national security might be the issue with which she seeks to differentiate herself among the perceived “outsider” GOP candidates (mainly Trump and Carson).

She criticized Obama for comments he has made that downplay the threat of the Islamic State: “They are not a JV team, Mr. President. They are not contained. They are at our shores and their measure of victory is the body count.”

Mike Huckabee

The Huckabee campaign released a statement in which the governor suggested the attack validates strong concerns he expressed in the most recent debate about the security threats associated with accepting refugees. “During the debate last week, I stated that we should not admit those claiming to be Syrian refugees and was condemned by the left for that position,” the statement reads. “I was right and the events in Paris affirm that. Even the far left and politically correct government of France has closed its borders.”

Huckabee also called for an anti-Islamic State coalition to be built, by coercion if necessary: “Build a coalition that will include NATO, Russia, and nations of the Middle East to aggressively destroy ISIS. Nations who refuse to participate will be sanctioned and isolated.”

In a subsequent interview with Fox News, Huckabee further pointed to the national security risks of an immigration system that is too open: “It’s time to wake up and smell the falafel.”

Chris Christie

Christie’s response has focused on the risk of accepting refugees from Syria. In a radio interview, he argued against more refugees without appropriate vetting, and got attention for refusing to make an exception for young orphans: “I do not trust this administration to effectively vet the people who are proposed to be coming in. … The fact is that we need appropriate vetting, and I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point. But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?”

Christie’s views have changed in the wake of the Paris attacks. Two months ago, he said that “America is a compassionate country,” and that the United States should work with allies to “to figure out how we can help” (though he declined to offer a number for how many refugees should be admitted).

Rick Santorum

At a campaign event in Florida, Santorum blamed the Democratic frontrunner for the Islamic State’s very existence: “ISIS is a creation of a political decision by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to abandon Iraq — against all of our generals’ recommendations, against all of the policy recommendations.”

He also took one of the hardest lines of any candidate about what the United States should be doing now: “I would be launching a major offensive against ISIS right now.”

Bobby Jindal

Jindal, desperate for a jolt to his poll numbers, aimed to leverage the attacks to force his way into the ongoing debate that has defined much of the GOP race to date: immigration. He sent a letter to the White House demanding to know how many Syrian refugees the federal government has placed in his state of Louisiana.

“It is irresponsible and severely disconcerting to place individuals, who may or may not have ties to ISIS, in a state without the state’s knowledge or involvement,” Jindal wrote. “I demand information about the Syrian refugees being placed in Louisiana in the hopes that the horror in Paris is not duplicated here.”

George Pataki

Pataki appeared on MSNBC on Monday, arguing that the attacks are an inevitable outcome of the Obama administration’s strategy and warning that the Islamic State’s safe haven needs to be disrupted: “I’m angry here because this was certainly a shock what happened in Paris but it didn’t surprise me at all. … This president has looked the other way. He refers to people who disagree with his strategy as ‘playing political games.’ That is nonsense. I strongly believe — and it’s not because of a political game — that we cannot allow terrorists to train, recruit, organize and plan more Paris-like attacks. We have got to attack them there.”

Lindsey Graham

Graham warned of the building threat to the United States. “I’m trying to protect America from another 9/11, and without American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, we’re gonna get hit here at home,” he said. “And if you don’t understand that, you’re not ready to be commander-in-chief in my view.” He also called for 10,000 American troops in Iraq and for NATO to invoke Article V and formally declare war on the Islamic State.

Jim Gilmore

Gilmore released a statement soon after news of the attacks broke. It does not mince words: “Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and their sycophants do not understand and will never understand this enemy. The civilized world is at war with radical Islam and it will only end with their defeat — or ours. There is no middle ground to be had. Trying to make them like us is not an acceptable strategy, or a winning one. Like any tyrant, this enemy does not respect or fear weakness and we have given them more than enough of that these last 7 years. This will only end when we exact justice on this enemy. And by justice, I mean kill them. They will not wait to kill us.”


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore