National Security Takes Center Stage on the Campaign Trail

November 25, 2015

After the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 earlier this month, national security was instantly thrust into the forefront of the campaign. With yesterday’s shoot-down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft in Turkish airspace, and the consequent growing complexity of an already intractable war, it looks like issues of security and foreign policy will hold center stage for the foreseeable future. So how does this impact the race for the White House?

Is any candidate strong on national security?

Writing in Politico, Eli Stokols argues that on the GOP side, the outsider candidates that have thus far surged to the top of the polls are in danger. Exhibit number one: Ben Carson. “True ignorance, it turns out, can be damaging. Ben Carson, who had been near the top of the field, is slipping after struggling to demonstrate any fluency on foreign policy issues.”

John Wildermuth spoke to a number of campaign consultants and political analysts about how the sudden shift in emphasis affects the race for his article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Republican consultant Rob Stutzman agrees that in the GOP field, the non-politicians face the greatest risk: “The world is looking like a more serious and somber place and there’s no way that’s good news for Trump and Carson.”

But Democrats aren’t immune, either. Bernie Sanders’ focus limits his appeal in an election that features security issues prominently. Sanders “wants to talk about economic inequality and issues like that,” says Jessica Levinson, a political analyst and law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “But with the debate shifting to foreign policy, that’s not in his wheelhouse.”

Martin O’Malley has also sought to emphasize domestic and economic policy, although to a lesser extent than Sanders. But Hillary Clinton is more than willing to tackle foreign policy issues. Unfortunately for her, she’s uniquely open to criticism, Stokols argues: “Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is vulnerable on national security issues. Having served as secretary of state under President Obama, she will no doubt be held to account by Republicans for the administration’s approach to foreign policy.”

So if so many candidates are vulnerable to charges of being ill-prepared to manage the nation’s security challenges, or even fundamentally wrong in their approaches, the question the coming weeks and months will answer is whether any candidate can emerge to earn a reputation of being strong (and right) on foreign policy.

The Russian Plane Shoot-down

While many candidates have remained silent on Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian jet in Turkish airspace, a few have weighed in. Here’s what they’re making of the incident on the campaign trail:

Jeb Bush linked the issue to declining American leadership in the world: “We’re living in a world rife with insecurity,” Bush said during a campaign event in South Carolina. “Today was another example of it, where a Russian plane was shot down and a helicopter apparently shot down right behind it. And it’s because America’s leadership in the world is so necessary for peace and security.”

Rand Paul took the incident as an opportunity to justify his own foreign policy views, often criticized by some within his party as too dovish: “The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet illustrates precisely why we need open lines of communication with Russia and should resist calls from some presidential candidates to isolate ourselves from discussions with our adversaries,” Paul said in a statement. “Those who are calling for a no-fly zone need to realize that shooting down other countries’ fighter jets will be the result and a war between nuclear superpowers a possibility.”

Marco Rubio said that NATO now faces a clear test: “If we were not to come to Turkey’s defense and assistance in any instance, it would undermine the NATO alliance,” he told Fox News. “It’s important for us to be very clear, that we will respond and defend Turkey if they come under assault from the Russians, otherwise the entire NATO alliance comes into question.”

Trump the Fascist?

So, the F-word has come out in the GOP race

Hillary’s Foreign Policy Speech

Hillary Clinton gave a speech on national security, and specifically the Islamic State, at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. Watch the video or read the transcript here. So what did she have to say, and how was her speech received?

Writing for at the Brookings Institution website, former Bill Clinton advisor William Galston called it a “detailed speech” that “offered specifics,” which would certainly set the candidate apart on a difficult issue that has typically garnered only general statements of principles and goals from most candidates.

Not so fast, argues Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post’s Right Turn blog. The speech full of “empty platitudes,” she writes, and it also “demonstrat[ed] that [Clinton] has better rhetoric than President Obama but that there is not a scintilla of difference between them when it comes to policy.”

And that’s her biggest challenge, says Howard Kurtz in this piece for Fox News: charting her own strategic path on the issue of the Islamic State without implicitly (and too strongly) criticizing Obama. He makes a historical comparison: “Her situation is not unlike that of Hubert Humphrey, running as LBJ’s vice president in 1968 and having to gingerly discuss a Vietnam War that was not going well without openly breaking with the White House.”

Chris Christie: “Me too!”

Chris Christie followed Clinton’s speech at CFR with his own yesterday. Julian Hattern notes that Christie went after three of his GOP primary opponents particularly strongly — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul.

But much of the speech focused on criticizing Obama. For instance, Christie placed the blame for issues dominating the campaign coverage — Syria, the Islamic State, refugees, and homeland security — squarely at Obama’s feet: “The president, I believe, has lost his focus in an attempt to justify a failed policy. … He’s lost focus, and … that’s why the American people don’t support this policy, not only because it doesn’t make common sense, but because the president has lost focus on what his first priority should be. … I don’t care any less about the widows and orphans of the Syrian war than the president does — not one bit less. But my focus is different than his is. My focus is on the widows and orphans in the United States. My focus is on the widows and orphans of September 11th.”

Emily Cadei reviewed Christie’s speech in Newsweek: “The frequently bombastic governor assumed a quiet, somber tone, part of his bid to climb back into the 2016 presidential race by painting himself as a seasoned leader in a field full of amateurs. But Christie, himself, was remarkably light on specifics when it came to combating the chaos in the Middle East that’s now disrupting the West.”

NatSec in 140 Characters

Twitter is playing a bigger role than ever in presidential candidates’ campaigns to get out their messages. Most prolific, of course, has been Donald Trump, whose talk-tough-on-everything strategy is particularly conducive to ultra-shortform media:

At least one of Trump’s GOP opponents is not impressed. John Kasich: “How do you think Mr. Trump will handle Russia’s Putin or ISIS? Fire off a barrage of tweets?”

Cruz on Homeland Security

Ted Cruz was asked this week if he believes Islamic State fighters are already in the United States. His response: “Of course they are and more are coming. And ISIS has made clear their intention to carry out terror attacks just like the one in Paris here in America and to try and murder hundreds, or if they have their way, thousands of innocent Americans.”

To deal with it, Cruz has a plan (which sounds a lot like Donald Trump’s plan plus a few more details and aviation assets): “As president, number one: I will secure the border. I will build a wall that works … We will triple the border control. We will increase fourfold the fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. We will deport the criminal illegal aliens. We will put in place a strong biometric entry exit system. We will put in place a strong e-verify.”

Rubio v. Cruz: Proxy Political Warfare

Meanwhile, Cruz is facing a new attack ad (watch it here) criticizing his vote for the USA Freedom Act, a bill that ended metadata collection by the NSA. It doesn’t mince words: “Our leaders must keep America safe. But when Ted Cruz had the chance to fight Barack Obama’s dangerously weak anti-terror policies, he didn’t. Instead, Cruz voted to weaken America’s ability to identify and hunt down terrorists.”

The group behind the ad, American Encore, has not endorsed a candidate, but as TIME reporter Zeke J. Miller notes, its president is a Rubio supporter. Charges of weakness on terrorism in a GOP primary — now that’s a shot across the bows, and it says volumes about who rising establishment candidate Rubio sees as the greatest threat from the party’s conservative wing.

Why is Trump still leading?

With all of the challenges that are emerging in the Middle East, how is Donald Trump, the leading “outsider” candidate still atop the polls, despite his lack of foreign policy experience? Steve Schmidt, a strategist who worked for John McCain’s 2008 campaign, suggests an answer: “None of the candidates have truly offered a concrete plan, which includes an exit plan. No one has communicated to American people the sacrifice that will be required if we undertake this plan. And so, short of concrete plans about how to fight this, the ‘bomb the s**t out of them’ guy is going to win.”

General who?

Donald Trump has been invoking former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno lately in campaign speeches. Or at least he’s been trying to. Trump has used comments Odierno made about the state of American military readiness to attack the Obama administration. Unfortunately, he hasn’t seemed able to learn the recently retired general’s name, which he has mispronounced repeatedly. Seriously, so many times. Bloomberg has video.


John Amble is Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.


Image: Clay Masters, CC