Graham Bows Out, Bush v. Rubio, and the Politics of Regime Change

December 30, 2015

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40 percent of voters say the terrorists are winning

The November attacks in Paris, the more recent attack in San Bernardino, and the seemingly stagnant U.S. counter-ISIL strategy have turned the 2016 presidential election into a national security one. Which candidates that will turn out to benefit is an open question, but it’s clear who is not benefitting from Americans’ enhanced concerns about terrorism: the current president. A new poll shows 74 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with U.S. counter-terrorism progress. And 40 percent believe the terrorists are winning, almost double the previous high from a decade ago. Read more by CNN’s Stephen Collinson about what this means for Barack Obama and those eager to replace him.

Chris Christie, terrorist fighter

On the campaign trail and the debate stage, Chris Christie — who has risen to third in the all-important New Hampshire polls, battling with Marco Rubio to become the establishment alternative to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in that state — has made much of the counterterrorism experience he gained as U.S. attorney for New Jersey. From terrorism investigations and prosecutions to working with the FISA court, he argues that his experience sets him apart from his rivals. The problem, argue Alexander Burns and Charlie Savage in The New York Times, is that Christie has at times overstated, or at least described in vague terms, his actual counterterrorism role. One example: “Mr. Christie’s campaign website credits his office with obtaining an indictment against the kidnapper of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and killed in Pakistan, and notes that the defendant, Ahmed Omar Sheikh, was ‘sentenced to death.’ It does not mention a key fact: The trial took place in Pakistan. Mr. Christie’s office had no role in it.”

Sanders targets DoD spending

At a campaign event in Iowa, Bernie Sanders took issue with the Department of Defense’s budget — not just with its size, but with spending priorities and inefficiencies. “I believe when we talk about making government more cost effective, it doesn’t simply mean cutting Medicaid and food stamps,” Sanders told Iowa Democrats. “What it does mean is taking a hard look at an agency which receives $600 billion per year where there is an immense amount of waste and fraud. And while we have massive cost overruns with defense contractors, we’ve got deployment after deployment for our soldiers, and we’ve got military families on food stamps. So maybe we want to change that.”

What would a Trump foreign policy really look like?

That’s the question John Ford examines in his new piece for War on the Rocks. In short, “If Trump were elected and acted on his promises, the United States would go from the defender of the liberal order to its main challenger.” Check out the full piece here.

So long, Lindsey

Lindsey Graham, supposedly the most hawkish aspirant to the White House by far, quit the race last week. In The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza explains why Graham struggled to gain traction, and suggests that, while he was louder and more on-message about national security than his rivals, he wasn’t necessarily so much more hawkish than them. “Graham’s hawkish views defined his Party from 9/11 through the end of the Bush era, but with the chaos of the Iraq war an era of skepticism about foreign adventurism briefly flourished. That era peaked with the election of Senator Rand Paul, an anti-interventionist, in 2010,” Lizza writes. “Graham clearly entered this Presidential race to start a fight with the Paul wing of the Party, but Paulism was in decline. In fact, most of Graham’s serious opponents … were already parroting Graham’s views on Obama’s failures and the need for a more interventionist response to the Islamic State, even if they have been coy about sending ground troops in the numbers that Graham has favored.”

Fact-checking GOP ISIL strategies

While the GOP field — with the exception of Rand Paul — is largely unanimous in their prescriptions for how best to confront ISIL, they are equally unanimous in failing to offer detailed strategies. For Politifact, Linda Qiu takes a look at where all of the candidates stand on four issues: ground troops, the air war, international cooperation, and nonmilitary measures (Qiu also includes a very useful chart). She finds that there’s little to differentiate the GOP candidates (sans Paul), not only from each other, but from Hillary Clinton, as well.

Rubio gets some love from the Benghazi committee chairman

Rep. Trey Gowdy, head of the House’s Benghazi committee, is going to endorse Marco Rubio and campaign with him in Iowa, where Gowdy’s Tea Party credentials will surely give Rubio a boost. But the pairing is also a bit awkward, argues Simon Maloy at Salon. Rubio has been in a heated battle with Ted Cruz in recent weeks, and the centerpiece of his attacks on the Texas senator has been Cruz’s support for a bill that curtailed the government’s electronic surveillance capabilities. Another supporter of that bill? Trey Gowdy. Moreover, while Gowdy’s committee hearings are widely popular among conservatives, how this newly formed connection might impact Rubio’s campaign among more moderate voters, particularly in a general election is much more of an open question.

The politics of regime change

Something unique might be in the works this election cycle. For the first time, some of the big national security ideas that each party’s nominee will campaign on in the general election won’t necessarily reflect the parties’ respective orthodoxies, which have marked the past several election cycles. Paul Mulshine explains in The Star Ledger. He argues that, based on recent poll numbers, 65 percent of Republicans support one of the candidates who explicitly rejects regime change in the Middle East, including the two frontrunners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Conversely, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton continues to support Bashar al-Assad’s ouster in Syria. What does this mean? If polls hold up, this could be the first election since 2000 in which it is Democrats, not Republicans, that will be in the position of essentially defending what Mulshine argues is George W. Bush’s “failed policy of regime change.”

Jeb’s super PAC: Rubio absent on national security

A super PAC that supports Jeb Bush has, for the first time, gone directly after Rubio in a new ad. “Days after the Paris attacks, senators came together for a top-secret briefing on the terrorist threat. Marco Rubio was missing, fundraising in California instead,” the ad says. “Two weeks later, terrorist struck again in San Bernardino. And where was Marco? Fundraising again, in New Orleans.”

Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant responded, saying in a statement, “Bush’s team dishonestly omits that Marco is on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, where he attended the highest level briefings on the Paris attacks … No other candidate for president has received more classified Intelligence briefings or better understands the threats facing our nation today than Marco. It’s sad to see Jeb’s ‘joyful’ campaign reduced to such intellectual dishonesty.”

The Trump and Putin bromance kind of makes sense

Much was made of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s praise of Donald Trump and Trump’s return in kind. It certainly seemed odd to hear a leading candidate for the White House defending some of the more awful actions of the increasingly autocratic Russian leader. But perhaps it’s worth looking at the things the two have in common, as University of Denver professor Jonathan Adelman does in The Huffington Post:

“Both share a strong dislike for President Obama and want a sea change in American foreign policy. Both are loners who like to be the only man on stage. Both are strong egocentric people whose self-worth, as Angela Merkel once said about Putin, seems to have no bounds. Both love personality cults and see themselves as saving their country from disaster caused by their predecessor (Yeltsin and Obama). Putin and Trump both hate ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism and are willing to take extreme steps to abolish it. And, last but not least, both see themselves as hard-nosed realists who revere the art of the deal.”

And, Adelman argues, the similarities don’t stop there. Read the piece to check out the others.

And then there’s this

What do Donald Trump and Pope Francis have in common? Until this week, probably nothing. But since the release of a new Gallup poll, each of them can say that he is Americans’ second-most admired man in the world. Both were named by 5 percent of respondents. (Barack Obama came in at 17 percent.)


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore