This Week in National Security on the Campaign Trail: Trump Said What?

December 9, 2015

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“The instantaneous reaction to President Obama’s Oval Office speech on terrorism was as predictable as it was partisan. The battle over how to confront the threats from Islamic State militants has been baked into the politics of 2016.” That’s how Dan Balz open his article for The Washington Post from this week on how the Islamic State has become the central issue in the race for the White House. Check out his take on what the emphasis on this issue means for leading candidates in the field.

Is American political correctness helping the Islamic State?

Donald Trump thinks so. “People are dead. A lot of people are dead right now,” Trump told CBS. “So everybody wants to be politically correct, and that’s part of the problem that we have with our country.”

Chris Christie pushed back: “The fact is we don’t need to be profiling in order to be able to get the job done here.” He also called for the government to build “relationships with mosques in the Muslim American community across the country.”

Both candidates’ positions make sense from their perspective of the GOP primary landscape. Trump’s support base is vocally anti-establishment, and there is perhaps little they see as more “establishment” than political correctness. Christie, on the other hand, knows his best chance to break out from the middle of the pack hinges on making inroads with the generally moderate Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.

So who do New Hampshire Republicans want fighting the Islamic State?

Fifty percent of respondents in a new poll of Granite State Republicans say foreign policy and national security are the most important issues in the election. And fully one-third believe Trump is the candidate that “can best handle ISIS.” Interestingly, only seven percent say Marco Rubio, who comes in second behind Trump for overall support, would be best — tied with John Kasich and Lindsey Graham.

Graham calls out Trump

Trump: “I’m the worst thing that’s ever happened to ISIS.”
Graham: “He’s the ISIL man of the year.”

As Trump makes statements on everything from mosque surveillance to refusing Muslim visitors entry to the United States, his fellow Republicans have generally sought to walk a very fine line — distancing themselves from the comments while mostly refusing to condemn Trump outright. Graham is a very strong exception. On CNN this week, he called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot. He doesn’t represent my party. He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for. … He’s the ISIL man of the year.”

For the record, the Pentagon seems to agree with Graham.

Donald Le Pen

“Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated. [We] must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques, and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.”

That’s a quote from Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front political party, but you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s from Trump. In The New Yorker, John Cassidy traces the similarities (and key differences) between Le Pen’s movement in France and the political rise of Trump in the United States — and what it all means for the political landscape in 2016 and beyond.

“Don’t ask about ISIS today”

That’s what Bernie Sanders’ press secretary, Symone Sanders, told reporters just before the candidate faced their questions. It’s not surprising, given that Sanders has routinely (and stubbornly) sought to keep the Democratic race focused on the domestic, economic issues on which enthusiasm for his campaign has been based. But playing to his strengths is a dangerous game that could open him up to charges, especially from Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, that he’s not prepared to handle the national security threats that voters are increasingly concerned about.

Focus-grouping Hillary’s toughness

In a column for The New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall takes a look at an increasingly apparent phenomenon: the “striking dichotomy between voters’ evaluation of the Democratic Party’s ability to deal with terrorism and their belief in Hillary Clinton.”

She still faces a host of other criticisms, but lack of toughness is evidently not one of them. In a pair of focus groups held last month, participants were asked to describe strengths and weaknesses of various candidates. “Nearly half of the men and women were critical of, or outright hostile to, Clinton,” Edsall notes. “[They were] using the words and phrases ‘dishonest,’ ‘a liar,’ ‘not good vibes,’ [and] ‘don’t trust.’ At the same time, no one suggested that Clinton was weak.”

The Cruz v. Rubio battle is actually about … George W. Bush?

We’ve watched over the past two weeks as battle lines were drawn between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The first shots fired were from the Rubio camp, when a super PAC released an ad criticizing Cruz’s vote to rein in NSA surveillance practices. Cruz responded during a Bloomberg interview, criticizing “Washington neo-cons” that “have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists.” He singled out Rubio — and paired him with Clinton — saying that their views on Syria reflect, essentially, “the very same mistakes they made in Libya. They’ve demonstrated they’ve learned nothing.”

Writing for The Federalist, Ben Domenech explains that the criticism against Clinton is clear: She made mistakes as secretary of state and is set to repeat them if she wins the presidency. But the criticism against Rubio is about a question Republicans have not typically asked one another: “What did you learn from the George W. Bush experience?”

Bush 43’s popularity among Republicans has grown dramatically in the years since he left the White House (as evidenced by Jeb Bush’s biggest applause line in the September debate at the Reagan Library: “As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe.”). But as Domenech sees it, “what Ted Cruz is doing here is indicating to the conservative base that he has heard their critiques of the Bush years, absorbed them, and has a definite viewpoint on how a future president should alter his approach — and he is arguing Marco Rubio has not.”

The jury remains out as to whether Cruz’s strategy, then, is dangerous or highly perceptive of undercurrents within the GOP.

Jeb on the offensive (well, a pro-Jeb super PAC, anyway)

The Right to Rise PAC launched a new campaign ad touting Jeb Bush’s readiness to be commander-in-chief in a time of crisis, contrasting him with three of his GOP opponents. “When the attacks come here, the person behind this desk will have to protect your family,” the narrator says as an image of the oval office appears. “Will he be impulsive and reckless, like Donald Trump? Will he have voted to dramatically weaken counter-terrorism surveillance, like Ted Cruz? Will have skipped crucial national-security hearings and votes just to campaign, like Marco Rubio?”

Carson’s got a team now

Ben Carson unveiled a team of 16 foreign policy advisors on Tuesday. Speaking to supporters in Atlanta, he said, “I’m very sensitive to, you know, the narrative that Carson doesn’t know anything about foreign policy.” To change that narrative, Carson said in a statement that he will rely on the new advisors’ “good counsel to offer solutions to the grave national security challenges this country faces.” The new team includes retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Dees and George Birnbaum, formerly chief of staff to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore