WASHINGTON – Critics of the way President Barack Obama is dealing with the Islamic State should be required to specify what alternative steps they would take – and how their strategies would make a difference.
Republican presidential candidates are unanimous in charging that Obama’s handling of Iraq and Syria has been all wrong. But when pressed to lay out a specific plan of action and explain why they believe it would work better than what Obama is doing now, they tend to mumble and look for ways to change the subject.
Oh, there’s no shortage of tough-guy rhetoric that sounds as if it were stolen from a big-budget Hollywood action movie. Actually, some of it was stolen from a big-budget Hollywood action movie: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., appropriates Liam Neeson’s signature line from the movie “Taken,” shifts it from the first-person singular to the plural, and declares to terrorists, “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.”
That’s actually a pretty good way to describe Obama’s campaign of assassination by drone strikes. Rubio describes the president’s policies as a failure, yet he seems to promise more of the same.
Rick Santorum, who made his candidacy official this week, says the way to deal with the Islamic State is to “load our bombers up and bomb them back to the 7th century.” If you take him literally, he seems to be saying we ought to destroy Iraq’s Anbar province in order to save it.
But do we also blow up Mosul, one of Iraq’s biggest cities? And the half of Syria that is presently under Islamic State control? Someone should inform Santorum that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been trying this approach since the civil war began, and it hasn’t worked.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is the one GOP hopeful with an actual plan of action. He wants to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq – currently fewer than 3,000 – to about 10,000. Graham says this “would allow us to train the Iraqi army at a faster pace, give them capability that they don’t have.”
But the problem isn’t that the training process is going too slowly. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pointed out after the fall of Ramadi, what the Iraqi troops evidently lacked was the will to fight. That’s not something you get from a field officer’s manual.
Graham and others, displaying keen hindsight, have argued that the rise of the Islamic State might have been forestalled if Obama had intervened early in the Syrian civil war by giving more weapons to the “moderate” anti-Assad rebels. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who may be even more wary of U.S. intervention than Obama is, begs to differ with his fellow Republicans; the Islamic State only exists, he said this week, “because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately.” Those weapons, he said, eventually fell into the terrorist group’s hands.
Paul added that the Islamic State is “all over Libya because these same hawks in my party, they loved Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya. They just wanted more of it. … So everything that they’ve talked about in foreign policy they’ve been wrong about for 20 years, and yet they have somehow the gall to keep saying and pointing fingers otherwise.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. But wariness does not qualify as a policy. If by some chance Paul were to end up as president, he’d have to decide what to do. He hasn’t really told us what that might be.
It’s hard to tell what Jeb Bush thinks. He says he wants to “take out” the Islamic State, in cooperation with other countries – which sounds a lot like Obama’s policy of providing U.S. air power and letting our allies fight on the ground. Asked whether more American troops are needed, Bush says he would rely on his military advisers to make that determination. Again, it’s unclear how this differs from what Obama is doing now. Yet somehow, in Bush’s view, Obama is making grave errors of an unspecified nature.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee seem to want intensified airstrikes and more weapons for the Kurds. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and most of the others speak forcefully, but vaguely, about the need for America to project strength. Yada yada yada.
Eventually, one hopes, some candidate will come up with credible alternatives to Obama’s Mideast policies. So far, not even close.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.