When I listen to Republicans talk tough about ISIS, I’m reminded of a old Steve Martin joke:
“You can be a millionaire and never pay taxes! Yes, you can be a millionaire and never pay taxes! And you say, ‘Steve, how can I become a millionaire and never pay taxes?’ OK, first? You get a million dollars.”
On ISIS, Republicans are basically saying, “Unlike Obama, we have a brilliant idea for how to wage this war. Our idea is, we’re gonna beat those terrorists. How? By beating them.”
All the Republican presidential candidates predictably dissed the president’s Sunday night Oval Office address, but when you look beyond their bluster and parse the purported substance of their positions, it’s clear that A.) they’d mostly do what Obama is already doing, and/or B.) they’re mostly clueless about what to do differently.
They mask their weaknesses by amping up the rhetoric. Jeb Bush says, “We need a wartime commander-in-chief who is ready to lead this country and the free world to victory.” Ted Cruz vows that if he becomes president, he will simply “direct the Defense Department to destroy ISIS.” Lindsey Graham says, “I would kill every one of these bastards.”
But how about some substantive policy details? How, specifically, would the Republicans kill and destroy and lead the free world to victory?
Donald Trump declares that if he becomes president, “I would bomb the s--t out of them.” Cipher candidate Rick Santorum says, “Let’s load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th century.” Ted Cruz, not to be outdone, says that if he’s president, “we will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
Truth is, the Obama administration is already bombing intensely — roughly 2,200 bombs a month — “taking out (ISIS) leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure,” as the president said Sunday.
Republicans want to put more special-ops troops into the region. But the Obama administration is already putting more special-ops troops into the region — “to take out (ISIS) leadership, to capture (ISIS) leadership, to rescue hostages, to capture intelligence,” as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said earlier this month.
Most Republicans are calling for a coalition of Middle East countries. But, as Obama said Sunday night, 65 countries have already “joined an American-led coalition.” Marco Rubio says that this isn’t good enough, that “America should use its position of leadership” to compel Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to assemble a coalition army — but those countries have already told Washington that they have no interest in doing so. Would they suddenly heed a President Rubio?
Lindsey Graham, a longtime hawk, wants to dispatch American ground troops to the region. Bush talks vaguely about that, but won’t offer any numbers. And virtually all the other Republicans agree with Obama that it’d be nuts to dispatch American ground troops to the region — because that’s precisely what ISIS wants, to harass us as an alien occupying force.
So the Republicans have no magic plan, nothing substantive. What they basically offer is a tougher “attitude” (as Ben Carson calls it), and bolder wordplay (they juxtapose the words “Islamic” and “terrorism”). But virtually no candidates have publicly called on the Republican Congress to share the responsibility by formally authorizing the use of military force.
Obama said on Sunday night, “For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of air strikes against (ISIS) targets. I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight.” But Republicans refuse to signal that commitment; they’d rather carp from the sidelines, because it’s easier to talk tough than offer substance.
How nice it would be, in a time of war, if the opposition party agreed to work in tandem with the White House for the common good, to narrow their scant differences on ISIS strategy, to seek unity against a common enemy, to usher in a new bipartisan era.
Or as Steve Martin, playing a medieval doctor, famously mused: “I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth .... Nahhhh!”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org