While there were a few Republicans who reacted favorably to President Obama’s speech last night describing what we will be doing to combat ISIS, the reaction from most on the right was predictably negative. Which is fine — it’s the opposition’s job to oppose, after all. But when you hear what they have to say, you notice a yawning gap in their criticisms: They were missing clear articulation of what exactly Republicans would prefer that we do.
After Obama spoke, John McCain shouted at Jay Carney that everything would have been fine if we had never removed troops from Iraq, saying “the president really doesn’t have a grasp for how serious the threat from ISIS is.” He and Lindsey Graham later released a statement advocating a bunch of stuff we’re already doing, along with some language that sounded like they might be advocating waging war on the Syrian government, but it’s hard to be sure. Ted Cruz said Obama’s speech was “fundamentally unserious” because it was insufficiently belligerent and fear-mongering.
Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page: “War is hell. So go big or go home, Mr. President. Big means bold, confident, wise assurance from a trustworthy Commander-in-Chief that it shall all be worth it. Charge in, strike hard, get out. Win.” Which is about the “strategy” you’d get for defeating ISIS if you asked a third-grader.
The only one who was clear on what they would do instead, oddly enough, was Dick Cheney. He pronounced Obama’s strategy insufficient in a speech bordering on the insane, in which he essentially advocated waging war in every corner of the earth.
At least we know where he stands. But other Republican critics have to get more specific if they’re going to present a credible case against the President’s plan. You can claim that Obama should never have ended George W. Bush’s war, but what is it that they support doing now? If they believe we have to re-invade Iraq with a force of tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops, they ought to say so. If that’s not what they support, then what is it? The hints we’ve gotten sound a lot like, “Pretty much exactly what Obama is proposing, just, you know, more.” He’s using air power, so more air power. He’s saying we’ll be bombing not just in Iraq but in Syria, so they want that, but more. He says we’ll be training and supporting Syrian rebel groups to act as a counterweight to ISIS, which Republicans like, but they want more.
All that sounds like they’re caught between two unacceptable options. They can’t say they support what the administration will be doing, because whatever Obama does is wrong by definition. But they know that advocating another full-scale ground invasion would be met with horror from the public, so they can’t advocate that either. The only option left is to just react to whatever Obama proposes by saying it’s insufficient.
There are two competing visions of the problem at hand. One says ISIS poses a dramatic threat not just to the people it is currently oppressing or those who might wind up in its path, but to the entire world, including United States. The other says that while the group is certainly barbaric, its threat is limited to the Middle East.
And despite some of the dramatic proclamations we’ve been hearing, there are now voices emerging to say that the threat may be overblown. Today’s New York Times quotes experts suggesting ISIS may not be quite as dangerous to us as we keep being told. There are other experts making similar arguments, but as Ryan Cooper explained, they’re getting drowned out by sensationalist media coverage.
In this context, if you look carefully at what Obama said last night, you can see that he was trying to put this conflict in a more sober context. There was no talk of “existential threats,” or American cities engulfed in flames. He spoke about both the danger, and the action we’ll be taking, in limited terms. After September 11, George W. Bush ramped up the fear we were supposed to feel and promised a grand victory. Obama is doing neither.
That in itself no doubt infuriates many Republicans. But if what they’re after is a full-scale war, they ought to have the courage to say so.