If there’s one critique he has gotten from Republicans more than any other over the past seven years, it’s that he is “weak,” that whatever he’s doing isn’t sufficiently belligerent or geared toward the use of military force. This is precisely what the Republicans running for president are now saying, but if you examine what they want to do, there’s not much there. Most of them have been reluctant to advocate a large-scale ground operation, and while many suggest a no-fly zone, as Obama pointed out, the Islamic State isn’t flying airplanes around. That would be a strategy aimed at Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government — and one that would come with its own complications, not least of which is the potential for Americans and Russians shooting at each other — but it wouldn’t address the Islamic State.
Obama addressed his critics generally on this point, but it sure sounded like he was talking specifically about the presidential candidates:
“When you listen to what they actually have to say, what they’re proposing, most of the time when pressed they describe things that we’re already doing. Maybe they’re not aware that we’re already doing them. Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference, because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough. But I haven’t seen particular strategies that they would suggest that would make a real difference.“Now there are a few exceptions, and as I said, the primary exception is those who would deploy U.S. troops on a large scale to retake territory either in Iraq or now in Syria. And at least they have the honesty to go ahead and say that’s what they’d do.”
After explaining some of the complex questions that arise once you propose things like creating safe zones, Obama took on the “toughness” issue directly:
“What I do not do is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow in the abstract make America look tough or make me look tough. … Folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do? Present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisers are better than the chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are on the ground, I want to meet ’em. And we can have that debate. But what I’m not interested in doing is posing, or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American and to protect people in the region who are getting killed and to protect our allies like France. I’m too busy for that.”
That was followed not long after by Jim Acosta of CNN asking Obama, “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” Which suggests that Obama’s desire to move past easy sloganeering and toward a discussion of the complexities of the issue may not be satisfied.
But it was another issue, that of refugees, that truly got the president’s dander up. The Republican governors of Michigan and Alabama have announced that they will refuse to allow any Syrian refugees to settle in their states, and the GOP presidential candidates have been arguing that we either shouldn’t be accepting them at all or that we should only take the right kind. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) says that Muslim refugees from Syria should be barred, but we should take Christian refugees. Jeb Bush now takes the same position.
In his prepared remarks, Obama said, “We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves. That’s what they’re fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.” But during the question-and-answer session, he became passionate on this question, his voice growing louder and more urgent:
“When I hear folks say that, ‘Well, maybe we should just admit the Christians and not the Muslims,’ when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted? When some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution? That’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion. When Pope Francis came to visit the United States and gave a speech before Congress, he didn’t just speak about Christians who are being persecuted. He didn’t call on Catholic parishes just to admit those who are of the same religious faith. He said, protect people who are vulnerable. And so I think it is very important for us right now, particularly those who are in leadership, particularly those who have a platform and can be heard, not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us.”
It may be too optimistic to hope that we can have a debate about terrorism without feeding our dark impulses, at least in some quarters. But if nothing else, we should insist that those who want to replace Obama — and this applies to both the Democrats and the Republicans — explain exactly what they would do with regard to the Islamic State, specifically how it would differ from what we are doing right now, why it would work and what the consequences would be.
Because if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that this problem is still going to be around in some form when the next president takes office in 14 months.