Every presidential candidate is now supposed to come forward with a “plan” to defeat ISIS, and today it was Hillary Clinton’s turn, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations. We should understand one thing about all these plans: the next president won’t be taking office for 14 months, and the situation then is not going to be exactly what it is today. No one knows what it will look like; ISIS might be much weaker or might be much stronger, and our policies will have to adapt as a result.
But there are some questions that will remain in force no matter what.
If you’re a voter trying to figure out which party has the better ISIS plan, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to understand the differences and decide which one is more likely to succeed. But what it may come down to is that Republicans say this situation isn’t very complicated, and can therefore be solved with the proper application of American will and resolve (which happens to be what they think about every foreign policy challenge). The Democrats, on the other hand — and in this I include both Clinton and President Obama — acknowledge that the situation is very complicated, but also say that it can be solved, if the combination of methods we use is sufficiently wise and deft.
When it comes to appealing to voters who can’t be expected to have a nuanced understanding of what is an uncommonly complex challenge, the Republicans start out with an advantage. The centerpiece of their plan — “America smash!” — is both appealing (in some quarters at least) and easy to grasp, and if you’re adding, “And oh yeah, work with our allies in the region, sure,” then you don’t worry too much about the problems that presents. But if you’re sensitive to the complications faced even by working with our allies, let alone defeating adversaries, you’ve got a problem: as soon as you acknowledge how complex it is, you’ve made success seem less likely. Here’s part of what Clinton said:
The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS. At the moment, they’re focused in other areas because of their concerns in the region, especially the threat from Iran. That’s why the Saudis, for example, shifted attention from Syria to Yemen. So we have to work out a common approach.
In September, I laid out a comprehensive plan to counter Iranian influence across the region and its support for terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges. Regional politics are too interwoven. Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.
The difference between that and what you’ll hear from Republicans is that it goes beyond saying “convince our allies to get more involved” and actually acknowledges that there are reasons why they’re not more involved. The problem isn’t just that we haven’t asked yet, and once we do everyone will be on the same page.
So for instance, we’re working with Iran in the fight against ISIS, but also trying to counter Iran’s influence in the region, but also trying to convince the Saudis to be less concerned about Iranian influence than about stopping ISIS. That’s a little tricky, to say the least.
The fact that our allies may have different priorities than we do came up in the Q&A after Clinton’s speech as well, when Fareed Zakaria asked her how she would bring Saudi Arabia along for the effort against ISIS when they’re much more concerned about countering Iran. She answered the question in a way she and others have before, describing the argument she would make to the Saudis about why it’s in their long-term interests to help defeat ISIS. That argument sounded perfectly reasonable, but why would she be any more persuasive on that point than the Obama administration has been?
We can give Clinton credit for being willing to say out loud that the people, groups, and nations we want to help us accomplish one of our goals (fighting ISIS) may be actively working against us, or at least not helping, in achieving another of our goals (getting rid of Assad). Republicans have the luxury of not caring about such nuances, since their message is that being “strong” will solve all our problems. It’s easy to dismiss their ideas as somewhere between stupid and deranged, with a repeat of every bad outcome that came out of the Iraq War being repeated if one of them gets elected.
But it’s hard to listen to Clinton’s plan and come away convinced that this problem is going to be solved any time soon, either.