The attacks on Paris, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, could potentially rearrange the GOP presidential campaign. If foreign policy know-nothings Donald Trump and Ben Carson may be at risk, voters may now see New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a new light.
In a phone interview this morning, Christie was blunt in criticizing Hillary Clinton and his GOP opponents. Beginning with the National Security Agency, which Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wanted to disband and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) worked to hamstring (in concert with the American Civil Liberties Union and liberal Democrats), Christie recounts his longstanding position. “I started talking about this in April,” he said about his argument to keep the NSA surveillance program intact. “This is why it helps to have experience with these tools [for combating terrorism], not just theory.” He says emphatically of anti-NSA advocates like Cruz and Paul: “They are wrong now. They’ve always been wrong. Now they are demonstrably wrong. No way should we tie one hand behind our backs.” The Paris attacks, he points out, resulted from “a lack of intelligence data. It was very well organized and required a lot of planning.”
He is also biting when it comes to candidates who don’t seem to understand the need to get rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On Syria, he provides a detailed analysis. “This is what happens when there is a lack of U.S. authority. Assad’s mistreatment of his own people created ISIS.” Arguing that the only choice is between Assad and ISIS is evidence that too many of his competitors are “not understanding” what is going on. Without naming Trump, he goes after Trump’s ignorance on the subject. “To think Russia is over there because of ISIS is folly. If Russia cared about ISIS, the reaction to the downed airliner would not be silence.” He continues, “Assad is their priority because Russia wants to establish its authority in the Middle East.” He correctly notes that Russia’s real aim, together with Iran, is to make Syria into a client state.
Many critics of the administration, who correctly predicted his approach would fail, would agree entirely with Christie. Kimberly and Frederick W. Kagan (who helped devise and implement the successful surge in Iraq) write: “Assad himself has been the principal driver of the radicalization of the Syrian conflict. His violent attacks against peaceful, secular protesters in 2011 began this war. His steady escalation through artillery, air, barrel bombing, and chemical weapons attacks against civilian populations has driven Syrians into the arms of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra and created the massive refugee flows we now see. . . . Supporting him is supporting a continually expanding endless war.”
I asked Christie directly whether he would trust someone with no national security background, who has never held office, as commander in chief. “Ultimately that is for the American people,” he says. “But I will say this: I’m not running because I think my background is irrelevant or unhelpful.” He argues national security is now central in the race. “It’s relevant, especially now,” he says. “After the attack in Paris, I hope we all now understand there is no more important issue.” He points to his experience as a prosecutor combating terrorism and as governor, leading a complex state government.
He cannot be blamed for ignoring or underplaying the threat of Islamic terror. In contrast to the administration, he says, “I never underestimated ISIS. I have been talking about this since the spring. I think you’ve heard me say that we have become a complacent nation in the 14 years since 9/11. I have a vivid recollection because I lived it.” He continues, “Everyone didn’t believe we’d be hit again; everyone was convinced we’d be hit. That we haven’t is, he argues, a “testament” to the policies put in place right after 9/11. As for the rise in terrorist attacks of late and the multiplication and growth of Islamists’ territory, Christie says, “I’m not the least bit shocked since the president has put us in a defensive crouch. His inaction and her [Hillary Clinton’s] inaction led to ISIS becoming a major world power.”
Christie is unmerciful in his criticism of Clinton. “The biggest concern listening to the [Saturday night Democratic presidential] debate is that I have no idea what her position is,” he says. She talks about international leadership but said this “is not our fight.” Christie says: “That is double talk from someone responsible for this policy. You can’t have it both ways. It’s typical of her and the foreign policy Barack Obama has put forth.” As for her effort to tie Wall Street donations to 9/11, Christie declares: “It’s so absurd that it almost doesn’t merit response. She wants to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for her foundation and for her campaign and be Elizabeth Warren at the same time.”
He is emphatic that we must secure our borders, and the global reach of the Islamic State “raises serious questions about the president’s plans on refugees and on vetting these people effectively.” However, this is by no means all we should do, he argues. “We have to be working with our allies. This is a global issue, but the administration has tried to sell us on the idea ISIS is a regional threat.”
He also is staunchly opposed to closing Guantanamo Bay. “I was never in favor of closing Gitmo. We don’t need to make it much more complicated to defend the homeland,” he says of plans to bring detainees to the United States proper or release them to other countries.
As for France’s decision whether to invoke Article 5 of NATO (obliging allies to mutual defense), Christie sounds amazed. “It is stunning that America is waiting for the French to act. After a clear act of aggression, the administration is saying, ‘Let’s wait to see what France will do.’ ” This, he says, is typical of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy. “Lead from behind. Do nothing,” he says dismissively. “The one time the president was honest was when he said he had no strategy. He doesn’t. He wants to run out the clock with no further entanglements.” The mess will be left to Obama’s successors to clean up, he predicts. The president’s comments today — insisting that his policy is the right one and refusing to consider ground troops — suggest Christie is spot-on.
If Christie has a defining issue, it now is certainly national security. He says simply, “Protecting the homeland is the number one job of the president.” If Americans agree and accept his argument that others are too inexperienced, too green or too ignorant to be the next commander in chief, Christie will break into the first tier of candidates.
We reached out to the Trump campaign to ask what sort of American force it would take to seize and hold oil fields controlled by the Islamic State (as he says he is serious about doing), why he believed Russia was taking on the Islamic State and whether his comments about U.S. action in the wake of the Paris attacks confirm that we cannot leave this to Russia. His campaign as yet has not responded.