In a press conference before the world's media on Monday, an annoyed President Obama — under criticism that he's not doing enough to fight the Islamic State — snapped that he hasn't seen any plan much different from his.
"I think that, 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," Obama said.
This week, two major presidential candidates kind of proved him right.
Erstwhile Republican front-runner Jeb Bush and current Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton each delivered foreign policy speeches expanding on their plans to defeat the Islamic State. And turns out, what they suggested might not be all that different from what Obama's already doing in Iraq and Syria.
In sum, the two 2016 hopefuls called for intensifying airstrikes over Syria, training local Iraqi and Syrian forces to lead the ground war there and building a global coalition to do this all. Neither ruled out putting more troops on the ground beyond the 50 Special Operations forces Obama is sending there in advisory rules, but neither has Obama. (The United States currently has 3,300 advisers on the ground in Iraq, mostly to train Iraqi forces.)
"The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force," Bush said in a speech Wednesday at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. He went a bit further than Obama and Clinton by saying that "the U.S. is going to have to have" combat troops in Syria, though he didn't put a number on it.
"We must build up a global counterterrorism network that is more adaptable and effective than the terrorists we're trying to defeat," Clinton said in a speech Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
For comparison, here is how Obama described the current U.S. strategy this week: (He uses the term "ISIL" for the Islamic State.)
We have a military strategy that is putting enormous pressure on ISIL through airstrikes, that has put assistance and training on the ground with Iraqi forces. We're now working with Syrian forces as well to squeeze ISIL, cut off their supply lines. We've been coordinating internationally to reduce their financing capabilities, the oil that they’re trying to ship outside. We are taking strikes against high-value targets — including, most recently, against the individual who was on the video executing civilians who had already been captured, as well as the head of ISIL in Libya. So it's not just in Iraq and Syria.
Each person's plan has differing degrees of intensity. But overall the candidates and the president are talking about doing basically the same three things to fight the Islamic State: airstrikes, bolstering local forces, getting the world on the same page.
There is one major difference between Obama and these two candidates that we should note: Both Bush and Clinton have called for creating a no-fly zone over Syria, a potentially costly and more-involved strategy that would aim to stop President Bashar al-Assad from bombing his own people. (The chaos and sectarian killing in Syria's civil war provided fertile territory for the Islamic State's rise.) Obama's advisers, on the other hand, have argued a no-fly zone would have to cover much of the country to effectively protect civilians, and it could put the United States in direct conflict with Assad and his Russian backers, who are also fighting the Islamic State.
Of course, Clinton and Bush aren't the only presidential candidates chiming in on how the United States should fight the Islamic State. GOP hopeful Donald Trump has said we should "bomb the hell out of ISIS." Other GOP candidates, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), have called for sending troops directly to Syria — in Graham's case, as many as 10,000 over an extended period of time.
But despite polls showing strong support for ground troops within GOP circles — 64 percent in a new Bloomberg poll — it remains a politically dicey proposition that most top GOP candidates aren't embracing. And it's notable that the most establishment-oriented candidates in both parties' primaries are proposing things that, on their surface, aren't all that different, at least in the broad strokes.
Now, we recognize that the nature of a campaign is that there's more time for rhetoric — the U.S. must lead! — than specific policy proposals. The nature of governing means you actually have to sit down and craft (and then carry out) those plans.
So to some degree, this comparison is apples and oranges: It's highly likely neither candidate has devoted the time and resources to developing as detailed a strategy as Obama's. Their proposals should be considered more of a general blueprint for what they'd do in the White House rather than what they'd actually do if they suddenly switched places with the president today.
But both Bush and Clinton made a concerted effort this week to demonstrate they can govern in an international crisis. Clinton's 45-minute speech was especially detailed, playing to her strengths as Obama's former secretary of state. She spoke of bolstering Iraqi Sunnis, leveraging Baghdad and Turkey to get more involved in the fight, and Iran's role in all of this.
It speaks to the magnitude of the problems in the Middle East that we have thee different people with three different worldviews and three different immediate political goals coming up with essentially the same plan to this latest terrorist threat — more or less, the status quo.