The November 13 terror attacks in Paris by the Islamic State group are scrambling the 2016 presidential race in ways nobody could have predicted a month ago.
For now, at least, the horror has put national security back at the top of the public’s concerns. That usually works to the Republicans’ advantage. Democrats prefer to run on economic concerns. How long the topic will stay in the headlines is anybody’s guess.
On the other hand, the events have strengthened Hillary Clinton’s standing as the Democratic front-runner and near-certain nominee. Her statesmanlike November 19 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (video, text) will only help her, both in the party and in the general public. The speech let her remind the public of her credentials in the foreign policy field. At the same time, it was an opportunity to lay out a comprehensive vision for fighting ISIS terror, coming out of the gate first on the issue while everyone else is floundering.
On the Republican side, party establishment insiders were hoping that the attacks and their aftermath would end the candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, political novices with no military or foreign policy background. Indeed, Carson does seem to be plummeting in most of the latest polls, nudged downward by several colossal gaffes from his campaign, including an admission by aides that he’s having a hard time learning about the Middle East. By contrast, Trump is soaring, as he does after every bump that’s supposed to sink him. Post-Paris polls show him with as much as twice the support of his nearest rivals. (See here, here and here, though this new Washington Post-ABC poll shows Carson holding his own)
In fact, the one clear political loser in the initial attack aftermath was President Obama. Critics had a field day recalling his dismissal of ISIS in a January 2014 interview as a “jayvee team” (meaning “junior varsity”). That error was compounded by an appearance on Good Morning America on the morning of the attacks, where he claimed ISIS had been “contained.” And his appearance at a November 16 press conference in Turkey, following the G-20 summit, was strike three. He drew widespread bipartisan criticism for his lack of passion discussing the terrorists. The only times he showed flashes of anger were in his peevish responses to his own critics.
The president complained that some critics “seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that would make a difference.” Unfortunately, that sort of posturing does make a difference — if not to America’s enemies, then at least to the American public. Citizens look for leaders to channel their feelings, not just manage their affairs. Recall the popularity of George W. Bush in the days after the September 11 attacks, when his strong language united the nation behind policies that turned out to be disastrous.
True, it’s all theatrics and imagery. But images count in our wired world.
Even more embarrassing, though less influential in the end, was Secretary of State John Kerry’s November 17 comment at the U.S. Embassy in Paris that the Charlie Hebdo terror attack last January had a “rationale” — he initially said “justification,” but withdrew it — in contrast to the randomness of the latest attack. What he meant was that the Charlie Hebdo terrorists were firing on individuals who had done something the terrorists objected to, while the ISIS attackers seemed to seek only mass death. But it sounded as though he were claiming the Charlie Hebdo attack was legitimate, and critics were outraged.
We can expect Obama’s and Kerry’s performances at the moment of crisis to be played and replayed in a continuous loop in the months ahead. This will complicate the electoral efforts of Clinton and any other Democrats running in remotely competitive races in 2016. Distancing themselves from the president will hurt them with the party base, which adores Obama and resents his critics. And alienating the base could hurt turnout next November, which is all-important for Democratic prospects. On the other hand, embracing the president too closely will hurt them with moderates and swing voters who make the difference in a close race, especially in further down-ticket races. The Democrats’ hopes of recapturing the Senate may well depend on how Democrats walk that tightrope.
Predicting the larger fallout from the Paris attacks is much harder. It’s complicated by the fact that the events actually play into two distinct debates. One concerns whether and how America should accept refugees from the Syrian civil war. The other involves how to use American power, both military and diplomatic, to end the ISIS terrorist threat.
Of the two, the refugee debate breaks down largely along party lines, with some notable exceptions. The counterterrorism strategy debate is more complicated, as it divides both parties against themselves.
There’s a third potential debate. It involves continued government use of intrusive surveillance techniques at a time when events have boosted public support for counterterrorism intelligence and preventive tactics. But the Paris events have hardly broken the surface yet in that debate. So while it’s easy to imagine how the arguments will sound, it’s too early to tell how the sides will break down.
The counterterrorism debate is even harder to sort out, because it’s a moving target. President Obama seemed to set the terms of the debate in Turkey when he insisted that his current strategy is working and reiterated that he won’t send in major ground forces. This argument is vulnerable from two directions. On one hand, he aroused opposition from his left flank at the beginning of November, even before Paris, when he announced that he was sending 50 Special Forces troops into Iraq to work with local forces. Liberals warned that the move could be the beginning of a slippery slope toward a full-scale ground war. That remains taboo among Democrats and in broad segments of the public, which displays a sort of continuing Iraq syndrome analogous to the 1970s-era Vietnam syndrome. A Reuters poll conducted after the Paris attacks showed that while 60% of the public wants Washington to “do more” to combat ISIS, 65% are opposed to sending in Special Forces, and fully 76% oppose sending in regular ground forces. Given the opposition to troops, it’s not clear what sort of “more” the public would approve.
Military pundits are torn on the question. On one hand, it appears highly unlikely that air strikes alone, without a ground campaign, can dislodge ISIS from the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria. The only effective ground forces currently engaging ISIS on its turf are the Kurds, and they appear interested only in protecting their own space, not clearing out the ISIS terror nest altogether. Bringing in other locals, such as Iraqi forces, has been a longtime American goal, but it’s hard to mobilize Iraqi Sunnis against ISIS when the U.S.-backed Iraqi government continues to harass Sunnis.
A full-scale U.S. ground invasion could do the trick, but as we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it won’t end ISIS’s appeal. On the contrary, a major U.S. ground campaign could actually help ISIS grow when locals begin, as they inevitably will, to see America as a foreign force taking over their country. One solution could be a coalition that includes substantial Arab forces, presumably led by Saudis and Egyptians. That’s the essence of Hillary Clinton’s latest plan. But the Saudis are tied down in Yemen and the Egyptians in Sinai. Persuading them to commit seriously to fighting ISIS has been frustrating so far. For that matter, the Turks have been reluctant to join a fight that puts them on the same side as the Kurds, their longtime nemesis. For all the urgency of the issue, it’s hard to see any way to shepherd it through the thicket of conflicting interests and loyalties in the region.
Republicans are making hay of the conundrum by pointing out Obama’s failure to achieve decisive results, and the seeming collapse of his policy in the bloodbath of Paris. But so far the only elected Republican openly calling for a major commitment of American ground forces is Lindsey Graham. Other Republicans lean that way, particularly the Iraq-hawk faction led by Dick Cheney. But most elected officials are hesitant to come out publicly for fear of alienating war-weary voters.
The refugee debate seems more clear-cut, but it won’t stay that way forever. Most Republican governors — and one Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire — have announced that they won’t accept Syrian refugees even after they’re vetted and admitted under President Obama’s current program. Democrats overwhelmingly support bringing in the 10,000 Syrian refugees Obama has called for, and many want to boost the number. The United Nations has asked America to admit 20,000.
On November 4, before the Paris attacks, a group of 60-plus mostly Democratic members of Congress had signed a letter to the president urging immediate granting of parole — emergency refugee admission — to 20,000 Syrians who’ve already been cleared by U.N. security vetting. That Democratic group hasn’t been heard from since Paris. On the other hand, the House of Representatives passed a bill November 19, the America SAFE Act of 2015, that imposes new screening requirements on Syrian refugees, which the White House says would virtually stop the flow. Among other things, every single refugee must be individually approved in writing by the director of national intelligence, the director of the FBI and the secretary of Homeland Security before being cleared for admission. Additionally, U.S. security services will be required to do background checks on each individual, in addition to the checks that have already been performed by the United Nations and other agencies. Administration sources say the new checks would require access to information that isn’t available to American agencies, mainly records inside Syria itself.
The measure passed the House by 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats — one-fourth of the 188-member Democratic caucus — voting in favor. (Here is the roll call. Here is my breakdown on the Jewish House members’ votes and their particular fallout.) The Senate is expected to take it up after Thanksgiving recess. Senate Democrats are threatening to filibuster — though it’s not clear they could round up the necessary 41 votes, given the number of Democratic defections in the House. Obama has threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk.
Advocates of refugee admission note that the refugees are fleeing the very same ISIS violence that the West faced in Paris, and that longstanding humanitarian values require us to shelter the persecuted. They note, too, that the Paris attackers — or at least six of the seven killed the first night, and most of those still being sought — were native-born Europeans, not terrorists slipping in among the refugees. They say that the likelihood of terrorists slipping through the elaborate vetting process is close to zero, making the risks minuscule.
Opponents ask how close to zero is an acceptable risk? Implicit in their objections, but largely unstated due to its radioactive implications, is a second question: If the Paris terrorist plot — and others before it, including the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market, Brussels Jewish Museum and Toulouse Jewish school attacks — emerged from native-born Europeans reared in the continent’s large and growing Muslim communities, what will it take to inoculate local Muslim communities in the West against that sort of extremism? How does the prospect of an immediate, large-scale wave of new Muslim immigration figure into that equation? Given the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria, how can such a question even be asked? Given the small but persistent chain of eruptions of terrorist violence among young Diaspora Muslims — and the larger rise of anti-Semitism associated with growing Diaspora Muslim communities — how can it not?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).