Surreal

12.28.15 5:01 AM ET

What the GOP Gets Wrong About ISIS

Seen from the ground in Syria, the positions staked out by Republican politicians are crazy. And that’s because they have no real alternative to Obama’s policies.

As we come to the end of a year of terror—actually, of horror—and we enter a year of terrible campaigning by some horrible candidates for the presidency of the United States, one might wish the Republican frontrunners would step back from the path of religious zealotry, racist paranoia, and torture envy. But … no.

As the debates in mid-December and the sparring since have showed us, they are detached from many realities, but especially the reality on the ground in Syria, which I have been covering firsthand with frequent trips there since 2012.

So, now, back in the United States, I watch in consternation the nauseating spin about Radical Islam, carpet bombing, waterboarding, surveillance of everyone, blaming refugees. The Republican “strategies” for dealing with the so-called Islamic State sound like a laundry list of the monumental failures from the 9/11 decade.

Was it “political correctness” that knocked down the twin towers and kidnapped and tortured my friends? No, it was something much more sinister, and something much more sophisticated than these candidates seem to realize, or to be.

There is a reason, of course, for them to deflect questions about military tactics against ISIS. There are no easy answers, and even the difficult options are severely limited. No realistic proposal for tackling the jihadi group will play well with primary voters and all of the candidates know it. Presumably, this is why the Republican candidates have taken the discussion into the realm of paranoid fantasy and insinuation, where they seem much more comfortable.

Consider Donald Trump’s bizarre statement that “we should be able to penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is.” Actually, we know exactly where the Islamic State is and have a good idea of where its main bastions are. We essentially already know what is needed to fight them.

The problem is that no matter how good our intel is, there is the still the pesky issue of how to take and hold territory, which is a costly proposition. And while ISIS potentate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently conceded he’s been losing ground, but gradually, he figures that, up against the disorganization of his enemies, and the U.S. presidential campaign is a prime example of that, he will be able to get it back—and then some.

Then there’s the question of torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the notion that they could have prevented the Paris attacks in November that killed 130 people.

At a Council on Foreign Relations event Chris Christie said “it’s not a coincidence to me that this happened in the aftermath of restricting these programs and remember also demoralizing the intelligence community. That awful report that came out from the Senate Democrats at the end of last year was a complete political instrument that did nothing more than demoralize American intelligence officers all around the world.”

Using religious language like “Radical Islam” has also been touted as a Republican “strategy” for some time. Such words, one way or the other, have zero effect on the ground.

Ted Cruz’s anti-ISIS strategy is to rename the terror group, which results in a meaningless sound bite, not a strategy. You can rebrand a cancer however you like; the threat it poses will be unchanged. But the “Radical Islam” rhetoric plays well into a broader trend of advocating racial, ethnic, and religious profiling by the general public. Cruz’s followers do not hear the word “radical,” as any spin doctor knows. They cut straight to “Islam” as the threat.

When asked if the American government should engaging in profiling, Jeb Bush’s answer was concrete and definitive: “Yeah, absolutely, that is what screening is. We should be profiling. Of course we should. This is Islamic terrorism. The Democrats have no clue about this, or they refuse to call it what it is. These are Islamic terrorists that are trying to take out our country and destroy Western civilization. If you start with that premise, which I think the great majority of Americans believe, then you have a totally different approach on how you deal with it.”

Yet when asked about his military strategy, Bush replied with a platitude: “The main thing we should be focused on is a strategy to defeat ISIS…. Leading the world, funding [the military] to make sure we have a military that is second to none and doing the job.”

When Republicans rally so strongly behind the anti-refugee hysteria, torture and religious rhetoric, it is because they need unifying issues that allow them to attack President Barack Obama and, by extension, Hillary Clinton.

According to Robert Y. Shapiro, a professor of government at Columbia University, the refugee issue is a convenient tool used by the GOP to criticize the Obama administration without confronting military realities.

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“I think they want to keep the focus on the refugees since, first, they are a reminder of Obama’s perceived failure against the Syrian government and the conquests of ISIS,” says Shapiro. “Second, they are a reminder of the potential terrorist threat which is an issue on which the Republicans, since George W. Bush, have had the high ground over the Democrats. The current polls strongly reflect this.”

“It is a way of avoiding the tougher issue of what to do about Syria and ISIS,” says Shapiro. The political strategy keeps the focus on the the failings of the Obama administration and its longtime secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

If there is one thing Republicans agree on, in fact, it is that Obama somehow created ISIS. Yet when it comes to exactly why they think that, the reasons are vastly different and completely contradictory.

So, for instance, former New York (9/11) Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a recent Fox News interview that he believes ISIS is an “Obama creation.” According to Giuliani, ISIS rose to prominence because Obama refused to implement a no-fly zone over Syria after the Assad regime’s chemical weapon attacks in 2013.

According to Trump, however, ISIS is a result of Obama’s weak personality and his intervention in Libya, which Trump says destabilized the region. Trump has also claimed that he believes Obama may have directly armed ISIS, and that America should support Russia’s intervention in Syria.

According to Ted Cruz, political correctness is to blame and Obama should try to ramp up the religious rhetoric.

According to Jeb Bush, ISIS is Obama’s fault because he drew down U.S. forces in Iraq, allowing the jihadis to fill the vacuum.

Rand Paul insists that Obama “armed the allies of ISIS.”

On the far-out fringes of the right (whose votes are coveted as well) there are the persistent conspiracy theories that Obama is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that moderate Republican Sen. John McCain met with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, when he visited Syria.

If Obama is a dictatorial warmonger, a secret jihadi or, as Christie puts it, “a feckless weakling,” what Republican could come to his defense?

Yet none can say Obama is not striking ISIS, because he is. GOP candidates cannot say that Obama has overstepped his executive authority, because this would be interpreted as opposition to the military campaign. The Republican candidates cannot advocate sending in ground troops, because that is an unelectable position.

No one is going to make waves by advocating a no-fly zone, because Hillary Clinton has been the most vocal advocate of an air exclusion area since the beginning of the conflict, long before any Republican candidates raised the issue.

Four years of contradictory statements and shortsighted posturing from the GOP with regard to Syria have made emotionally charged peripheral issues the safest bet when it comes to politicizing ISIS.

A review of Republican positions since the conflict began reveals broad opposition to Obama’s anti-Assad-regime plans and serious criticism of his executive actions against ISIS.

In 2014, John Boehner was quick to criticize Obama’s military actions as unauthorized, but became visibly uncomfortable when asked why he didn’t introduce an authorization to use military force. Numerous Republicans dissented when Obama said he intended to retaliate against the Assad regime for chemical attacks in 2013, and were largely responsible for staying his hand. With regard to military action against ISIS, many Republicans chose to avoid a vote on the subject so they could assess the success of the campaign before risking a position. This is hard to spin as a courageous stance against the Islamic State.

Before the Paris attacks and the current anti-refugee hysteria, the Republican contenders, especially Cruz, had focused their criticism of Obama on the fact that he refuses to equate the Islamic State with mainstream Islam. This is clever, up to a point, because it is vague and draws on a widely held belief among conservatives that political correctness and cultural sensitivity are largely to blame for their unhappiness. Thus Cruz proclaimed, incongruously, “It is not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama adminstration from stopping these attacks, it is political correctness.”

Do the candidates really believe what they are saying about refugees? It is important to listen to the specific words that they and governors opposed to resettlement have been using.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knows that his biggest weakness is being perceived as soft on Obama, because he worked closely with the president after Hurricane Sandy. In interview after interview, Christie has deflected questions on his refugee scapegoating back to Obama, stating that he does not trust the President to vet the refugees.

During the GOP debates in Las Vegas Christie focused heavily on his involvement with minor terrorism cases as a prosecutor and the fact that he lived in New Jersey on 9/11.

Ted Cruz keeps the focus on buzzwords meant to energize his evangelical base. In a single interview with Sean Hannity, he repeated the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” 19 times. And since the Paris attacks, Cruz has also been sure to repeat the words “tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees” verbatim several times per interview.

Despite all the tough talk none of this rhetoric comes close to resembling a strategy, which is why the GOP has more to lose than anyone from a real debate on military tactics against ISIS.

The fear-mongering has been successful in turning conservatives against a vulnerable community that had no role in the Paris or San Bernardino attacks. According to a Yougov poll, support for accepting refugees has dropped from 39 percent among Republicans in early September to 17 percent now. The major GOP contenders need issues like refugees and religion to stay in the conversation because they have no clue how to beat ISIS.

In fact, the threat does not come from Obama, refugees, and civil rights, as opposed to from the actual Islamic State. The Republicans give the overall impression that they would increase the U.S. military operation and that the Obama administration has no clear strategy. ‘In fact the Obama administration does,” say Shapiro “but it is a much slower, long-term one… leaving the fighting on the ground to the Kurds and Iraqi forces.”

Most of the actual proposals presented by GOP candidates are basically just variations on that theme.

On the ground in Syria, debates among the Republican candidates have sounded unrealistic if not surreal. It is obvious that ISIS can only be beaten through intelligent alliances and precise military planning. This should not be a great mystery given the fact that ISIS has been beaten before. In early 2014 Syrian rebels forced ISIS into a massive retreat from Aleppo province. I personally had the privilege of visiting parts of Aleppo that were recently liberated. This objective was achieved through military coordination among rebels factions who took heavy casualties.

It’s strange to hear politicians speak about ISIS as though it is some mysterious threat that will require America to change its identity. The leaders and fighters of ISIS are simply human beings, and in battle, they die.

When I hear politicians demonize Syrians and Muslims or advocate torture and carpet bombing, it shows how deep their lack of commitment to the actual fight is.

Syrians are the only people I have ever encountered who have actually stood up to and beaten back ISIS. The 2014 rebel offensive was the most significant blow that ISIS has ever been dealt and it didn’t magically occur when Ted Cruz uttered the words “Radical Islam.” It certainly didn’t come from preventing desperate refugees from settling in America. The biggest defeat ISIS has ever suffered came from Syrians who are the exact same religion and nationality that candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are so determined to turn into an enemy.