Reality Check

Paris and Election 2016: What Won't Work

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published Nov. 16, 2015

Paris and Election 2016: What Won't Work

In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, there was no pause in the presidential race.

The Democrats addressed the U.S. response to terrorism in their debate Saturday night. On the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire, the various Republican candidates had their say too. But unlike the impact of most events on the contest, the real question today isn't who won the news cycle. None of them did though arguably, some of them lost it by saying things that will come back to haunt them later on.

Rather, the events in Paris should have reminded voters that as much as they would prefer to ignore the rest of the world, the most important responsibilities of any president are those that relate to foreign policy and national defense.

If the electorate keeps that in mind, it ought to be very bad news for those seeking the presidency without demonstrating any command of war and peace issues. But in a year in which the normal laws of political gravity have been demonstrated to be in question if they have not been altogether suspended, it remains to be seen whether Paris or the issue of terrorism will have any impact on the race.

More to the point, we need to wonder whether even after these horrors, candidates without any grasp of the issues will continue to garner substantial support. So perhaps rather than point out what the candidates should be saying today, we need to take a moment to understand what the war Islamists are waging against us is not about. At the top of that list is immigration.

Yes, those who have been arguing against bringing in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country have been right all along. Despite the assurances from the administration and Hillary Clinton that the U.S. has the capability to screen these persons, that is obviously untrue.

The overwhelming majority of these refugees are victims of ISIS. They deserve our sympathy and should be helped but their needs must be addressed in the Middle East. Transporting them to the West is an open invitation to the terror group to further infiltrate our borders.

But the notion that the Paris attacks elected Donald Trump, as some of his supporters claim, is nonsense. Sounding tough on immigration is one thing but it is no substitute for an understanding that we are at war.

Aside from his animus for refugees, Trump's position on the war on ISIS is virtually indistinguishable from those of the Democrats who all want to outsource the fight against the terrorists to others. If there is anything we should have learned in the last few years it is that the only way the Islamists can be defeated is by the application of U.S. force.

Advocating that the U.S. rely on Vladimir Putin's Russia to do the job, as Trump foolishly wishes to do, is self-evident proof of foreign policy incompetence. So, too, is Hillary Clinton's assertion at the debate last night that the primary responsibility belongs to Bashar Assad's Syrian regime or the Iraqi government that she and President Obama left at the mercy of Iran and ISIS.

The second thing that this is not about is the importance of keeping America out of foreign wars. Americans are sick and tired of Afghanistan and Iraq and were eager to applaud when President Obama told them he had "ended" these conflicts. But the other side didn't get the memo and the empowerment of ISIS is a direct result of this unforced error.

After 9/11 most Americans understood that they could no longer sit back and wait while the enemy came to them. As much as that struggle was mismanaged at times and that democracies lack the patience for generational struggles, the same lesson applies today.

If you are looking to separate those candidates that understand the nature of the challenge facing the country today and those who don't, the volume of their rhetoric shouldn't mislead you.

Chest-beating here is as useless as the meaningless talk about the importance of diplomacy coming from the left. Nor should those candidates who think this war can be won on the cheap without committing major resources be allowed to get away talking tough. Next year we will either elect a president who knows we're at war or we won't and it isn't hard to see which of them understand that.

Most importantly, this is not about insiders versus outsiders. Anger at the political establishment has fueled the candidacies of Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and even Bernie Sanders among the Democrats. There is a good deal to be said for cynicism about career politicians. Moreover, a certain distance from the Washington power combine of lobbyists and other special interests can be a plus. But the notion that a candidate can learn foreign policy on the fly as Carson is trying without much success to do is risible.

Most Americans don't care that much about foreign policy and generally don't seem to mind when presidential candidates share their ignorance of the nuances of remote conflicts or the people driving them. Some of them candidates believe this gives them a pass on their own ignorance. They also think fear about involvement in foreign wars will always outweigh worries about a terrorist war that may be coming soon to a city near you. But in a 2016 election cycle where terrorism and the mess that Barack Obama is leaving behind is shaping up to be the most dangerous problem facing the country, dumb won't cut it this time.

It should also be pointed out that ignorance comes in more than one variety. It applies equally to Bernie Sanders who thinks pandering to the left gives him a pas for claiming that global warming rather than Islamist beliefs causes terrorism. It also applies to a candidate with foreign policy experience who hasn't learned a thing from her mistakes. Hillary Clinton's record of foreign policy failure is every bit as much of a disqualifying factor as Trump and Sanders lack of fluency on these issues.

Can America elect a president that understands the nature of this conflict, isn't diverted by sidebar issues or knows it can't be won on the cheap? Time will tell.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine, in whose blog "Contentions" this first appeared.