Put aside the rhetoric, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress have a broadly similar worldview about how to take on ISIS. But rhetoric matters. And so does President Obama.
Since the Paris terrorist attacks and now the San Bernardino shootings, the partisan rhetoric on fighting the Islamic State (IS) has been flying.
Republicans who oppose the president’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees are “scared of widows and orphans,” President Obama scoffed last month. Some Republicans seem to think if he were just “more bellicose,” it would make a difference, he said derisively.
After Mr. Obama offered no new anti-IS strategy in his address to the nation on Sunday, the new GOP speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, described the speech as a “half-hearted” attempt to distract from a failing policy. And Donald Trump tweeted out: “Is that all there is? We need a new President – FAST!”
But strip away the rhetoric, and Republicans and Democrats are not as far apart on fighting IS as it may appear, say some observers and lawmakers in Congress. Republicans are crying out for a more robust strategy, and so are some key Democrats, potentially leaving the president a lonely man.
To a large degree, what Republicans appear to want is “more” of what Obama is already attempting: more bombing – in particular, a change to the rules of engagement that would allow more hits; more US Special Operations troops to train and embed with ground forces – although regional coalition partners would be relied upon to do the ground fighting; and more military aid to regional fighting forces.
Another “want”: to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war so refugees can move back home.
“A Republican president right now would probably be doing the same things that Obama is doing, but maybe with a little more stronger strategic messaging,” says Kevin Ryan, a retired Army brigadier general and a defense and intelligence expert at Harvard’s Belfer Center.
Of course, not everyone agrees with that assessment. Republican John Bolton, a former UN ambassador, points out disagreements between the parties and even among Republicans on how to handle IS.
But some commonality can be seen in legislation to tighten up a visa waiver program that made it too easy for passport holders from 38 countries to travel to the United States. The legislation soared through the House on Wednesday, 407 to 19.
The bill has its roots in a bipartisan task force of the House Homeland Security Committee that was formed to look at the issue of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. About 30,000 fighters from 100 countries have gone to train and fight with IS, and 5,000 of them have Western passports. Other bipartisan recommendations from the task force will roll out in coming weeks.
Last month, the House also passed a veto-proof bill that adds another layer of vetting to refugees from Syria and Iraq and requires the heads of key security agencies to certify that these refugees are not a threat to America.
Obama opposes the bill and stands behind America’s 18- to 24-month vetting process. The legislation would essentially pause the program and send an anti-Muslim message that plays into the hands of IS, the administration says. But the fact that it found the support of 47 House Democrats shows the president increasingly isolated on the refugee issue.
At the same time, key Democrats – including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – are also questioning whether Obama’s approach to fighting IS is robust enough. After the Paris attacks, Mrs. Clinton came out in support of a no-fly zone in Syria, which the administration has opposed but which many Republicans support.
“I agree with Hillary Clinton that this should not be about containing ISIS, it should be about defeating and destroying them,” says Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was using another acronym for the Islamic State – and sounding a lot like senators on the other side of the aisle.
So is Obama in danger of being abandoned over this issue?
“I don’t know about the president being isolated, but I think there’s a desire [among many Democrats] for a more forward-leaning ISIL strategy,” says Senator Menendez, using an alternate Islamic State acronym.
His comments echo those of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and her House counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff, also of California. Senator Feinstein this week questioned whether Obama’s strategy is robust enough, according to The New York Times, while Representative Schiff said he was “concerned about the pace of our progress.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware, of the Foreign Relations Committee, says he’s been calling for a more robust approach “for several years, as have many other Democrats.”
He describes the differences between Democratic and Republican senators on IS as “slight,” mostly a matter of who sounds toughest. “I have yet to discern a significant difference in strategy” – the main exception being over US troop deployments, he says.
At one end, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and his friend and GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are calling for 20,000 US troops to go to Iraq and Syria.
At the other end is Obama, who has put about 3,500 US troops in Iraq and ordered about 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria – a change from an earlier position of no boots on the ground.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a Senate hearing that the US stands ready to send more attack helicopters and advisers to Iraq should they be needed and should Iraq request them. Iraqi forces have been advancing on Ramadi in western Iraq, hoping to retake the city from IS extremists.
But absent regional partners willing to do more of the fighting on the ground, and absent an agreement to end the Syrian civil war, it’s difficult to construct a winning strategy against IS, Senator Coons says.
Combine that challenge with the Paris and San Bernardino attacks and an election year, and you have the fuel for incendiary rhetoric – such as Mr. Trump’s call on Monday to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the US.
It’s been put down by both Republicans and Democrats as un-American and even unconstitutional. Nonetheless, his statement – and other political statements relating to terrorism – can do great damage, observers say.
“In the contest between words and deeds, deeds are more important,” says Mr. Ryan at the Belfer Center. “But I also believe that bad rhetoric, or inappropriate rhetoric, can make it much harder for a person or a country to accomplish its goals.”
He points to two examples: Obama’s failure to follow through after his 2012 public declaration of a “red line” in Syria over chemical weapons; and the latest Trump demagoguery about Muslims.
At home, such statements mislead Americans, Ryan says, even if Trump’s comment has also had the positive effect of “forcing other candidates to come more directly to the point.”
Abroad, they mislead allies and enemies, and can inflame the Islamic world.
And in an election year, they feed the campaigns and public opinion polls.