The 2016 campaign just became a foreign policy election. And that, traditionally, favors Republicans.
But it remains unclear how many of the candidates running for the party’s nomination would specifically shift U.S. military strategy against ISIS. To a candidate, they are critical of President Obama’s leadership, and vow to continue to fight. But their actual policy proposals often fail to get more specific than forceful rhetoric.
Some like Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Senator, have tried to stake out hawkish positions, endorsing large U.S. ground troop operations in Iraq and Syria. “I would kill every one of these bastards,” Graham has said. Others like developer Donald Trump have promised to increase bombing of infrastructure in Syria and Iraq. “I would bomb the shit out of ‘em,” he has said.
Many other candidates, however, stop short of promising specific changes to the Obama strategy, beyond promising to win the fight and be aggressive.
Here’s a look at what each of the GOP’s 2016 contenders has said about the Islamic State and its sympathizers.
“I would use everything available to us,” retired neurosurgeon Ben CARSON said. “That includes the economic possibilities available to us. It involves all of our covert activities and special forces. I believe that it will probably require us to put some men on the ground.” He also has suggested China is playing a role in Syria, without providing evidence, a claim the White House contests. “I’m surprised my sources are better than theirs,” he said of the White House pushback.
Donald TRUMP, the showman businessman, is also a foreign policy newcomer yet is already previewing how he would bomb his way to peace. In Trump’s mind, the United States can cut of the Islamic State’s cash flow by interrupting its access to vast oil reserves under the ground it controls through fear. “I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes,” Trump said. “I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left. And you know what, you’ll get Exxon to come in there and in two months, you ever see these guys, how good they are, the great oil companies? They’ll rebuild that sucker, brand new—it’ll be beautiful.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb BUSH, mindful of his brother’s and father’s experiences in the region, has been more cautious in committing U.S. troops to fight the Islamic State. “This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization.” But, when pressed, he says he is open to sending Americans to fight the terrorists on their ground. “If it required more supportive troops, fine,” he said.
Sen. Marco RUBIO of Florida, too, has urged the United States to get more skin in the game in fighting Islamic extremism. “It has already turned its sights toward executing and inspiring terror attacks elsewhere including in the U.S. and Europe. America cannot afford to let a transnational threat like ISIS survive, hold territory, and grow,” he says. But he has also been cautious about American blood. “Intervening doesn’t mean ground troops. Intervening can be a lot of things,” Rubio said.
Sen. Ted CRUZ is similarly urging America to lead a coalition to fight extremism where is starts. “We need boots on the ground, but they don’t necessarily need to be American boots,” Cruz said. “The Kurds are our boots on the ground.” Instead, the United States would lend overwhelming air power. As for rhetoric, Cruz says America must not show mercy. “If you join ISIS, if you wage jihad on America, then you are signing your death warrant,” he said. In response to the attacks in Paris, Cruz warned Americans that “we are seeing an unmistakable escalation of ISIS’ ambitions and the scale of their terrorist attacks outside Syria and Iraq.”
Ohio Gov. John KASICH has long supported sending U.S. military forces into the Middle East to stamp out threats to America. “I’ve said all along we should have a coalition. We should be there, including boots on the ground. … You’ve got the air power, but you can’t solve anything just with air power.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris CHRISTIE, a former prosecutor, has shown little patience for the terrorism. With the most recent attacks, look for Christie to talk about his record prosecuting terrorism cases in post-Sept. 11 New Jersey. “This is a group that our president a short period of time ago called the J.V.,” Christie said Friday. But as for sending Americans to combat enemies, Christie has been skeptical. “Their fight” is how Christie describes the battle in the Middle East and Syria.
Sen. Rand PAUL has shown little interest in expanding America’s presence abroad. The quasi-isolationist has won limited—but fervent—support among those who think the United States cannot be America’s police force. Instead, he blames hawks in his own party for creating America’s enemies. As for Obama’s plan to send military advisers to combat ISIS, he, too, is skeptical. “I think if you’re going to war, sending 50 people to war at a time is sort of a recipe for being surrounded and somehow having a disaster on their hands.”
Former tech executive Carly FIORINA said her approach in the White House would start with a summit at the presidential retreat of Camp David with Arab allies. Fiorina says the answer to defeating the Islamic State is a transnational force. “There are a whole set of things we’ve been asked to do by our allies who know this is their fight, and we’re not doing any of them,” she tells audiences. After the attacks in Paris, she took to Twitter with this message: “I mourn with you. I pray with you. I stand with you. America must lead in the world. We must wage & win this fight against Islamic terrorism.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike HUCKABEE has cast the fight against the Islamic State as “a threat to Western civilization.” In response to the attacks, Huckabee has renewed his calls to close America’s borders and to stop allowing visitors from countries where there are terrorists. “Even the far Left and politically correct government of France has closed its borders. It’s time for a President who will act to protect Americans, not just talk and protect the image of Islam,” Huckabee said. He also says he wants to build a coalition of western allies to “aggressively destroy ISIS,” though it is not clear how that coalition would differ from the one now in place.
Former Sen. Rick SANTORUM has long been a critic of radical Islam and makes it a cornerstone of his campaign. “If these folks want to return to a 7th Century version of Islam, then let’s load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th Century,” Santorum said. “Today’s horror is another reminder that we must be vigilant against evil,” he tweeted after the Paris attacks.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby JINDAL, whose campaign message is essentially that anything Obama has done is wrong, faulted the current approach to ISIS. “If the military says we need ground troops to wipe out ISIS, as a Commander in Chief, you’ve got to be open to that option,” he said. “The reality is that this president instead went to the Pentagon and said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to change hearts and minds, this will take a generation, we can’t beat ISIS with guns.’”
Sen. Lindsey GRAHAM, one of his party’s strongest voices on foreign policy but a badly lagging candidate in the polls, has been unending in his criticism of Islamic extremism. Just hours before the attacks in Paris, Graham predicted the Islamic State would strike. “It is just a matter of time that they will hit us or hit Europe if we don’t go in on the ground in Syria,” Graham said. He has been pushing for a much larger American troop presense in the Middle East, including 20,000 ground troops and advisors in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State.