About midway into Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate, after a full hour that the moderators and candidates had wholly dedicated to discussing ISIS and the threat of terrorism, a threat that all agreed had emerged largely if not solely due to the weakness of one Barack Obama, Ben Carson articulated how he would clean up the mess left by the current administration.
The Carson strategy, he said, would be to cut off ISIS command centers, splinter ISIS logistics networks, and seize ISIS revenue sources. And Carson said he knew that his strategy would work because it was, he said, "the same kind of thing we did with Sinjar," the Iraqi mountain town liberated just a few weeks ago by the US-led coalition. "Those are things that work."
Carson's argument, in other words, was that his strategy would be radically different from Obama's no-good strategy, and that he knew he had a better strategy because it is just like our current strategy, which has shown successes like that in Sinjar and has retaken 40 percent of ISIS's territory in Iraq.
It was a telling moment: The Republican candidates, for all their tough talk criticizing Obama's ISIS strategy and insistence that they would be much tougher and better, articulated strategies that, in the broad strokes, differed little from the status quo.
When Carson said he would fix America's ISIS strategy by keeping it the same, he was just articulating the Republican mainstream position: Criticize Obama's strategy, then adopt that strategy as your own. Insist you will be tougher and stronger in ways that sound rhetorically different but, in actual policy terms, are pretty much the same.
I was not the only one to notice this. Slate's Fred Kaplan put it like this:
One thing was clear from this debate. None of these nine candidates had any remotely plausible ideas on how to defeat ISIS, or prevent terrorist attacks on American soil, beyond what Obama is already doing—except doing it louder, or with a scarier scowl, or maybe doing more of it.
Here's NBC News's triple-bylined after-action report on the debate, laying out the Obama and GOP strategies side by side and straining to find a significant difference:
On combating ISIS: Where's the real substantive difference with Obama?
Yes, we heard Republican after Republican criticize President Obama's handling of ISIS. But outside of the rhetoric, where are the substantial differences? The differences were more on style and tactics. But cut through the rhetoric and it is hard to find a big strategic difference, beyond Lindsey Graham who is calling for more substantial ground forces. Many of the other Republican candidates are calling for more attacks from the air. Well, Americans have been launching more attacks from the air. Republicans say there need to be U.S. special forces directing Arab/Kurdish ground forces against ISIS. Well, that's what Obama has already proposed. Republicans believe there needs to be a Muslim face to any ground troops, so does this administration. Sure, the rhetoric is different. And the charge from many that this administration hasn't managed the coalition well is fair game, but there isn't a large policy gulf. In fact, take a look at Clinton's speech yesterday and find the substantial POLICY differences. Again, we get the charge that EXECUTING the strategy is where some are critical but the blueprint isn't all that different.
GOP candidates focus on style because there is little substantive difference
During the two-hour debate, 90 minutes of which focused on ISIS and terrorism, every one of the candidates on stage made some version of this argument:
- Obama's ISIS strategy is failing because Obama is personally weak or dishonest.
- My ISIS strategy is better because I am stronger and tougher.
- My strategy differs from Obama's because I will do the exact same things but with more strength and toughness.
This led the candidates to focus overwhelmingly on differences of personality and temperament, which they argued, implausibly, make all the difference. Several of the candidates, for example, argued that America's Middle Eastern allies are doing little against ISIS because Middle Eastern leaders personally distrust and dislike Obama.
This argument is, on its face, ridiculous. Middle Eastern allies are not inactive; Saudi Arabia had just that morning announced a new anti-ISIS coalition. The idea that Mideast leaders are designing their ISIS policy around their personal feelings toward Barack Obama is absurd. And in any case, these leaders seem to have a fine time following Obama, as they have flown to Washington to meet with him repeatedly and have joined in the US-led coalitions in Syria and Iraq.
But the candidates focused on these personality differences because it's all they have. There are few real policy differences to talk about, so all they can do is argue that they are personally tougher and stronger in ways that will somehow prove decisive.
There are some policy differences, of course, but for all the hype these receive, when you dig into them, they either tend to be vague promises or just dressed-up versions of the status quo.
Jeb Bush, for example, gave a speech in August articulating his ISIS strategy in which the biggest breaks were his proposal to send a few US forward air controllers nearer to the front lines and to perhaps institute a limited no-fly zone that looks a lot like the US-proposed "anti-ISIS safe zone." (That proposal fell apart for various reasons that would likely afflict or prevent Bush's proposal as well.) But these amounted to tweaks to the existing strategy, not major breaks.
Even the biggest point of disagreement on Tuesday night was mostly rhetorical: whether it was appropriate for the US to push out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. This debate exposed a real ideological divide among the GOP candidates, with establishment-leaning candidates supporting Assad's ouster and outsider candidates opposing.
But that debate was mostly hypothetical: Current US strategy says Assad needs to be removed, but by a peaceful diplomatic agreement rather than by force. It's hard to imagine even, say, Rand Paul refusing a Syrian peace deal that would peacefully remove Assad. And even the most hawkish candidate, Marco Rubio, wants to pressure Assad to leave under a negotiated deal, not to topple him by force. These are real ideological disagreements that ultimately lead the candidates to the same policy. And that is the current policy as enacted by the Obama administration.
Why the GOP candidates want to keep Obama's strategy while attacking Obama's strategy
So what's going on here? Why are these candidates hammering away at Obama's weak and useless ISIS strategy and then also proposing strategies that are largely the same? Unlike some, I do not take the view that the GOP field is a bunch of incompetents. Rather, I suspect that there are two forces at play here.
The first is structural. American foreign policy, with some meaningful exceptions, tends to be pretty consistent across administrations. That's especially true when it comes to big and difficult problems like ISIS, and when it comes to complicated inter-agency strategies like America's ISIS strategy.
Despite the impression Americans typically get from watching TV dramas like The West Wing, foreign policy is not shaped by the gut instincts of the commander in chief but rather by a vast network of foreign policy professionals and institutions. Even if a new president comes in planning to change everything, he or she typically ends up largely maintaining the status quo. Our news media also likes to personalize foreign policy to the president because this makes it easier to cover, but this is just not really how it works.
The second is particular to the ISIS problem. Americans have a sense that ISIS emerged at least in part due to American failures. And there is indeed real truth to this. Some of those failures predated Obama, especially the US invasion of Iraq, but others occurred under his watch. But the current strategy seems to be much more effective, or at least it is making the best of a bad situation.
This puts candidates in both parties in a bind: They can't just criticize Obama's past mistakes; they need to criticize his current policy so as to argue they can improve the situation if they are elected. You can't run for president by arguing you would have done better in 2012. You need to run on saying you will do better in 2017. Voters want to hear a candidate who will promise to make things better.
But the ISIS problem is a very difficult one with only bad options. In policy terms, there just isn't really a magical better policy that candidates can offer — or at least no such alternative that anyone has yet discovered — so they have to find a way to criticize Obama's strategy while also adopting it.
They can't find a way to do that in policy terms, so they either misrepresent Obama's policy, attacking a straw man, or they avoid policy altogether and simply talk about how their personality is more suited to fighting ISIS.
To be clear, this is not just a thing that Republicans do. I am reminded of awkward moments during the 2012 presidential debates, between Obama and Mitt Romney, when the two candidates tried to debate Afghanistan.
The war there was going very badly, and the US was drawing down. Romney clearly did not have a secret, brilliant plan to save Afghanistan — no one did — but as the challenger, he had no choice but to argue that he did. So he proposed supposedly better ideas that were in fact largely identical to Obama's, which Romney criticized as weak and defeatist even though he was clearly planning on continuing them. And Obama, for his part, criticized Romney's plans as dangerous and naive, even though they were so similar to his own. It was an awkward little dance that neither candidate seemed very eager to engage in. But that is the nature of our political system.