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Hillary Clinton's silly ISIS meme is the inevitable culmination of our vacuous ISIS debate

In the wake of the Brussels attacks, every candidate for president is emphasizing his or her proposals for dealing with ISIS. As part of that, on Wednesday, the Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, rolled out this doozy of a meme:

(Hillary Clinton)

The graphic promises a "real plan" to fight ISIS. In English, a "plan" is something that details how you would like to accomplish something. This is just a list of stuff that would be good to accomplish.

How should we "take out ISIS's stronghold"? Or "dismantle the global terror network"? Or "harden our defenses"? Who knows? The meme has all the substance of the 2003 Black Eyed Peas classic "Where is the Love?"

The tweet was widely and correctly mocked, and, to be fair to Clinton, her campaign has published a formal ISIS plan that is substantially more detailed.

But in some ways the tweet was nonetheless an accurate representation of a problem with Clinton's ISIS plan — and with the ISIS strategy from every other candidate, for that matter: Those plans, like the tweet, can feel partly like strategies and partly like wish lists.

Each of the candidates has offered a plan for defeating ISIS, and those plans do range in terms of both their level of detail and the degree to which they articulate realistic policies. But none of those policies amounts to a strategy that quite delivers on the candidates' broad promises of defeating ISIS; at some point, each relies on more than a little wishful thinking.

And there's a reason for that: It doesn't pay, politically, to have a plan to fight ISIS.

The candidates' policy proposals can get a little vacuous

Bernie Sanders (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For all the heated rhetoric over how much better each candidate says he or she would be at defeating ISIS, actual debates over specific ISIS policy — what new things should be done to destroy the group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond — have been relatively muted.

Obviously that's not uncommon for complex policy issues; it's always easier to talk in generalities than to get into specifics. But it's especially pronounced over ISIS, on which the candidates tend to speak in generalities — and generalities that don't differ that much from candidate to candidate or, often, from the status quo of our current policy.

For example, candidates like to propose arming Kurdish fighters in both Syria and Iraq. This is indeed a tactic for weakening ISIS, and one we are currently employing.

Candidates don't really articulate what they would do differently, but rather tend to just say that they would do it better. "We must arm them much more effectively than we have done so far," as John Kasich put it in a November speech.

You also hear this with good-sounding but ultimately vague calls for America's Arab allies to "do more."

"The major powers in the region — especially the Gulf states — have to take greater responsibility for the future of the Middle East and the defeat of ISIS," Bernie Sanders said in his major foreign policy address in March.

Sounds great! But what sorts of greater responsibility? How do we get them to do it? None of this is ever really clarified. It's less glaringly vacuous than a Twitter meme saying our plan is to "1. Take out ISIS's stronghold," but it's the same sort of wishful thinking: We'll accomplish something very important but difficult by ... accomplishing it.

"We should also include the Jordanian and Egyptian militaries," Ted Cruz said in a December speech. "Above and beyond that, we should do whatever is necessary and required to defeat ISIS."

While Hillary Clinton's actual ISIS policy is a good deal more detailed and coherent than Wednesday's tweet, it still suffers from a version of this problem.

Take, for instance, her November speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. To her credit, she did propose some more specific ideas, such as an "intelligence surge" of operatives with Arab-language skills to ISIS areas. But much of the speech includes, as other candidates have done, vague calls for doing the status quo except, in some undefined way, better:

  • "The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS."
  • "We should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units."
  • "We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to gets its political house in order."

What should "our Arab partners" do? How should we "retool" aid for Syrian rebels? What kind of "sustained pressure" could the US impose to get Iraq's government to solve its deep political divisions?

Donald Trump, ironically enough, has been surprisingly forthright about proposing new policy ideas for fighting ISIS — it's just that his policies are crazy, war crimes, or both. Trump has suggested intentionally targeting the family members of ISIS fighters in retaliation for ISIS attacks. He's also called for torture methods "much worse than waterboarding" to get more intelligence on the group.

These are definitely specific ideas. They are also war crimes. As such, Trump has somewhat walked them back, leaving his overall ISIS policy as vague as everyone else's.

This vagueness tells us something important about ISIS policy

This is hard to solve!

Now, at this point you may object that I'm being unfair, that this is just the way presidential candidates talk about policy.

But that's not true: On other policy issues, they're quite happy to be specific. Take taxes, on which candidates lay out specific new taxes they'd like to impose and explain how they'd like to adjust the rates of existing ones. That's so analysts and pundits can actually make judgments about how their taxes would affect the US economy and the distribution of wealth.

But when it comes to ISIS, candidates aren't nearly so specific. A lot of their policies amount to saying things like, "I'll lower your income taxes," without saying what rates they would change income taxes to. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for any observer to assess what their ISIS plans would look like in practice with any degree of precision.

So why is ISIS policy so vague? The answer is simple: The ISIS issue is peculiarly difficult.

To understand why, you need to understand four fundamental truths:

  1. Under current policy, America is pushing policy to the limits of what it can do without risking serious consequences. America could start giving heavier weapons to more Syrian rebel groups, but that risks handing off weapons to al-Qaeda. It could start bombing ISIS more indiscriminately, but that risks killing large numbers of civilians and boosting ISIS's local support. Candidates are hesitant to advocate for such policies because then they would have to account for their risks.
  2. The core problems — internal Iraqi political divisions, the weakness of pro-Western Syrian rebels — are really, really hard to solve. Nobody has a good plan for how the US could get Iraqi Sunnis and Shias to reconcile, or for how to effectively train up friendly rebels without painting a target on their heads. These are difficult policy problems that are hard to address in a think tank white paper, let alone in a speech or on a debate stage.
  3. The current strategy is demonstrating some real successes. ISIS has been on the defensive since October 2014; the US military estimates that the group has lost about 40 percent of its overall territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria. These aren't all or even primarily the result of US action — Iraqis and Syrians fighting ISIS on the ground deserve most of the credit. But the point is that entirely scrapping America's ISIS policy seems like a bad idea.
  4. However, America's ISIS policy is unpopular. A Quinnipiac poll in late December found that 57 percent of Americans believed the US and its allies were losing the war on ISIS; a scant 25 percent thought they were winning. A 12-point majority supported sending ground troops to Iraq and Syria.

So presidential candidates are confronted with a political problem: They need to present something that feels different from the status quo but is not actually different. Any major escalation risks unintended consequences. The obvious problems with the status quo are really hard to solve; nobody has any good ideas for policies to fix them, so it's hard to get more specific on them without proposing something unrealistic or dangerous.

But saying "things are going fine" isn't a politically tenable position, given that most Americans think things are going badly. The optimal position is to make it sound like you'll do something differently without committing to any specific policy.

Lo and behold, that's what we're seeing.

A good example here is Ted Cruz's repeated promise to "carpet-bomb" ISIS positions. Carpet bombing, in military parlance, means to drop a large number of untargeted bombs over a specific swath of territory. The last time the US did that was during the Vietnam War, and it killed thousands of innocent civilians.

When Cruz proposes "carpet-bombing" ISIS, then, it sure sounds like he's calling for the mass slaughter of civilians who live in ISIS territory. But when pressed on the issue, he backs down pretty quickly, and instead describes something that sounds like the status quo. Here he is, for example, in a December debate:

You would carpet bomb where ISIS is -- not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed -- and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn't to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn't carpet bombing. (Thankfully.) So when Cruz says he wants to "carpet-bomb" ISIS, he doesn't actually mean it. All he's really saying is that he'll continue Obama's policy of bombing ISIS. The rhetoric makes it sound like he'll be super aggressive, but he's actually not committing to doing anything different. It's the status quo policy dressed up in tough rhetoric.

All of the candidates sounds like this, to varying degrees. Kasich, like Cruz, makes it sound like he'll be a radical break from Obama; the Democrats make it sound like they'll mostly continue Obama's policy with improvements on the margins. Everyone carefully avoids promising too much in the way of specific changes to the status quo.

The war on ISIS is a tough, unsatisfying issue — one on which the president faces a huge number of constraints. But admitting that doesn't make for good sound bites.