GOP looks to seize national security advantage from Obama over ISIS

Obama defends his ISIS strategy
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Story highlights

  • GOP candidates are piling on President Barack Obama over the rise of ISIS after the Paris attacks
  • It is not clear that a broad American electorate is now ready to embrace the more hawkish, interventionist school of foreign policy

Washington (CNN)A new climate of fear stirred by the resurgence of international terrorism may offer Republicans an opening they've long sought to repair a tattered reputation on national security and reclaim the political advantage on the issue.

GOP candidates are piling on President Barack Obama over the rise of ISIS after Friday's Paris attacks. Sensing political vulnerability following his at-times defensive comments about the tragedy at a press conference on Monday, they are trying to make the most of what could be a pivotal moment in the 2016 campaign.
In the past two presidential elections, Republicans, hampered by the Iraq-stained legacy of George W. Bush, were powerless to stop Obama from co-opting their party's traditional national security edge after he hunted down Osama bin Laden and largely eradicated the threat from core al Qaeda.
    But the Paris carnage appears to call into question Obama's assertions that his strategy to combat ISIS is working and that he had not underestimated the group, and Republicans believe the GOP has a chance to recast the debate.
    "There is a sense that things are spinning out of control, that the President of the United States is at the mercy of events and Syria is part of that," said Peter Wehner, who served Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. "That has got to hurt Democrats and that has got to hurt Hillary Clinton. That is their greatest vulnerability."
    Yet it would be premature for the Republican Party to assume it now holds a trump card on national security in the campaign. After eight years in which Obama has tried to extricate U.S. troops from foreign wars, it is not clear that a broad American electorate is now ready to embrace the more hawkish, interventionist school of foreign policy popular among many GOP activists. Republicans also have yet to identify a sweet spot between Bush's era of pre-emptive war and what they see today as Obama's retreat from global leadership.
    The president, for one, is beginning to relish the argument, using a press appearance in the Philippines on Wednesday to castigate GOP candidates for offering a "recruitment tool" for ISIS by demanding that no more Syria refugees be let into the U.S. for fear extremists could be among them.
    Obama's comments are striking for their focus on the domestic political debate while he's representing the nation from the international stage, another potential line of attack for the GOP in arguing that the President isn't handling the current crisis appropriately.
    For now, establishment Republican candidates are quickly maneuvering to turn the tables on the President. They are also desperate to showcase credentials of statesmanship and experience so far drowned out in the cacophony swirling around outsider candidates like real estate mogul Donald Trump and to draw contrasts with neophytes like neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has struggled when cross-examined on foreign policy in the days since the attacks.

    'The world changed'

    "The world changed this weekend in a lot of ways," said Jeb Bush on Tuesday, referring to the Paris attacks, which killed more than 120 people and were claimed by ISIS.
    On Wednesday, he will elaborate on this theme in a speech on the military.
    "This brutal savagery is a reminder of what is at stake in this election. We are choosing the leader of the free world," Bush will stress, according to prepared remarks. "And if these attacks remind us of anything, it is that we are living in serious times that require serious leadership."
    Another candidate billing himself as a foreign policy expert, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, responded to the Paris attacks by recalling the moralistic rhetoric used by Republican icon Ronald Reagan during the Cold War.
    "This is a clash of civilizations. Either they win or we win," Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a video produced by his campaign.
    Ohio Gov. John Kasich also defined the battle with ISIS as an attack on Western civilization in his own campaign video Tuesday. In an implicit swipe at Obama and less-seasoned GOP opponents, he warned, "On-the-job training for president of the United States doesn't work."
    "I do think this is a commander-in-chief moment for presidential candidates," said Kori Schake, a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. "This is the moment when voters are going to pay attention, and they are going to grade everybody on the commander-in-chief test."
    The pace of Republican attacks has quickened since Obama's news conference on Monday.
    Given that he was in Turkey for a meeting of world leaders and about to head on to Asia for a regional economic conference, it is possible the President underestimated the consternation building back in Washington over the reach of ISIS in the wake of the Paris attacks -- and amid warnings that the United States could be next.
    Certainly, GOP candidates were emboldened by critical media coverage that greeted the President's performance and potentially exacerbated his political exposure on ISIS.

    Challenges for the GOP

    But as Republicans seek to blame Democrats for global chaos, they must navigate their own political challenges. After all, memories are still fresh of the disastrous unraveling of the invasion of Iraq that helped Obama get elected in the first place.
    A successful foreign policy offensive will require comprehensive policies and a wider narrative that can not only win the trust of voters but also suggest a path forward for the United States at a time when its global power seems to be ebbing.
    And the heat of a presidential campaign is not necessarily the best place to develop that program, as primary voters may reward hawkish rhetoric over policy prescriptions.
    Former U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger remarked on the divergent demands of a commander in chief and a candidate on Monday.
    "The nature of our political contest now, is with public opinion polls taken every week, the emphasis is on immediate impact and the problem we are discussing is a very long-range problem," said the top Nixon official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
    Similarly, a drama like the Paris attacks often leads candidates to propose instant solutions. So there are calls for a troop surge in Syria, expanded bombing campaigns and tough new homeland security measures that may not actually be workable or fully thought out.
    "I'm going to bomb the s---- out of them," Trump said on Monday, warning that ISIS has "got to be stopped."
    The real estate mogul also said he would "strongly consider" closing mosques on American soil.
    Obama emphasized the gulf between the campaign trail and the Oval Office on Monday.
    "Some of them seem to think that if I was just more bellicose in expressing what we're doing, that that would make a difference," he said, referring to his GOP critics. "Because that seems to be the only thing that they're doing, is talking as if they're tough."
    For now, the Republican candidates have seemed to focus more on politically attractive positions rather than policy solutions -- first and foremost, the issue of accepting Syrian refugees. That, too, is fraught with risk.
    Almost all Republican presidential candidates have expressed concern that accepting more refugees from the fighting in Syria could allow militants to infiltrate American soil and stage attacks like those in Paris.
    Though this position appeals to the Republican base, for candidates like Bush and Rubio, joining such calls -- which play into wider conservative demands to secure U.S. borders -- threatens to undercut the larger aspirational message about America's higher moral purpose and inclusivity that underlie their campaigns.
    "It's a short term-reflex. People are scared," said Schake of the focus on the refugee issue. "But leadership is about explaining why people don't need to be scared. Refugees from Syria are fleeing the very terrorism we want to fight."
    Even if the refugees are kept out, it does little to stop the threat of ISIS, adherents of which are already regularly identified in the United States.
    Obama on Wednesday intervened in the Republican debate over refugees to harshly mock the national security credentials of the GOP candidates who want to succeed him.
    "At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of three-year-old orphans. That doesn't seem so tough to me," the President said in Manila on the sidelines of an Asian regional summit.
    While the issue of refugees has now become a domestic political controversy, there are also longer term strategic questions for Republican candidates.
    At some point, candidates seeking to capitalize on the current administration's foreign policy woes must develop a genuine case for American voters of why it may be necessary to wade back into the Middle East to disrupt ISIS havens in Iraq and Syria.
    "When you say the people are tired of war -- we all get tired of war," Kasich said at the National Press Club on Tuesday. "But at the end of the day, leaders have to rally the public to a cause that is great."

    A search for new ideas

    But while Obama is vulnerable on the Middle East, Republican candidates are also struggling to identify an approach that will end the security threats from a region where national authority has broken down, ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts are raging, U.S. power has eroded and the political order in place since World War I is collapsing.
    Obama was partly correct in Turkey when he said that many of the suggestions put forward by Republican candidates were already being tried by the administration.
    Others, such as no-fly zones, might be impractical. And calls by the GOP for the United States to corral European and Gulf state allies skip over the reality that no other nation seems ready to make the sacrifices on the ground in Syria that Americans also want to avoid.
    But Republicans are not the only ones with a difficult political path.
    The ISIS surge also complicates Hillary Clinton's road to the White House because her former role as secretary of state ties her to Obama's national security legacy.
    The party front-runner appeared to struggle to explain her past positions on Libya and Iraq during a Democratic debate in Iowa on Saturday. In front of a liberal audience among which Obama is still hugely popular, the former top U.S. diplomat avoided criticizing her former boss over ISIS, sidestepping a question about whether he had underestimated the danger from the group. But she did say ISIS "cannot be contained" but "must be defeated," subtly distancing herself from the President's position.
    It was a performance that emphasized the challenges she faces in running for a third consecutive Democratic term in the White House.
    Still, the debate over ISIS could also offer Clinton an opening. As the Democratic nominee, she will have to worry less about securing support among Democrats and will have some latitude to move further away from Obama's positions to protect her right flank.
    She could, for instance, stress that she has long taken more hawkish positions on Syria than the President -- notably calling for the arming of moderate Syrian rebels earlier in the civil war, which ISIS is using to exploit its grip on territory.
    And Clinton's campaign believes that, ultimately, her global experience will elevate her above potential GOP opponents.
    "America is not just electing a president -- we are also electing a commander In chief, and that choice matters," Clinton said in Texas on Tuesday, in an ironic echo of Bush's remarks that are likely to be a dominant theme of the fall 2016 campaign.