By Randall Mikkelsen
The attacks in Paris have jolted candidates for the U.S. presidency into advocating tougher action against the Islamic State without committing large numbers of U.S. troops, with leading Republicans favoring curbs on Syrian refugees.
Until this week, the contests to win party nomination for the presidential election, set for November 2016, had been dominated by domestic issues and maverick candidates.
After militants killed 129 people in Paris, it was establishment representatives Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and Republican Jeb Bush who rolled out the most detailed plans for a beefed-up U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq, more air strikes, a safe zone in Syria and a range of international initiatives against Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Some of the Republican candidates, including front-runner Donald Trump, echoed support for air strikes and a military-enforced Syrian safe zone.
But even as Clinton predicted a “generational struggle” to defeat ISIS, none of the major candidates proposed putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, reflecting the public’s lack of appetite for military engagement after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The long game”
In a policy speech on Thursday, Clinton distanced herself from President Barack Obama, under whom she earlier served as secretary of state.
“Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS,” Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations, recalling Obama’s earlier assertion, before militants went on their killing spree in Paris, that ISIS had been “contained.”
She called for increased air strikes, an expanded role for U.S. troops training and supporting anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq and quick action on Obama’s earlier authorization for sending U.S. special forces to help moderate Syrian rebels fight Islamic State. The forces in Syria could be escalated as Syrians step up the fight, she said.
Evoking criticisms that ISIS had gained strength after Obama completed a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, Clinton said: “We have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks only to face metastasizing threats down the road. So we also have to play and win the long game.”
Clinton’s Democratic rivals, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, voiced caution about any new U.S. military intervention.
On the Republican side, Bush, of the family dynasty that sent two presidents to the White House and led two wars in Iraq, called for a stronger American ground presence in Syria and a broader U.S. military buildup.
Bush, a former Florida governor, is trailing in the polls. In unveiling his overall military strategy in a previously scheduled speech on Wednesday, he went beyond his earlier support for U.S. special forces operations in Syria.
“The United States — in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners — will need to increase our presence on the ground,” Bush said. Air strikes alone would not be enough, he said, but the bulk of the ground forces would need to come from “local forces.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has also called for more U.S. ground forces but not said how many.
Trump, a real-estate mogul whose contentious style has been a dominant factor in the race for his party’s nomination, vowed to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, although he has not supported ground troops in Syria. He said Syrian refugees should be banned from entering the United States and that a “tremendous safe zone” should be established in Syria to protect the civilian population.
The candidates find themselves in a fierce debate over admitting Syrian refugees from a conflict that has killed 250,000 people in four years.
With military options a challenge and U.S. popular support uncertain for an all-in war, several Republican candidates called for a get-tough policy on Syrian refugees on the grounds that terrorists could slip in to the country among them.
“Given the tragedy in Paris last Friday, the U.S. simply cannot, should not and must not accept any Syrian refugees,” retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a leading rival to Trump, wrote in Time Magazine. Rubio, another in the leading tier of Republican candidates, backed away from an earlier openness to admitting refugees.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted, with some Democratic support, to suspend the admission of Syrian refugees next year and then intensify the process of screening them. But it is not clear whether the legislation will clear the Senate and be sent to the White House for U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature.
“Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values,” Obama said in a tweet a day before the House vote. “That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do.”
Randall Mikkelsen has more than two decades reporting and editing political and economic stories for Reuters, including seven years covering the White House and postings in Stockholm and Philadelphia. He helped cover the 9/11 attacks in the United States, two U.S. presidential campaigns, a U.S. presidential impeachment, Guantanamo terrorism trials and the 2008 financial crisis.