In the wake of ISIS’s beheading of Americans, acts which the White House rightly said it considered terrorist attacks upon the nation, it could be considered crass to discuss the domestic political implications associated with the threat the Islamic State poses and the president’s planned response to that threat. It is, however, an election year, and there are political connotations associated with Barack Obama’s breakfast cereal, let alone an issue nine in 10 Americans are nervous about. It is just remarkable uniformity of opinion which is beginning to fray and will present a challenge to America’s elected leaders.
The Islamic State’s campaign of medieval horrors on the people under its control shocked Americans into again embracing the projection of U.S. military force. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents back a plan to attack ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A CNN/ORC survey found that as many as 38 percent even support the reintroduction of American ground forces into the Middle East to combat ISIS. In the NBC/WSJ poll, only 32 percent of respondents in that survey expressed support for Obama’s approach to foreign policy, with the vast majority saying the Republican Party has a better record on issues relating to national security.
Some Democratic politicians have endeavored to address the public’s anxiety and adopt a more hawkish stance, most notably Obama himself. “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” he said last night in an address to the nation. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Not everyone is thrilled about Obama’s hawkish demeanor. To his left, the president is drawing grumbles over his bellicosity. At the conclusion of his speech last night, a panel of MSNBC commentators could barely contain their apprehension.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes fretted that Congress may eventually sanction action against ISIS which would “only produce more authority and latitude for the next president to come along after this one.” He added that that it is likely future commanders-in-chief “will then have three AUMFs to bomb also in Syria as that war drags on into 2020, as I watch my children grow up under a second decade of perpetual war.”
“I don’t know why everybody is shy about saying war, and I don’t know why we think about air strikes as not combat,” the network’s flagship host Rachel Maddow lamented. “But I feel like we’re through the looking glass right now in terms of the language that we’re using here.”
They both expressed the same reservations which Chris Matthews voiced just hours before Obama’s speech when he urged the president to “deescalate” the conflict against ISIS and consider not retaliating against a terrorist attack on the nation lest the Islamic State be provoked into responding in kind.
The pacifist constituency is still small, but a New York Times story heralds its rapid expansion. In an article on Thursday, the Times determined that the ISIS threat to the homeland was almost all hype and, horrible as that group is, it may not be in America’s interests to do much about them.
“It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic, with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems – all on the basis of no corroborated information,” The Times quotes former counterterrorism advisor and university professor Daniel Benjamin, who called the run up to the coming action against ISIS a “farce.”
“Some American officials warn of the potential danger of a prolonged military campaign in the Middle East, led by the United States, and say there are risks that escalating airstrikes could do the opposite of what they are intended to do and fan the threat of terrorism on American soil,” The Times reported.
The majority of the article goes on to define the regional and global threat posed by the Islamic State, which would seem to undermine these handwringing officials quoted at the top. Nevertheless, the pacifist coalition on the left will consider the notion that the ISIS threat is overhyped to be gospel, and they will resent the deluge of pro-war political ads coming their way from both GOP and Democratic candidates alike.
“Foreign policy and the Middle East as a major issue in the midterms? A few months ago, it would have been almost laughable—but with overseas news dominating the headlines and on voters’ minds, Republicans see the issue as the final piece in the puzzle for using fears about President Obama’s tenure against Democratic candidates in key races,” National Journal reported on Thursday.
“If you’d asked us two or three months ago what kind of role is foreign affairs going to play in this election, nobody would have said it was going to play a role,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “But now you see current events taking over and impacting voters’ concerns—it’s current events that have forced this issue onto the front burner.”
“You certainly can’t call it a flood, but we’re starting to see a trickle—it’s likely, particularly after the president speaks, we’re going to see more,” [Kantar Media’s Elizabeth Wilner] said. “It certainly does look like a broad line of attack Republicans are going to start using against Democrats for the next two months.”
With the Republican brand maintaining a nearly 40-point lead over the Democratic Party on the issue of national defense, Democratic candidates have some ground to make up between now and November. All the while, they will be alienating their traditional dovish constituents who are growing ever more uncomfortable with America’s new war in the Middle East. But unlike the Iraq War, this will be a campaign that the Democratic Party will own.
Anti-war fervor united the president’s party in the last decade, but it threatens to tear it apart in this one.