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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Amen!: Can Washington Unite on Fighting Islamic State? - Can Washington Unite on Fighting Islamic State?

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama clearly intended his Sunday night address from the Oval Office to pull the nation together behind his strategy for fighting Islamic State. But in the narrower political world around him, it actually seems to have had the opposite effect: It appears to have widened, or at least cast in sharper relief, deep divides over the nation’s strategy for dealing with the group and the terror threat it has spawned.

Even accounting for the fact that we are in a political season, that is a striking disconnect on a subject on which the country has in the past been able to come together. The San Bernardino terror attacks—and terrorism is what they were, all now agree—weren’t nearly of the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, but it may be time for national leaders to come together to forge the kind of unified response seen then.

It’s hard to imagine a less unified national front that than the one that emerged Monday, when, a day after Mr. Obama urged Americans not to turn against Muslims in the wake of recent terror attacks, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a flat ban on all Muslims entering America.

That radical proposal seemed only to underscore Mr. Obama’s warning against irrational hatred, and was immediately denounced by many other Republicans. But more substantively, there remains a real philosophical divide between the president and his critics on the parallel question of how to fight ISIS directly. Mr. Obama is prescribing more of a slow-but-steady approach to dealing with ISIS. His critics are advocating more of a fast-and-furious attempt to knock out ISIS and, by extension, its terror threat.

Mr. Obama thinks the rush-to-action approach carries more risk than reward. In particular, he worries about the danger of America being sucked into another large and open-ended ground commitment in the Middle East. And that, he fears, would create anew the appearance of the West imposing its will on the region, feeding the ISIS narrative of infidels versus Islam and generating new recruits among angry young Muslims.

The president’s critics consider him complacent amid a real and growing danger. They think he’s unwilling either to admit that his reluctance to engage in the Syrian civil war created the chaos in which ISIS has flourished, or to make the kind of military commitment that could correct that error and extinguish the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate. The president spoke Sunday night about a plan to “destroy” ISIS, but his previous talk about containing the group led critics to doubt his resolve.

Any quest to bridge these divides is complicated by the fact that the ISIS fight now has become entangled with even more divisive topics: immigration, refugee policy and gun control.

On this front, the president didn’t do himself any favors with his initial response to those wanting to stop the plan to absorb a few thousand of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the horror of the multisided civil war in their country. He appeared to belittle more than acknowledge the terror concerns of those who called for a halt to the refugee acceptance process.

Mr. Obama had a good argument for moving ahead with the plan: that resettling refugees already requires a vigorous screening process that can last up to two years. But that point was largely lost in the president’s portrayal of opposition to resettlement as a reversal of American values of openness and compassion.

Similarly, Mr. Obama’s Sunday-night attempt to argue the merits of new gun control at the same time he was explaining his strategy for dealing with ISIS won’t do much to help the effort to build consensus on other elements of the fight against ISIS.

Meantime, Republicans running to take Mr. Obama’s job are showing more interest in highlighting divisions than bridging them. Responses to Mr. Obama’s address were almost vitriolic—and masked the fact that the GOP candidates themselves are deeply divided on an approach to the ISIS threat. Some—Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in particular—want a more aggressive military response to ending the civil war in Syria, which has created the vacuum into which ISIS has stepped, while Sen. Ted Cruz argued just last week that the U.S. has “no dog” in that fight.

Some Republican presidential candidates want to arm Syrian rebels and restore National Security Agency powers to conduct anti-terror surveillance at home; Mr. Cruz and his colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, have opposed those steps.

Yet there is more unity within and across party divides than this political rhetoric suggests. Mr. Obama actually has significantly stepped up the pace of military action in Syria in recent weeks, particularly in aerial attacks on its oil-smuggling financial lifeline. And all sides agree that inserting a giant American ground force isn’t the way to win the ISIS fight.

It may be time for a bipartisan summit meeting to build those areas of agreement into a unified, bipartisan approach like the kind forged—for a time—after the 9/11 attacks. As Mr. Obama said Sunday night, “we have always met challenges…by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people.” Right now, that seems a long ways off.

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