In the last Republican presidential debate, Jeb Bush made a brief stab at taking the high ground in the immigration debate that was dominating the Republican contest before the Paris attacks. Married to a Mexican woman and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Jeb admonished his colleagues to be careful about the political ramifications of the harsh language that they were using that has already alienated Hispanic voters. "It would send a signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is. Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal."
It has been barely a week, and Bush's words have already been rendered quaint. In the wake of the Paris attacks—and particularly after word spread that one of the attackers had entered Europe as a refugee carrying a Syrian passport—Republican presidential contenders have been falling all over each other to tout how tough they would be on Syrian immigrants. Chris Christie—vying for a way back to the grownup debate—landed the most dramatic sound bite: I would take no refugees from Syria, not even a three year old orphan.
Jeb sees himself to be a compassionate man. From the outset of the primary season he has struggled with the harsh tenor of the campaign rhetoric, and nowhere more so than on immigration. He has watched as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have shown no bounds in their vilification of Hispanic immigrants, but had no comeback to Trump's simple declaration during the last debate: We are a country of laws. We need borders.
This week, Jeb again stumbled between his compassion for refugees, his urgent need to connect with Christian conservatives as his campaign flounders, and his better judgement, when he suggested that the US should accept only Syrian Christian refugees. He suggested that his rationale was that the Syrian Christians were uniquely caught between ISIS and the Assad regime, but he had his facts wrong, as Syria's Christian community has been largely supportive of the Assad regime. He may have been trying to find a compassionate middle ground where America didn't completely abandon the Syrians' exodus, but as he has been wont to do, his words just made things worse.
Jeb quickly walked back his words. Perhaps it was his brother who pulled him back on the issue. George has been down this road before, and even as the Republican candidates are railing against the Democrats for refusing to cite radical Islam as our enemy, they might recall that W. struggled as well with how to label Al Qaeda and their ilk in the months following 9/11. He and his administration ultimately came to realize that religious labels—radical Islam and Islamofascists most notably—undermined the ability of the US to build and sustain alliances with Muslim nations.
As much as Jeb—and now Ted Cruz—might want to appeal to the Christian conservative base by carving out special treatment for their co-religionists, their words impact how America is viewed across the Islamic world, and what they say as a candidate will live on should they become commander in chief. Jeb, in particular, bears the Bush name and legacy, and there is little doubt that there are those in the Muslim world who will find in his suggestion that only Syrian Christians be offered sanctuary in the United States validation that his brother was indeed a Crusader all along—a central tenet of Osama bin Ladin's rhetoric—and point to Jeb's words as proof positive that America was and remains a crusader nation.
Over the past two weeks, ISIS attacks have killed 400 people. They killed 224 Russian tourists flying on a passenger jet out of Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. They killed 43 worshippers at a mosque in Beirut. They killed 129 in Paris. And they injured hundreds more.
Fourteen years ago, we were Paris. We were Beirut. We were Russia. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, countries around the world expressed their sympathy and support for the United States. As the World Trade Center lay smoldering in lower Manhattan, the leading daily newspaper of France, Le Monde, pronounced Nous sommes tous Américains. We Are All Americans. We might, like Jeb, imagine ourselves a compassionate nation, but over the past days of tragedy, we have not proven to be the America of our and Jeb's imagination. For all the outrage over the horrific events in Paris, we have shown little or no similar compassion for the dead and dying in Beirut. Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that the city long known as the Paris of the Middle East remains in the Middle East and the dead and dying are Shi'a Muslims. While Nous Sommes Paris adorned the pages of the Russian news service SputnikNews in the wake of the Paris attacks, it is hard to find a corresponding response in the American press to the death of the many more Russians who died in the Sinai bombing. For reasons that confound the imagination, a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union it seems that when Russians die they are still little more than communists in our eyes.
The political firestorm over Syrian refugees erupted as Jeb's compatriots seized on one Syrian passport to demonstrate a threat to the homeland. If they imagined that by their words they were demonstrating their capacity to lead the nation, it has been a dreadful performance. These were not attacks on America, but they are right, that may yet come. However, if it does, it may come at the hands of a Syrian. Or perhaps a Frenchman, as most of the Paris attackers were. Or perhaps fifteen jihadis from Saudi Arabia, the ancestral homeland of the radical Wahhabi branch of Islam that birthed much of the worldwide scourge that has challenged the world for decades now, including ISIS itself. ISIS is a devious and strategic organization. One could not put it past them to have instructed the Paris attacker to make sure that his passport survived the attack, imagining the havoc it would create in western countries.
This week, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60% of Americans believe that we should be doing more to attack ISIS. At the same time, the poll suggested that 65% opposed sending special forces to the region and 76% opposed sending ground troops. These numbers point in opposite directions, and suggest a populace that has no idea of the choices that we are likely to face in the months ahead and the costs that may be involved.
American public support for the war in Iraq lasted barely two years, and turned against the war by the middle of 2005. The question of whether the debate leading up to the Iraq war resolution was an honest one, and whether that war was "sold" to the American public remains a source of controversy and anger. In the days to come, we are going to have another national debate about terrorism, and how our nation should respond, and those who propose taking the country to war once again should consider that history.
Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, long-time chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee famously suggested that our nation's politics should end at the water's edge. Foreign policy and war are too important, Vandenberg asserted, to allow them to be embroiled in our eternal partisan battles—as we have seen erupt in a matter of hours in this go round—specifically because international relationships and alliances require that our nation's commitments endure from one administration to another, and survive transitions from one political party to another.
Barack Obama was elected on a platform of ending US intervention in the Middle East, and the American public continues to demonstrate strong opposition to many of the actions that an effective response to ISIS might entail. Whether it is a return to putting boots on the ground as part of an international coalition or once again enhancing government surveillance capabilities, public antipathy looms as the fruit of how the public debate was conducted last time we went down this road. Fourteen years ago, we started out with the same debate about what to call radical Islam, and the quality of our public discourse went downhill from there.
Already, there are calls to go to war, and we have not even been attacked yet. If our political leaders want to lead, and if they want our policies in the region to be successful and endure better than they have over the past decade, they should take a long look at how we got to where we are, and each take it upon themselves to do a better job of leading a public debate that will bring Americans to understand the choices that we face than they did the last time we went down this road.