Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting article at some point last week, Terrorism in the Age of Trump. I want to reflect on something that he mentioned in the article that I’ve found bizarre: the conservative establishment’s belief that the terrorist attacks in Paris would cause Republican base voters to turn away from Trump and toward “reasonable” candidates like Marco Rubio. Who would think such nonsense? Why would the base run from Trump? How is Trump unfit to address ISIS compared to other Republican candidates?
The whole basis of Republican thinking on foreign affairs is that we just have to be “tough” and be willing to do “whatever it takes” and then all will be well. I’ve been amazed by this kind of thinking my whole life. There are still people who think that we would have won the Vietnam War if only we had nuked the North Vietnamese back to the stone age. According to this way of looking at things, the only reason we don’t have clear victories like World War II anymore is because we don’t have the political will to destroy an entire country.
Such people have not read their Carl von Clausewitz. They seem to think that the idea of war is to “win” — that we aren’t trying to do something else. Given this ridiculous way of thinking, we could beat ISIS by dropping about a thousand nuclear bombs on Iraq and Syria. But what would we have “won”? Would it make terrorist attacks like those on Paris less likely? Hardly. It would make them more likely because the only remaining front would be on the streets of Europe and America.
This is the way that the Republican base thinks about war. In general, they don’t think that any country (other than Israel) has an equal claim to existence to our own. And this is an idea that the Republican establishment has pushed for decades. This is the basis for Europe bashing. Liberals are horrible because they think that America might have something to learn from Europe. This is a sign of weakness. So of course the party base would think that being strong (that is: belligerent) is all that matters in a president.
I go back again and again to the 2004 interviews with James Hackett, where his big compliment was that Bush went to war in Afghanistan and he was certain that Gore would have treated the attacks on 9/11 as a police matter. Well, I always thought that was a stupid claim; Gore would have gone to war. But the point was that what was really important was to look tough. The right thing to do was not what would work best, but what would give Dr Hackett that conservative thrill that America was being “decisive” and “strong.”
But what’s most amazing is that Trump’s ideas on how to fight ISIS are no different than anyone else running for the Republican nomination. What’s more, we do have the example of George W Bush. He did, at best, a mediocre job in Afghanistan. Then he changed focus and went to war with Iraq. How would Trump be worse than that? At least if he took us to war in Iraq and Syria, I don’t see him losing interest and going to war in Argentina because they wouldn’t let him build a hotel or something.
The thinking of the Republican base is all messed up. But it is at least coherent. It is the establishment’s thinking that is incoherent. They want the same kind of foreign policy that the base wants: unthinking belligerence. But they want the slightest difference in rhetoric — or something. It makes no sense.