The rhetorical quality of the fight against ISIS has disheartened J. BROOKS SPECTOR who takes a look at disturbing words that are being said – most especially by Republican candidates seeking their party’s presidential nod.
Until just a few days ago, pretty much every smart money bet was on this coming US presidential election being all (well, almost all) about income inequality, the middle class’ frantic treading of water, and the rumoured failure of the vaunted US economic machine to generate the new jobs needed to give the next generation a fighting chance at “the American Dream”. Now, suddenly, the whole thing is still all about fighting, but now it is fighting off further depredations in the world by IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Just like that! Wham! Take that conventional wisdom, take that, right in the kisser.
When a small band of nihilistic, psychopathic thugs, operating under the guise of religion, attacked venues scattered across Paris, killing 129 people and wounded hundreds more, it was an unexpected game changer for political campaign rhetoric in America. Instead of that expected intense focus on economic growth, tax plans, and income inequality, politicians – and most especially – Republican presidential contenders have literally been falling all over themselves to deliver their apocalyptic-sounding messages on how to deal with IS’ threat to the republic.
Sadly, like almost every other politician, globally, in response to Paris, the quality of this rhetoric has moved inexorably into the banal or foolish. First out of the box seems to have been French President François Hollande, whose words came across as simply, “We are at war.” Send in the jets. Unexpectedly, perhaps, given his reputation as a rhetorical wizard, when US President Barack Obama addressed the international media at the G20 meeting in Turkey, his remarks largely became a rundown of the actions already undertaken by the US to contain and degrade IS, that the actions are working slowly, but with the observation that it would be a long, drawn-out struggle before IS was finished off.
Of course, the Republican candidates and others in that party have performed even worse. As columnist Dana Milbank tartly observed, “Congressional Republicans unveiled a new strategy Tuesday morning to defeat the Islamic State: We will kill it with clichés. House GOP leaders huddled with their caucus in the Capitol basement for an hour before emerging to hit the enemy with an unrelenting barrage of hackneyed phrases.”
We are indebted to Milbank for his strenuous effort to bring together the verbal cotton wool that has been purveyed by the GOP so far. Over on Capitol Hill, the newly elected Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, offered the inspiring idea that “The world needs American leadership,” while Republican House of Representatives Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, revealed the secret that “we want our homeland to be secure.” Meanwhile, Majority Whip in the House, Steve Scalise, provided words to lead and inspire by telling his congressional troops that there was a need “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Not to be outdone, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, another leading GOP figure, proclaimed that we must “rise to the challenge” and discover “the courage and the resolve.” Yet another congressman, Lynn Jenkins, thereupon pronounced we must “stand shoulder to shoulder with France and our allies” and “show a path forward as we fight for a safer world for our kids to grow up in.” Somewhere there is a machine that helps generate this kind of prose.
Then, in speaking of the possibility the US would accept any Syrian refugees, Congressman Ryan observed that America needed to “take a pause” in allowing Syrian refugees to enter because “it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.” Queried as to what that actually meant, he added, “We’ve assembled a task force” to figure all that out. When we finally do know what we are saying, “we’ll give you the answer to those questions when we have made our conclusions.”
To the rather more fraught idea of those “boots on the ground”, Ryan then added, “I do not think any option should be taken off the table. I think all options should be placed upon the table.” Milbank observed of these commentaries that “One option not on the table, apparently: coming up with an idea of what to do to beat Islamic State. Obviously President Obama’s strategy — whatever it is — doesn’t seem to be doing the job. But the only thing the opposition seems to agree on is that he should do something else that works better — preferably something that leaves us shoulder to shoulder on the path forward, putting all options on the table as we root them out with courage and resolve.”
Some GOP presidential candidates have added their own pet strategies. Donald Trump has roared that once he became president he would “bomb the [“excrement”] out of them,” while Senator Lindsey Graham would send in 10,000 troops. Wait, didn’t that get tried earlier?
And Jeb Bush told a national television audience over the past weekend, “Well, you take it to them in Syria and Iraq.” Meanwhile, Bush’s home state rival, Senator Marco Rubio spoke on another television network and he argued the government should, “put together a coalition to confront this challenge.” Not to be outdone, Dr Ben Carson, in his weekend television appearance, burbled, “Well, obviously extending, you know, our support to the French, you know, that were our first allies, and we certainly want to stand with them.” Asked whom he would call upon first to build a military coalition to confront IS directly, Carson came up with, “I would call for all of the Arab states to be involved in this.” Okay. Thanks.
By Tuesday, congressional Republicans were weighing in with still more ideas. Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally insisted, “We need a strategy. That includes unleashing American air power in a way that can actually crush and defeat them in Iraq and Syria; a broader strategy diplomatically and militarily for the dozens of countries that we’re seeing ISIS presence in; stopping the flow of foreign fighters and then countering the radical extremism that we’re seeing.” She went on, belabouring the obvious, in saying, “It’s time for this administration to step up its game. It is a generational conflict, and we must lead now more than ever.”
Hearing and reading platitudes like this can make one wonder if there isn’t some kind of Gresham’s law of public rhetoric in which nearly meaningless blather drives out content until one is left with nothing but hissing white noise. But worse has come along as well.
Demanding that any Syrian refugees be denied admittance to the US until they could be thoroughly cross-examined, vetted and subjected to mass lie detector tests in Yankee Stadium (okay, we’re making up that last part) for signs of extremism or worse, most of the country’s Republican state governors have now insisted they would not permit such refugees to be resettled in their states. Until something or another was done.
Most recently, in the New York Times’ report on this on Thursday evening, the paper noted that the House of Representatives had “voted overwhelmingly Thursday to slap stringent — and difficult to implement — new screening procedures on refugees from Syria seeking resettlement, seizing on the fear stemming from the Paris attacks and threatening to cloud President Obama’s Middle East policy. The bill, which passed 289 to 137, with nearly 50 Democrats supporting it, would require that the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence confirm that each applicant from Syria and Iraq poses no threat, a demand the White House called ‘untenable.’ The measure received significant support from Democrats; even after administration officials implored them to abandon the measure on Thursday morning. The Senate is expected to take up the measure after the Thanksgiving recess, but its fate in that chamber is unclear.” The president has, not surprisingly, promised to veto such legislation, if it ultimately comes to his desk, following Senate action.
In the meantime, New Jersey Chris Christie, another one of the GOP presidential hopefuls, chipped in that the country would have to be careful even about admitting orphaned, five-year-old refugees. Christie told a television interviewer, “We can come up with 18 different scenarios [for vetting the refugees]. The fact is that we need appropriate vetting, and I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States at this point.”
In response to such musings, New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, accused Christie of aiming for the “cheap seats” with this kind of red meat, dog whistle statement. De Blasio went on to say, “This is a nation of immigrants, and we are sitting here in the city that has the Statue of Liberty in it, that has been the epitome of welcoming immigrants over generations. I’m certain some of those immigrants were Gov. Christie’s forebears, so I find it absolutely hypocritical for anybody to say let’s shut our borders to people who are victims of violence, the innocent people who are fleeing a humanitarian crisis. That is un-American.”
Meanwhile, adding to all this hysterical chest thumping, Donald Trump, seemingly inevitably, got down and dirty and told Yahoo News, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
Then, asked whether such a level of tracking might even call for registering all Muslims in a special database or issuing some form of special identification (maybe arm bands with a yellow crescent moon comes to mind) that noted their faith, Trump acknowledged he wouldn’t rule it out. As The Donald went on to say, “We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” When presented with such ideas as the special IDs, Trump said, “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.” Sheesh.
Maybe there really is a Gresham’s law of ideas too, in addition to just wild-eyed rhetoric – where increasingly bizarre ideas eventually kill off more rational ones. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before some of the other Republican presidential hopefuls try to trump Trump’s half-baked ideas with something worse – say, for example, tented resettlement camps in the vast empty spaces of the high plains surrounded by barbed wire, or walled off neighbourhoods like Warsaw circa 1940, or perhaps special Syrian refugee “reservations” adjacent to those more established areas already set aside for Native Americans.
Sadly, so far at least, the way western nations and their leaders have been addressing the threats posed by IS has left much to be desired. There has been little spoken that can inspire or offer a sophisticated understanding of why IS’ ideas must be fought against, contained and ultimately eliminated, besides the usual verbal suspects.
There has yet to be a succinct, clarifying, or electrifying explanation of just why Americans (and pretty much everyone else) must stand resolutely against such nihilist terrors – whether they have taken place in Sinjar, in Paris, in Maiduguri, in Nairobi, or high above Sharm el-Sheikh. And, so far at least, rather than the hysteria now coming from so many sets of lips on the campaign trail in America, there seems to be little that comes even close to the clarifying rhetoric that came so easily from Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, from Winston Churchill at the height of the Nazi ascendency in Europe, or from Franklin Roosevelt to lead a nation in the midst of the Great Depression or after Pearl Harbour. It is already overdue. DM
Photo: Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to the crowd while appearing at a campaign rally in Norcross, Georgia, USA, 10 October 2015. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER.