from The Water's Edge

Campaign 2016 Friday Foreign Policy Roundup: U.S. Forces on the Ground in Syria

A Kurdish Syrian refugee waits for transport during a sand storm. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
A Kurdish Syrian refugee waits for transport during a sand storm. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

November 6, 2015

A Kurdish Syrian refugee waits for transport during a sand storm. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
A Kurdish Syrian refugee waits for transport during a sand storm. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
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President Obama’s announcement last Friday that he is sending about fifty special operations forces to Syria to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State sparked some foreign policy talk on the campaign trail this week. As with his decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Obama got more nods of approval from Republicans than from Democrats.

Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Marco Rubio all embraced Obama’s decision, but their support was in the “it’s-about-time” vein. Carson explained:

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I think that’s a move in the right direction, because we clearly need to have those special ops in lots of different areas, but certainly in terms of helping to guide what the Air Force is doing. I think it’s a good idea, I actually agree with that.

Carly Fiorina took a similar position, saying that the president’s plan is “a bit too little, too late”:

Look, all of us who know anything about it have known that you cannot have a successful bombing campaign unless you have special operations troops on the ground helping to direct that campaign. President Obama hasn’t been willing to do that for political purposes.

It's also true that he has no strategy in Syria. He has no strategy for ISIS. And it's also true that when the United States of America fails to act, as he has failed to act, our options diminish.

Marco Rubio says ditto:

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Well, it’s an important start to what I think, from a tactical perspective—I think the broader issue is, what is the strategy?

And I think the strategy has to involve more coordination with the Kurds and also with Sunnis, because you're not going to defeat ISIS, a radical Sunni movement, without a robust anti-ISIS Sunni coalition.

So, I do think it's [sic] important tactical step forward. It needs to be backed up with increased airstrikes and so forth. So, I don't have a problem with the tactics of it. And the numbers might even have to be larger at some point. But I think the bigger issue is, can they arrive at a strategy?

Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham were decidedly more critical. Trump was characteristically blunt:

I think we have a president who just doesn’t know what he’s doing. You either do it or you don’t do it. Fifty people. He puts fifty people.

Graham said that Obama’s plan “will not change conditions on the ground”:

President Obama said he will degrade and destroy ISIL. Sending 50 American Special Forces into Syria in the eyes of ISIL shows that Obama is not all in, it is a sign of weakness to ISIL. They have sized Obama up and they think he’s weak.

And to our allies, sending 50 troops means that we're not committed to destroying ISIL. And if we're not committed to destroying ISIL, they will attack us here.

 So this is a failure on all fronts. These 50 American special operators are going to go in into a very bad spot with no chance of winning, and at the end of the day, this will not destroy ISIL. This is an incremental change. It has no chance to succeed.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s official spokesperson said that the former secretary of state “sees merit in the targeted use of special operations personnel to support our partners in the fight against ISIS, including in Syria.” That measured formulation suggests that Clinton isn’t ready to join her Republican rivals in calling for more aggressive U.S. action.

Bernie Sanders didn’t attack the troop deployment but he also didn’t endorse it. His spokesman said that he believed that “the crisis in Syria will be solved diplomatically, not militarily.” When asked specifically by a voter what he thought about Obama’s plan, Sanders shifted quickly from applauding what the president is trying to accomplish to noting that the “nightmare is that we get sucked into a never-ending war in that part of the world.”

Martin O’Malley hit a similar note of caution:

We have to stay involved, but we also have to be very, very cautious because it’s hard to point to an example where putting American boots on the ground gave us the desired result in the last 15 years.

So overall, the two parties are playing to type. Republican presidential candidates favor a more muscular approach to the Syrian crisis, while their Democrats opponents stress the risks of that muscularity. In that split they are mirroring the split among Republican and Democratic voters.

Looking Ahead

The White House announced today that President Obama has denied the request to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline; opponents and supporters have been quick to weigh in with their reactions. Rachel Maddow moderates a Democratic forum tonight at 8 p.m. EST on MSNBC. The choice of the word “forum” is deliberate. Maddow will not be moderating a debate. Instead, she will be conducting individual interviews with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley. Donald Trump is still scheduled to host SNL on Saturday night. (The promos released this week have stirred a lot of discussion.) Republicans regroup for their next debate on Tuesday, November 10, in Milwaukee. The controversy now is over who has made it into the main debate, who got relegated to the warm-up debate, and who didn’t get invited to either debate. The next official Democratic debate will be on the 14th in Des Moines, Iowa. We are 87 days away from the first nominating event, the Iowa caucuses. We have 368 days to go before Election Day. So by Monday, we will have less than a year to go.

In Case You Missed It

The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was released yesterday. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll came out this week; besides the usual horse-race findings the poll suggests that voters remain more focused on domestic policy than on foreign policy. Marco Rubio this week laid out his plan to restore American strength; his website offers up a fact sheet with specifics. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson discusses how to be a serious presidential candidate. The Miami Herald reports Ben Carson was tripped up by questions about Cuba this week. PBS has a useful page dedicated to “What the Candidates Believe.”

Elise Ghattas and Christina Almonte assisted in the preparation of this post.