Governor Scott Walker has spoken about his foreign-policy beliefs to talk radio's Hugh Hewitt, the most indispensable interviewer of GOP presidential hopefuls. But so far his answers give us no clue what his actual geopolitical judgements would be.
Consider this portion of the interview:
I think Americans more than anything want a commander-in-chief of the future who does a couple of things—1) calls out radical Islamic terrorism for what it is, and says we will do whatever it takes to take the fight to them before they bring the fight to us, because unlike the Cold War, when containment was enough, when the Soviet Union and the United States could have leaders like Gorbachev and Reagan talking about containment, that’s not enough. When you have, not only with ISIS and al-Qaeda, but you have an Iran, you have other places around the world groups that that want to not only annihilate Israel, but annihilate us in America, it’s like a virus. You’ve got to eradicate it. You can’t take out just part of it or it will come back.
The wording that Walker chose is amusing.
Americans do seem to want a president who "says we will do whatever it takes" to fight terrorism. But they don't want a president who will actually do "whatever it takes." They're sensible enough to see that certain counter-terror options cost more than they're worth. They're against, say, sending 50,000 troops to Somalia, conducting covert raids inside Chechnya, or suspending the First Amendment.
As president would Walker just talk tough or would he really do "whatever it takes" to fight terrorism? He implies the latter, saying we need to "eradicate" ISIS and al-Qaeda.
But I don't believe him.
If eradicating al-Qaeda required a ground invasion of Pakistan I do not believe he would undertake it. He gives no indication of how he would "eradicate" anti-American or anti-Israel ideology in Iran. What would that require? He has no idea.
Or take ISIS.
Earlier this month, Mike Giglio published an informative article on the IEDs that ISIS is deploying in Iraq on a scale so large that experts call it "staggering" and "unprecedented."
The Iraqi, Iranian, and Kurdish forces trying to oust ISIS from their strongholds are finding their progress slowed by the need to identify and defuse the IEDS, often at great risk. "The Iraqi government has skilled EOD technicians with experience dating back a decade," Giglio reports. "But they say they’re overwhelmed by the scale of IEDs and the chaos of the myriad battlefields. Some government soldiers have attempted to fill the gap with ad hoc training. The militia, meanwhile, appear to rely on some assistance from Iran as well as inexperienced volunteers whose main qualification is a willingness to sacrifice themselves to the bombs."
IEDs would play a crucial role in any battle for Mosul, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have said will begin this year. “These are the world-class leaders in IEDs,” said Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The U.S. was barely able to deal with this. If these forces are seriously considering moving into Mosul, how will they deal with the IED threat?”
Soldiers who push into ISIS territory looking for a fight often find themselves instead facing explosive traps and sniper fire. “There is no confrontation between fighters,” complained a fighter with the Badr Brigades, one of the largest in the coalition of Shiite militias that has taken up arms against ISIS, which preaches an extremist version of Sunni Islam. “It’s not like a normal war.”
That brings me to my question for Governor Walker. If the current anti-ISIS fighters fail, would he favor sending U.S. soldiers to Iraq to move through and defuse the fields of explosive traps, amid sniper fire, and then eradicate the terrorists? Would doing "whatever it takes" include ordering an offensive that kills hundreds of Americans and costs hundreds more arms, legs and traumatic brain injuries? What if eradicating al-Qaeda and ISIS requires a multi-trillion-dollar increase in either taxes or the deficit? I have no idea what Walker would do in that case.
Walker is hardly alone in failing to have a clear position beyond what Kevin Drum would call "hazy bellicosity." Back in February, Drum put forth this challenge:
The ISIS stronghold of Mosul ... is about five times the size of Fallujah, and probably has about three-to-five times as many ISIS defenders as Fallujah had Sunni insurgents back in 2004. And Fallujah was a huge battle. It took more than a year to retake the city; required something like 15,000 coalition troops in all; and resulted in more than a hundred coalition deaths. At a first guess, a full-scale assault on Mosul would likely require at least two-to-three times as many troops and result in several hundred American deaths. And Mosul is only a fraction of the territory ISIS controls. It's a big fraction, but still a fraction. So this is what I want to hear from Republican critics of Obama's ISIS strategy.
I agree with them that training Iraqi troops and relying on them to fight ISIS isn't all that promising. But the alternative is likely to be something like 30-50,000 troops committed to a battle that will result in hundreds of American casualties. Are Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz willing to own up to that? If they are, then good for them and we'll let the American public decide who's got the better strategy. But if they're not, then it's all just a con job for the rubes.
Drum is correct that GOP candidates "are screaming for 'more,' but not willing to acknowledge what 'more' really means." Perhaps Hewitt could start asking them to clarify. Meanwhile, prospective voters evaluating Walker should take notice that when he starts talking about "what Americans want," he generally strays into fantasy. With respect to counterterrorism, the fantasy is that if only America had a leader who summoned the will the U.S. could "eradicate" Islamist terrorism.
Later in the interview, the "what Americans want" formulation comes up again. Walker notes the recall effort against him. "We didn’t back down," he said. "We won without caving not just when it came to the ballot box. We won without caving when it came to policy. And I think that’s when Americans want, whether it’s taking on radical Islamic terrorism, or whether it’s taking on the size and scope of the federal government, or whether it’s pushing to put the power back in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers. They want someone who’s going to fight and win every single day."
Got it, Republicans?
If you want a candidate who will tell you that he'll do whatever it takes to defeat terrorism, and who will tell you that he's going to fight and win every day, vote Scott Walker.
He'll tell you those things!
But if you want a leader who will actually do "whatever it takes" to eradicate terrorism and actually win "every day," you're out of luck. No one will fulfill those promises.