Taking on critics in his own party, Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday defended Middle East dictators as useful allies against Islamic extremists during a speech in Washington. (Dec. 10)
AP

The rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates blasting President Obama’s approach to combating Islamic State terrorism suggests a huge policy divide.

Ted Cruz accuses Obama of “leading from behind” and Donald Trump says he’s “losing the war on terrorism,” part of a verbal lashing they’ve administered to the president since the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.

Yet they’re mostly proposing things the administration is already doing.

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks — and along with the Russians, French and British —  the U.S. has stepped up airstrikes, including of oil fields, and sent in more special operations forces in addition to the roughly 3,500 troops advising and assisting in Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition helping to provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army has grown to 65 member countries, including Arab nations.

Although candidates like Marco Rubio have blasted Obama for not directly arming the Kurds, this has been happening indirectly through ground deliveries and air drops in Kurdish-controlled areas to avoid a diplomatic strain with Turkey.

None of the major candidates is pushing for a major U.S. troop presence along the lines of the  2003 invasion of Iraq, which would be a clear distinction with Obama. Mostly, they’ve offered colorful language about dropping bombs. Cruz said he’d make sand “glow in the dark,” for instance, and Trump vowed to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“The same criticism of President Obama’s strategy with respect to ISIS can be leveled against virtually all of his critics,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy group. “This debate is misleading,” he said.

The biggest difference between the two parties is the approach to immigration challenges at home, with Trump calling for a ban on non-citizen Muslims from entering the country and others supporting an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees — and not the Middle Eastern ground battle that’s so fiercely debated.The candidates are likely to be pressed for more specificity about their approaches at the first debate since the Calif. shootings, which will be Tuesday in Las Vegas.

It’s only been recently that a number of candidates, including Trump and Cruz, who’s openly opposed ground troops, have taken a more aggressive stance about the U.S. role in the region. Hillary Clinton has backed a no-fly zone in Syria, putting her at odds with the president and in step with many Republicans including Jeb Bush. Yet that would necessitate a large number of troops, something they aren’t proposing.

“No Republican candidate has defined what they intend to do, except defeat ISIS in the most generic sense,” said Tony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who consulted the departments of State and Defense during the Afghan and Iraq wars.

“This is almost a campaign of slogans rather than plans or solutions at every level,” said Cordesman, who has also advised Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

Troop presence

The administration is gradually increasing troops on the ground in the region. This includes a special force to assist Kurdish Peshmerga, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a Senate panel Wednesday. Other than South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s called for 20,000 troops split between Syria and Iraq, the candidates aren’t offering specifics. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has also broadly called for “boots on the ground.”

In October, Trump called those advocating for more direct military intervention “fools” who “basically want to start World War III over Syria.” Even the field’s biggest hawks, like Rubio and Bush, say the bulk of ground troops should be Arab fighters, a theoretical 100,000-strong force the administration has struggled to encourage.

“This is a radical Sunni group, they need to be defeated by Sunnis themselves on the ground,” Rubio said in a Dec. 6 appearance on CNN’s State of the Union. On Dec. 7 on MSNBC, Bush said “local forces” must lead the way. Many have deflected the question about ground troops by saying they’d rely on military advisers..

The lack of distinction with the current strategy frustrates Republicans like James Jeffrey, who served as deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

“Nobody wants to say ‘ground forces,’” said Jeffrey. “If we really want to get a real coalition going forward, trying to do this without some Americans on the front lines is ridiculous.”

Neither the White House nor Republicans have realistic expectations, said Preble. “What Sunni Arabs? Do you think you have some magic formula for finding them that the Obama administration hasn’t tried?” he said.

More bombing

Cruz and Trump have used the most aggressive language about the need for more intense bombing, with Cruz recently promising to “carpet bomb them into oblivion.” Yet they’ve offered no specifics about targets or parameters or why their approach would be any more effective.

Carter testified, due to improved intelligence, that the U.S. has intensified air strikes, destroying 400 of ISIL’s oil tanker trucks and killing its leader in Libya.

The overwhelming criticism following Obama’s Dec. 6 Oval Office address to the nation centered on his language.

In a foreign policy address on Thursday, Cruz devoted most of his time to criticizing Obama. He and Trump have slammed the president for not using the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” They’ve also criticized his comments from early 2014 calling ISIS the “JV team.” Prior to Paris, Obama also said ISIS has been geographically contained.

There’s a good reason that the real policy battle right now is over rhetoric, said Cordesman.

“There really aren’t good options” on the ground right now, he said. “Trying to be the defender of the least bad option presents obvious political problems.”

Follow @HeidiPrzybyla on Twitter.

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