'Two Americas' emerge over division of views on terror

Democratic presidential candidates (from left) Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley spoke of a resilient America at the Democratic debate in Des Moines last weekend.
Democratic presidential candidates (from left) Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley spoke of a resilient America at the Democratic debate in Des Moines last weekend.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Visions of two Americas emerged from the 2016 presidential field over the weekend, at the Democratic debate and at Republican campaign events, as the candidates sought to project leadership after the Paris attacks and manoeuvre for political advantage in a rare moment when national security held voters' attention.

A dark portrait of a vulnerable homeland - impotent against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), susceptible against undocumented refugees and isolated in a world of fraying alliances - came into sharp relief, as several Republicans seized on the crisis to try to elevate terrorism into a defining issue in the 2016 election.

Republicans Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called on the Obama administration to halt plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, warning that ISIS would leverage on the Paris attacks to add recruits and raise money, said the United States needed to move immediately to assemble a stronger coalition to fight the militants.

Former governor of Florida Jeb Bush urged Americans to transform their "mindset" and recognise that "an organised effort to destroy Western civilization" is under way.

The Republicans also broadly agreed that the Paris attacks should be the catalyst for a new military strategy against ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris carnage on Friday. "This will be coming to America," Mr Cruz warned grimly. "ISIS plans to bring these acts of terror to America."

The Democrats, speaking to a national television audience during their debate in Des Moines, described a far more resilient America - determined to fight terrorism with other countries, dedicated to moral responsibilities like taking in refugees, and devoted to diplomacy.

But the three candidates quickly parted ways on matters of judgment, as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont sought to tie the rise of ISIS to Mrs Hillary Clinton's vote as a senator to authorise the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 - an issue that helped doom her previous presidential candidacy in 2008.

"I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq - something that I strongly opposed - has unravelled the region completely and led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and to ISIS," said Mr Sanders. "I think that was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of the United States."

Mrs Clinton, rather than engage Mr Sanders, tried to stay focused on her vision for America by emphasising diplomacy and drawing contrasts with some of the bellicose rhetoric from Republicans about defeating ISIS.

"I think what the President has consistently said - which I agree with - is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS," Mrs Clinton said, citing US military support for Kurdish, Iraqi and Arab forces.

"But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential."

As Mr Sanders repeatedly put her on the defensive, several Republicans also used security concerns to gain an edge in a presidential nomination fight that remains wide open, and has been relatively lacking in national security debates so far.

Mr Cruz, Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor John Kasich of Ohio went to great lengths to describe elements of their counter-terrorism plans in hopes that voters, alarmed and shaken by the terrorist attacks, would prefer experienced leaders at a time of crisis to government outsiders like Mr Carson and Mr Trump, who are leading in most public opinion polls.

The toughest language came from Mr Cruz, who is widely viewed as rising in the Republican field after a pair of well-received debate performances.

He argued, for instance, that the US must be willing to accept civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat ISIS through intensified air strikes.

He said: "It will not be deterred by targeted air strikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties, when the terrorists have such utter disregard for innocent life."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline ''Two Americas' emerge over division of views on terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe