Republican presidential candidates in the United States have seized on a mass shooting in San Bernardino earlier this month to ramp up their war rhetoric.
Carried out by a self-radicalized Muslim couple who were apparently inspired by the Islamic State militant group in the Middle East, the murder of fourteen people in southern California is a vindication for Republicans who have long accused President Barack Obama, the Democrat they hope to succeed, of wavering in the fight against radical Islam.
Mistrust all Muslims
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whose brother launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as president in the last decade, urged Americans on Sunday to wake up and recognize that a “war against Western civilization” is being waged.
Donald Trump, the property tycoon who is besting Bush in the polls, blamed political correctness, incredulously claiming that the San Bernardino shooters could have been stopped if only Americans hadn’t felt inhibited from reporting a Muslim couple.
The businessman earlier proposed keeping track of all Muslims in the country. He told CBS News on Sunday, “If you have people coming out of mosques with hatred and with death in their eyes and on their minds, we’re going to have to do something.”
What, he left unsaid.
Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, and Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, both called for tighter surveillance to interdict terror plots. “We did that after 9/11 and prevented attacks in New Jersey and all across the country,” Christie said, referring to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Earlier in the day, Ted Cruz proposed to carpet bomb the Islamic State into oblivion, saying, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
That there are still millions of Iraqi and Syrian civilians living in the areas the militants claim to control apparently didn’t bother the Texas senator.
Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state who is expected to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, cautioned against his talk, pointing out in an interview with ABC News that Cruz has “never had any responsibility for trying to figure out who the bad guys are and who innocent civilians are.”
Reach for your guns
Whereas Clinton and Obama reiterated their support for stricter gun laws in the wake of the California shootings (the couple obtained their guns legally), Cruz proposed the opposite.
“You don’t stop the bad guys by taking away our guns,” he said. “You stop the bad guys by using our guns.”
The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to own weapons, is more crucial than ever, Cruz added, because it was designed as a “check on government tyranny.”
Mimicking Trump, Cruz left unsaid where the threat of “tyranny” is coming from.
Politics of fear
Such politics of fear may work on the conservative activists who turn out to vote in presidential primaries. Hence, it is good politics — but only in the short term.
The American electorate at large is in no mood for it.
When Islamists killed more than 130 people in a series of shootings and suicide bombings in Paris last month, this website argued that Republicans were mistaken if they thought it had changed the political reality in the United States.
“The kneejerk interventionism of most Republicans, and their unwillingness to take multilateralism seriously, is just not something most Americans agree with anymore,” we wrote after presidential candidates including Bush and Rubio had called for tougher action against the Islamic State.
The group has claimed responsibility for the attacks in France.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has found that more Americans now believe Islamic extremism is a threat to their country than at any point since 2001.
Yet only 38 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of self-declared independents want America to play a “dominant” role in the world. By far most would rather share the burden, which is the Obama policy.
The Pew Research Center, for its part, has found that only 38 percent of Americans trust Republicans to run foreign policy better against 41 percent who want a Democrat in charge.
Neither the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting nor the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — the two deadliest Islamic terrorist attacks on American soil since Obama took office — have made Americans more eager for another war in the Middle East.
If they keep rattling their sabers after what happened in San Bernardino, Republicans could easily overreach and find themselves punished at the polls.
Learn from the past
It wouldn’t be the first time.
After September 11, a Republican administration not only routed the terrorists responsible in Afghanistan; it set out to build a nation there and invaded and occupied Iraq to boot: a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. Americans eventually realized they had gone too far and elected the antiwar Barack Obama in 2008.
What is unusual this time around is the divisive rhetoric, from Trump’s outright bigotry to his and Cruz’ suggestions that a liberal elite is failing to protect the nation for fear of upsetting anyone’s sensitivities and that good, everyday Americans better arm up in anticipation of what’s to come. That is loose talk.
George W. Bush went out of his way to emphasize that America was not at war with Islam. His heirs criticize Hillary Clinton for saying the same thing.
There isn’t much from his eight years in power that today’s Republicans should replicate, but Bush got one thing right: The way to prevent radicalization at home is not to make every American Muslim feel they are the enemy.