The horrific attacks in Paris changed a lot of things, and one of them is the weight that national security issues will carry in next year’s presidential and congressional races.
With that in mind, I contacted the campaigns of each of the announced candidates in next year’s U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania to see if they’d talk to me about ISIS.
All three Democratic candidates got on the phone, and I was reminded of the challenge of trying to say something smart and original about every complex issue that might confront you in a campaign.
If you have time, for context, I’d suggest watching President Obama’s news conference in Turkey about the ISIS threat. He argues forcefully that he and his national security team have thought a lot about the angles and options on this problem, and that they’re doing what they can do, but it will take time and patience to win.
He said he’s always open to new ideas if they’ll actually make a difference.
“But what we don’t do, what I don’t do,” he said, “is to take actions, either because it is going to work politically, or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough.”
You can see Obama’s exchange with reporters (in which he’s asked why we can’t just “take out these bastards”) here.
Now, here’s what the candidates have to say.
The admiral: Change approach
The first Democrat in the contest, former congressman and former Navy Adm. Joe Sestak said a change in strategy is vital. He said a fundamental problem is that the U.S. has been thinking of ISIS as a terrorist organization, when it’s really more than that..
“It is actually a state, a wannabe very dangerous state, owning wide swaths of territory,” Sestak told me. “If we don’t change, bringing other states together in order to go after the infrastructure that gives it $2 billion in assets, we will have the wrong military and diplomatic approach.”
Specifically, Sestak said, American forces should attack ISIS oil fields and refineries, and its governmental infrastructure, its headquarters, where leaders plan strategy and administer the territory it controls.
I noted that ISIS is embedded among a civilian population, making air attacks problematic.
Sestak said carefully targeted attacks using laser-guided bombs could make a difference. He also said treating ISIS as a state would help the U.S. in building a truly effective alliance against it.
McGinty on encryption
Katie McGinty, the former Pennsylvania environmental secretary, said the attacks show ISIS has a broader reach that we realized, and that a thorough review of its capabilities and how to fight them is in order.
She’s particularly troubled by reports that ISIS operatives’ use of encryption technology may undermine law enforcement efforts to penetrate their operations and thwart future attacks.
“I think the cyber piece of this, the communications piece of this, that enables and supports terror tells us that there is more that we need to do with that,” McGinty said.
Like Sestak, she’s reluctant to consider a major commitment of U.S. ground forces.
Mayor: Stay the course
John Fetterman, the gigantic mayor of tiny Braddock, Pennsylvania, recently entered the race.
He said the attacks are tragic, but don’t necessarily signal the need for a radical change in American policy.
“I think the way the president’s going at it is sound, with targeted attacks, and dismantling ISIS leadership,” Fetterman said. “I don’ t think we should have a collective freak-out and decide to invade another country and spend a trillion dollars and not even address the issue head on.”
Fetterman’s mention of invading another country was a clear reference to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He and Sestak noted that incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey voted to support military action in Iraq when he was in Congress.
Toomey was unavailable for an interview on ISIS.
He released a statement saying, in part, “the civilized people of the world are under siege by radical Islamic barbarians,” and “we must redouble our efforts to win this war on terrorism.”