By Barbara Slavin
The horrific attacks in Paris and elsewhere in the world this month are giving new energy to the campaign of New Jersey governor Chris Christie for the Republican presidential nomination.
In campaign appearances in New Hampshire – site of the first primary vote next year – and on Tuesday before the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, Christie harshly criticized President Barack Obama for what Christie asserted was a lack of leadership against terrorism.
“The president has lost his focus in an attempt to justify a failed policy” toward the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), Christie said. “The president should just admit he underestimated these folks” and their ability to wreak havoc on the civilized world.
The New Jersey governor has a point when it comes to Obama’s assertion – just before the murderous IS rampage in Paris on Nov. 13 – that IS had been “contained” in Iraq and Syria. Obama has also referred in the past to IS as the “junior varsity” of terrorist groups.
On terrorism as on other issues, Obama often sounds aloof and dismissive of those with whom he disagrees. But when pressed to provide an alternative strategy, Christie had little to offer Tuesday beyond a vague promise to set up a no fly zone in Syria, to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to refer to IS attacks and to halt the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States.
Christie echoed Obama’s insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must eventually leave office to reach a political solution to that country’s four-year civil war. Asked by this reporter whether a viable opposition to Assad currently exists, however, Christie conceded, “I don’t think there is a coherent opposition at the moment… I don’t have an answer to who is the group you’d put in charge in Syria.”
Christie also seemed unsure of how the U.S. should handle Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose air force has been bombing primarily non-IS targets in Syria. Turkey on Tuesday shot down one of those planes after it briefly strayed into Turkish airspace, creating yet another obstacle to forming a broad anti-IS coalition.
“I think we could get there eventually [to an alliance with Putin],” Christie said, “but he’d have to understand the limits of our patience.”
Pressed as to whether the U.S. – which already has several thousand troops in Iraq and has authorized sending up to 50 special forces to Syria – should deploy more personnel, Christie punted. “This has to be done really carefully with our Arab allies,” he said.
When reminded that those allies have expended more effort lately bombing Yemen than hitting IS, Christie said the reason is because “they don’t know what American policy is.”
The New Jersey governor is articulate and has considerable dramatic flair as a speaker. His contention that he is best qualified to be president among a crowded field of Republican contenders is based on his executive role in New Jersey, his record as a federal prosecutor after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and his personal experience living through the trauma of that day and its aftermath.
Christie movingly described how for 5 ½ hours he said he did not know if his wife – who worked in lower Manhattan at the time – had survived. She did, but many friends and acquaintances from the New Jersey suburbs did not and for their relatives, the “pain is no less today than it was 14 years ago,” Christie said.
Compared to Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom has held elected office, Christie has obvious strengths. But like another sitting governor – John Kasich of Ohio – and a former governor — Jeb Bush of Florida – the New Jersey politician sits behind Trump and Carson and two freshman senators — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — in the polls. Christie took an oblique swipe at Rubio and Cruz on Tuesday by noting that serving less than one term in the Senate — as Obama had when he became president — is not the sort of experience needed to lead “a dark and dangerous world.”
Christie began his remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations by invoking Ronald Reagan, the icon of all GOP hopefuls, and comparing the current national mood to that of 1980, when Iran held U.S. hostages and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Reagan, he asserted, had provided strong leadership that transformed what had been a “depressed and fearful nation.”
But the New Jersey governor omitted mention of Reagan’s foreign policy debacles – such as sending U.S. Marines to Beirut in the midst of an Israeli invasion. A terrorist bombing killed 241 U.S. servicemen in 1983 and Reagan withdrew rapidly from Lebanon and never punished those responsible for the attack.
Meanwhile, U.S. support for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s helped bring about the dissolution of the Soviet Union but inadvertently created the foundation for al-Qaeda, whose progeny are terrorizing much of the Muslim world and Europe today.
The son of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, Christie is less categorical than some of his rivals when it comes to immigration. “I’m not a 2,000-mile wall guy,” Christie said Tuesday, referring to Trump’s campaign pledge to wall off Mexico from the United States.
Christie said he would better enforce current rules and tighten efforts to track those who overstay their visas rather than attempt a Trump-like roundup of 11 million people estimated to be in the U.S. illegally.
The New Jersey governor said he based his demand that the U.S. halt admission of Syrian refugees on comments by FBI director James Comey that he could not guarantee that no would-be terrorists slip into the United States along with genuine asylum seekers.
However, the vetting process for refugees is already rigorous and lengthy and there is no indication that any of the 2,000 Syrians who have come to the U.S. since 2011 have committed violent acts. Historically, unhinged white males who are U.S. citizens have been responsible for most of the mass shootings in this country.
Still, fear can be a powerful motivator and the Paris attacks have returned national security to the forefront of a presidential campaign that previously focused on income inequality and taxes. On the Democratic side, this shift is helping to solidify the lead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over two rivals with limited foreign policy experience.
But absent a major attack in the United States, it is not clear whether tougher talk about terrorism will be a winning approach in 2016. A successful candidate must inspire voters with a positive vision of the future that can appeal to an ever-more diverse American electorate.