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GOP candidates respond to terror attacks with frantic machismo

GOP candidates respond to terror attacks with frantic machismo
(David Horsey/LA Times)

National security was the focus of last week's Republican presidential debate, but anyone who paid close attention would not feel especially secure. The thought that one of these faux macho blowhards might be in charge of American foreign policy is far from reassuring.

President Obama gets criticized for his cool demeanor and his distaste for bellicose language, but give me a taciturn Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood type any day over a man who tries to prove how tough he is by loudly bragging about it. The Republicans should remember the advice of one of their greatest presidents,Theodore Roosevelt: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

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Too many of the Republican candidates are simply shrill and frantic. Donald Trump jumps from one lazy idea to another -- let the Russians do the fighting, stop all Muslims from entering the country, shut down the Internet. Ted Cruz gets turned on by the idea of carpet bombing Syrian towns and making the sand glow. Chris Christie puffs himself up and threatens to risk war by shooting down Russian jets flying over Syria should they violate a theoretical no-fly zone. Lindsey Graham shrieks about how Islamic State terrorists will kill every American if we fail to kill them all first.

During the debate, Carly Fiorina tried to prove she can be as tough as the bully boys. She said that, as president, she would "bring back the warrior class" -- specifically, five generals who she said were fired by Mr. Obama when they told him things he did not want to hear. The only thing she actually proved was that she has an inclination to exaggerate the facts. One of the generals she named, David Petraeus, was not fired by Mr. Obama; he was appointed director of the CIA, a job he had to give up in disgrace when it was revealed he had been sharing classified information with his mistress. A second one, Gen. John Keane, retired six years before Mr. Obama took office. A third, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, ran into trouble when he and his staff openly criticized the administration in a Rolling Stone interview.

Mr. Christie flubbed, as well, when he declared that, unlike Mr. Obama, he would stand resolute alongside Jordan's King Hussein. Apparently, no one told him Hussein has been dead for 16 years. Besides their trouble getting facts straight, Ms. Fiorina and Mr. Christie also gave themselves too much credit for being leaders in the war on terror. Who knew Ms. Fiorina in her job as Hewlett-Packard CEO and Mr. Christie as a federal prosecutor in New Jersey were standing on the front lines of that fight? Frankly, they looked desperate to exhibit some muscularity. But so did most of their competitors for the nomination. With the singular exception of Rand Paul, a man with a sober sense of proportion, the Republican candidates were eager to pump up the fear factor and portray the Islamic State brutes as an existential threat to the United States.

As heinous and despicable as the Islamic State may be, it is not an enemy on par with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It controls a few shattered cities, a few oil wells and a lot of sand in Syria and Iraq. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, its army numbers only about 20,000 to 30,000. Its soldiers drive around in pickup trucks, not tanks. It is opposed by every government in the Middle East and by Russia and the Europeans. It is never going to conquer the world or even much more territory than it has already taken.

The Islamic State's most effective tool is the alluring myth it smartly markets on social media to misguided young Muslims looking for adventure and meaning in their lives. That, indeed, is a significant problem, as evidenced by the radicalized couple who committed the recent atrocity in San Bernardino. Nevertheless, Americans still are more likely to die from being hit by lightning than being murdered by Muslim terrorists, whether foreign or homegrown.

No matter how much a Republican candidate may wish to pretend he or she is the second coming of Rambo, defeating the Islamic State and other Islamic extremists is a task that does not lend itself to a quick military solution. This is a fight that requires intelligent action on multiple levels: financial, technological, ideological, diplomatic, as well as a prudent and steady use of military power. One important move was taken at the United Nations on Thursday when theSecurity Council voted to take vigorous steps toward cutting off sources of funding for the Islamic State. The resolution was cosponsored by the U.S. and Russia. Those are the same Russians Chris Christie is anxious to blow out of the sky.

Primary campaigns seem to bring out the worst in Republican candidates. The current show of cartoonish strength is clearly aimed at unsophisticated voters who think every repair job requires nothing more precise than a sledgehammer. The question is, if one of these people gets to the Oval Office, will he or she be able to explain to voters that being a president is not the same as being a gunslinger? And will that new president be able to convince the rest of the world that America has not just elected a reckless amateur?

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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