The recent terrorist attacks abroad and at home have suddenly dominated the 2016 Republican presidential race, putting most of the contestants on a collision course with President Barack Obama. While all concerned vow the objective of "destroying" the Islamic State, the president and the GOP candidates differ fundamentally on approach and timetable.
The Republicans want it done quickly and with overwhelming military force. Mr. Obama, wary of being drawn into another bottomless pit in the Middle East, favors a measured and deliberative undertaking that will require more patience and collaboration with like-minded allies in the region and the West.
In last week's Republican debate in Las Vegas, the GOP candidates put their more muscular military ideas on display in an aggressive chorus demanding essentially a repeat version of former President George W. Bush's "shock and awe" obliteration of the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. Its swift military success led to the dictator's capture and ouster, but it left a devastated and leaderless country requiring occupation and subsequent propping up by the U.S conquerors.
Mr. Obama subsequently came into the presidency vowing to end that war and the one in Afghanistan, and his efforts brought him, prematurely, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Since then, he has continued his commitment to his 2008 campaign pledge despite the new complications surfacing on his watch, arguably outgrowths of Mr. Bush's Iraq misadventure.
The concept of "regime change" that drove that invasion was injected indirectly in last week's Republican debate by the isolationist Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who argued that the subject was "the biggest debate we should have been having tonight."
Mr. Paul said that in pursuit of regime change in Syria — getting rid of President Bashar Assad — a vacuum was created into which the Islamic State was able to move and establish itself. "It is a crazy notion," he said, asking: "Is regime change a good idea? Has it been a good idea?"
In arming the Islamic rebels against Mr. Assad, Mr. Paul said, "we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow." He added that "when we toppled (Moammar) Gadhafi in Libya, I think that was a mistake, and we were more at risk." But the debate the Kentucky senator wanted on regime change got no further that night.
Mr. Obama obviously is unwilling to respond to the urgings from most of the other GOP presidential candidates to go down the shock-and awe road again. Instead, he is clinging to encouraging and aiding Arab forces in the region to fight the Islamic State with their own manpower. He promises to arm, train and provide logistics and leadership through limited numbers of American special operations advisers.
But in terms of domestic politics in the midst of an intensifying 2016 campaign, both Mr. Obama and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton can expect Republican demands for more muscle and urgency in the fight against the new terrorist threat.
Without responsibility for carrying the American battle against the terrorist forces in their Middle East sanctuaries and strongholds, leading Republican contenders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are already relying on their combustible rhetoric to harass Mr. Obama as a weak and feckless commander-in-chief.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, seeks to put some foreign-policy distance between herself and the cautious president of her own party. But she cannot risk seeming too out of step with him as he charts a course against the Islamic State that also permits him to pursue his other objectives in his final year in the Oval Office.
Such is the political play between the Democrats in power and their Republican opposition vigorously challenging Mr. Obama's wisdom and backbone to engage and defeat a new ruthless and barbaric military foe. A presidential campaign that began over milder partisan domestic differences now unavoidably is being waged on the question of which party has the toughness to win, or just talks tougher. The circumstance requires a sober and wise electorate, with no certainty it will be so this time around.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.