Just two days after the deadly attacks in Paris, French fighter jets yesterday targeted a Syrian ISIS stronghold, Raqqa, as part of a sizable French military offensive. The French Defense Ministry confirmed in a statement that the raid "included at least 10 fighter jets and was launched simultaneously from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan," and included 20 bombs.
The statement added, “The first target destroyed was used by Isis as a commanding post. A jihad recruitment center. And a depot for arms and munitions. The second target housed a terrorist training camp."
The news was cheered by many, though Erick Erickson, a prominent voice in Republican media, responded with a message that was fairly common on the American right.
"Dear President Obama, today France is leading from the front to contain what you couldn’t contain leading from behind."
This is nonsensical for a variety of reasons -- we talked earlier about the foolishness of the "contain" talking point -- though I'll concede it's interesting to see far-right Republicans celebrating the French while taking cheap shots at the United States on matters of national security.
But what's especially noteworthy about this are the details many on the right choose to ignore. National Journal's Josh Kraushaar insisted this morning, for example, that the president has a "deep seated aversion to using military force," adding, "If not after Paris, when?"
What's puzzling about this is the degree to which the criticisms ignore current events. According to statistics from the Pentagon, since President Obama launched a military offensive against ISIS targets 15 months ago -- his "deep seated aversion to using military force" notwithstanding -- the United States military has carried out 6,353 airstrikes. Every other country on the planet combined has carried out 1,772.
Or put another way, for every one anti-ISIS airstrike launched by all of our coalition partners from around the globe, American forces have launched four anti-ISIS airstrikes of our own.
If we narrow the focus to Syria specifically, as of late last week, France had carried out four airstrikes. The United States, acting on orders from President Obama, had carried out 2,658.
Ted Cruz appeared on Fox News over the weekend, where he shared this insight: “I recognize that Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country. He may have been tired of war, but our enemies are not tired of killing us."
Look, if the far-right senator wants to argue that President Obama, despite his record of success, is bad at defending this country, fine. It's a topic worth debating. If Cruz wants to argue that Obama has been successful thus far in defending the country, but his plans for the future lack merit, that too can be the basis for an interesting conversation.
But that's not what the Texan said. Rather, he told a national television audience that the president "does not wish to defend this country." It's about intent and motivation. In Cruz's mind, Obama isn't bad at national defense; Obama doesn't even care.
It's hard not to wonder how Cruz explains the last seven years. President Obama has had striking successes on national security, preventing terrorist attacks, killing all kinds of terrorist leaders, and helping dismantle terrorist networks. Last year in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, hardly a liberal, wrote, “Obama has become the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency.”
In Cruz's mind, was the last seven years just a charade? Does Obama keep racking up counter-terrorism victories for show, hoping to obscure the fact that he "does not wish to defend this country"?
During Saturday night's debate for the Democratic presidential candidates, CBS News' John Dickerson posed the one question Republicans often consider the single most important aspect of U.S. national security.
"Secretary Clinton, you mentioned 'radical jihadists,'" the moderator noted. "Marco Rubio, also running for president, said that this attack showed and the attack in Paris showed that we are at war with 'radical Islam.' Do you agree with that characterization, 'radical Islam'?"
Clinton explained that we're "at war with violent extremism," not a major world religion. When Dickerson posed the question to Clinton rivals, Bernie Sanders explained, "I don't think the term is what's important."
For Republicans, however, the issue of word choice is extraordinarily important. During the debate and on each of the Sunday shows, conservatives were practically hysterical in their preoccupation with semantics.
Here's the aforementioned Marco Rubio talking yesterday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos
STEPHANOPOULOS: You saw Secretary Clinton there did not want to use the words “radical Islam,” your response?
RUBIO: I think that’s – I don’t understand it. That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves. We are at war with radical Islam, with an interpretation of Islam by a significant number of people around the world, who they believe now justifies them in killing those who don’t agree with their ideology. This is a clash of civilizations....
First, I have no idea why Rubio would believe a Nazi comparison makes sense in this context. In World War II, the allied powers fought Nazis -- a specific enemy. The senator's frequent confusion about the basics of foreign affairs is alarming, but even Rubio should be able to understand that in 1941, the United States did not go to war against "radicalized Europeans."
The same is true now, whether the Florida lawmaker understands this or not. We're targeting ISIS, not extremist members of a religion with 1.2 billion people, just as we fought Nazis, not European extremists. It's really not that complicated; one need not be a foreign-policy wonk to appreciate the details.
Second, what's especially disappointing with the preoccupation with faith-specific word choice is how tiresome the right's misguided priorities are.
A variety of Republican voices were looking for a reason to lash out at President Obama over the Paris attacks, and it didn't take long for them to settle on a specific line of criticism.
The White House has been forced onto the defense over President Obama’s claim that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been “contained” -- a statement that came one day before the group carried out the deadliest massacre in France in a generation.
At least at first blush, it's a straightforward pitch: on Thursday, the president said ISIS is "contained," and then on Friday, much of the world was horrified by the attacks in Paris, which ISIS has claimed credit for. Ergo, it's a "gaffe."
But the right's new talking point also happens to be wrong. The quote in question came when ABC's George Stephanopoulos sat down with the president, and the host suggested ISIS is "gaining strength." Obama pushed back against the assumption.
"Well, no, I don't think they're gaining strength," the president said. "What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria, they'll come in, they'll leave. But you don't see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain."
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, added yesterday that the president "was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. A year ago, we saw them on the march in both Iraq and Syria, taking more and more population centers. The fact is we have been able to stop that geographic advance and take back significant amounts of territory in both Northern Iraq and Northern Syria."
The problem for Republicans is that the explanation happens to be true.
About 10 months ago, after terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, killing 11 people, congressional Republicans quickly began looking for ways to blame American leadership for the violence. It was reflexive; it was immediate; and it was ugly. The GOP reactions were practically a case study in how U.S. officials shouldn't respond to an attack.
Friday night's terrorism in Paris was, by every metric, deadlier and more devastating, offering Americans an opportunity to speak with one voice while extending support to the nation's oldest ally.
It was an opportunity many leading Republicans chose not to take. The New York Timesreported over the weekend:
Visions of two Americas emerged from the 2016 presidential field on Saturday, at the Democratic debate and at Republican campaign events, as the candidates sought to project leadership after the Paris attacks and maneuver for political advantage in a rare moment when national security held voters’ attention.
A dark portrait of a vulnerable homeland -- impotent against Islamic State militants, susceptible against undocumented refugees and isolated in a world of fraying alliances -- came into sharp relief as several Republicans seized on the crisis to try to elevate terrorism into a defining issue in the 2016 election.
It's an odd strategic choice, given that the Republican field is dominated by candidates with no meaningful experience in or understanding of foreign affairs, and nearly all of whom continue to think the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a great idea.
And yet, it was quite a weekend for GOP chest-thumping. Ted Cruz issued a statement suggesting U.S. military strikes against ISIS targets should be less concerned about "civilian casualties." John McCain said the rise of ISIS, an outgrowth of the disastrous war McCain celebrated, should be blamed on President Obama's foreign policy.
My personal favorite was Mike Huckabee's call for the cancellation of the international nuclear agreement with Iran, which is hilariously wrong on all sorts of levels. (Huckabee should probably have someone on his staff who can explain to him that Iran and ISIS are bitter enemies.)
Rachel Maddow reports on the race for governor in Louisiana in which Democratic candidate John Bel Edwards is leading Republican David Vitter by double digits and is also out-fundraising him 10 to 1. watch
First up from the God Machine this week are some remarks from a leading Republican presidential candidate about the necessary religio-political qualifications for the White House.
Ben Carson, you'll recall, caused a controversy a couple of months ago when he argued that Muslim Americans, regardless of any other consideration, should be disqualified from the presidency because of their faith. This week, Ted Cruz approached a similar line, but in reference to a very different minority.
Right Wing Watch reported on the senator's appearance at right-wing pastor Kevin Swanson's "National Religious Liberties Conference" in Iowa, where he reflected on a presidential religious test.
Swanson introduced Cruz by stating that Jesus Christ "is king of the President of the United States whether he will admit it or not and that president should submit to His rule and to His law" before asking Cruz to share his opinion on how important it is for "the President of the United States to fear God."
Cruz, predictably, asserted that fear of God is absolutely vital, declaring that "any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation."
To be sure, Swanson's Iowa event was scandalous for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the pastor's argument that Scripture demands the death penalty for homosexuality.
But it was nevertheless unusual to hear another GOP presidential candidate make the case that an entire group of Americans should be considered "unfit" for national leadership.
It's probably worth noting there are plenty of faith traditions that don't require kneeling as part of worship, though I don't imagine Cruz was being literal. It's more likely the senator was referring to theists vs. atheists -- with the latter being dismissed as unworthy of the Oval Office.
Mother Jones' Kevin Drum added, "[T]he press threw a fit when Ben Carson suggested that Muslims weren't fit to be president. Will they throw a similar fit now that Cruz has suggested atheists are unfit to be president?"
My friend Rob Boston, meanwhile, highlighted the beliefs of many of the nation's Founding Fathers, many of whom would likely be excluded from the presidency under Cruz's test.
MSNBC's Richard Lui joins Alex Witt from Paris to describe the latest in Friday's attacks and the security measures being taken at Charles De Gaulle airport. Lui also talks with two individuals who were near the Bataclan venue at the time of the attacks. watch
Rachel Maddow relays a report from the Paris prosecutor with an update on the numbers of people killed at six individual locations in Paris, with the caveat that details are still developing and there are many injured. watch
Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, talks with Rachel Maddow about the context of the deadly attacks in Paris in the context of the competing interests of Islamic extremist terror organizations and rogue operatives. watch
Laura Haim, White House correspondent for Canal Plus, talks with Rachel Maddow about how the roaming nature of the attacks, some based from cars, created multiple scenes of killing, and make it difficult for authorities to say with specificity a distinct number of attacks. watch
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