Welcome Back, My Friends: What to Expect from Tuesday’s GOP Debate

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends!
We’re so glad you could attend,
Come inside! Come inside!

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Karn Evil 9

If it seems like we are in a Bill Murray-esque “Groundhog Day” scenario, it is about to come to a close. On Tuesday night, 13 of the 14 remaining candidates from the Republican Party will meet at the Venetian in Las Vegas, representing the final time in 2015 that the GOP will parade their talent across the stage for the U. S. voter. It is expected that, by the time of the next debate two days after the State of the Union address in January, this field will be whittled down again (since the start of the campaign, three candidates – former Texas Governor Rick Perry, current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – have already tossed in the towel…and thus completes our moment of silence for them).

It is appropriate that Las Vegas is the host of the final GOP debate for 2015 because, for many of the candidates, it is a full-out gamble that they’re taking by staying in the race. The four men who will make up the undercard (or “kiddie table”) debate – current South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former New York Governor George Pataki, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee – were unable to make the criteria for the main CNN debate (to be eligible, a candidate had to poll at least at 3.5% nationally or at 4% in either Iowa or New Hampshire) and probably should have left this contest months ago (another candidate, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, was left off this stage because he doesn’t poll at all in the GOP race, he just hasn’t gotten around to ending his campaign). They do little for the process other than to confuse voters, offer nothing as to “fresh” ideas and simply aren’t viable (on the Democrats side, Martin O’Malley serves this purpose all by himself). There would have to be a tremendous “change of fortune” if any of these longest of “long shots” were to pay off with a residency in the White House.

The nine person GOP All-Star team that will be in the “Main Event” – billionaire businessman  Donald Trump, brain surgeon Ben Carson, current Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio’s Governor John Kasich and current Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – could have probably been cut as well, but we don’t want to have three debates that would provide emergency rooms with more alcohol poisonings than they could handle. With just the top four alone – Trump, Carson, Cruz and Rubio – nearly three-quarters (73.5%) of the GOP has decided who they will back. The other five candidates divvy up 15% of the vote, not enough for any of them to mount a serious charge at the top and probably not enough to swing the top four in any particular direction (the rest are basically undecided, either supporting one of the bottom four or have truly not made a choice). As such, this debate (and maybe they’ll do it by the January debate, but I’m not holding my breath) might be the last time we’ll see this many GOP hopefuls on the center stage.

The run-up to this debate has been intriguing if not necessarily pretty. Paul was a last-minute addition (due to a late Sunday Fox News poll that showed him doing well in Iowa) to get him to the main stage. There was talk that he would be shuttled to the undercard debate, which brought the threat from Paul of either a lawsuit or a resignation from the campaign. Trump has been wavering atop the ladder, with a surprising Cruz passing him in some polling while Trump has extended his lead in others. Finally, there has been the grandstanding that many in the GOP have done as a result of situations in the world and in the United States over the past few weeks.

This debate is being billed by CNN – who will put commentator Wolf Blitzer in as the moderator, with assistance from CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and Salem Radio (co-host of the debate) talk show host Hugh Hewitt – as a comprehensive look at the threat of terrorism and foreign policy. With the attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino over the past few weeks, the actions of ISIS and terrorism in general has come to the forefront as an important issue. This doesn’t bode well for a few of the candidates – Carson, Fiorina, Kasich and Paul in particular – because it isn’t their forte. Some of the other candidates on the stage – Cruz, Rubio, Bush and Christie – have been very consistent with their proposals to counter terrorists’ threats. It is Trump who is the wild card simply because he presents “solutions” that will not even be seriously considered (registering a religion for government surveillance or forcing them into “training camps”, bombing the “shit” out of ISIS regardless of where they are, etc.); the real question is when will Trump grow up and figure out simple civics and government protocol and offer viable ideas.

The tone of the debate on Tuesday night is going to be two-sided. For those at the bottom of the totem pole – Paul, Kasich, Christie (making his return to the main stage after being “sent to the minors” for the last debate) and Fiorina – they are going to have to put out a big bet (in keeping with our Las Vegas theme here) and hope that it hits in their favor. This could be some sort of proposal to combat terrorism, an attack on another candidate showing how their position is wrong, or a particular stance that makes them potentially look like “the adult” in the room rather than a pandering child. Expect the “slings and arrows” for this debate to come out of this bunch because, let’s be honest, they haven’t got anything else to fall back on if they are to be viable in the campaign.

The top five in the GOP – Trump, Cruz, Carson, Rubio and Bush (and he barely gets into this class) – will probably be on their best behavior, especially Trump. After months of acting like your crazy, drunken uncle at the Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering, Trump is now being tracked down by the one candidate who is actively looking to pull away his supporters, Cruz. He has to try to look somewhat “sane” as he tries to parlay the attack of Cruz (who was called by none other than Arizona Senator John McCain a “wacko bird”). Cruz, who has basically burned every bridge he might have been able to use in the GOP to push his candidacy forward, HAD been the “lunatic fringe” of the GOP before Trump came along and now is potentially viewed by some as more “Presidential” than before. Instead of staying this course, Trump is strangely resorting to trying to portray himself as having a better “temperament” for the Presidency (as the rest of the political world does massive spit-takes); whether that strategy pays off has yet to be seen.

These five guys will, for the most part, spar lightly with each other but mostly will look out for the heavy ammunition from the back of the pack. Despite his bombast, Trump isn’t well-versed in foreign policy matters, so he’ll probably sit back and look for someone else to make a mistake (instead of the one Trump did in the last debate when Paul pointed out China – one of Trump’s favorite targets for beating – wasn’t a part of the Asian trade pact recently negotiated). This plan doesn’t bode well for him, however, as it could result in a drop in the polls if he doesn’t display “strength.”

I expect good showings from both Cruz and Rubio on this issue. The two are well-versed from their Senatorial work in potential foreign policy options and could present a viable course of action. Bush might surprise here, if he can separate himself from the Albatross that were his brother’s actions in the Middle East, while Carson suffers from a worse case of the same condition that afflicts Trump – no knowledge of foreign policy (although this would be a good time to demonstrate that he’s been listening to his advisors and show some deep thought on the subject).

What has held true for all the previous debates – and will continue to hold true for this one – is that it won’t have much effect on the current campaign at all and I don’t say that cynically. Trump has been the leader since he stepped into the race this summer and, despite every verbal bombast, insult and slur that he’s thrown, he’s either maintained the lead or expanded it. It isn’t going to be until that late-January debate that there might be a change in the numbers on the board, more so true if there are some candidates who come to their senses and realize they have no shot at the big prize and withdraw from the race. While Las Vegas may be the city where “dreams come true,” it more often than not crushes those dreams into dust; it will be that way for some of these GOP candidates as we head towards the end of 2015.

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What if the Answer to Terrorism is That There Isn’t One?

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Much like the rest of the world, I’ve been riveted to the coverage and aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. The news agencies, in their haste to “be first” with the story, refused to simply say that “the situation is flexible” and that they weren’t fully aware of the ramifications of the attacks at any point. As such, the world saw the death toll mount from a dozen…then 30…then 60…until, on Saturday, the most up to date death toll of 129 was released, along with 352 injured in one manner or another. (There are unconfirmed reports that it has risen to 132 people as of Monday morning.)

The tragedy of such a violent attack on one of the world’s most beautiful cities is at once angering and saddening. That a multicultural center of the world such as Paris could be the focal point of such a racist and theistic attack – if we are to believe that it is the work of ISIS, as reports throughout the weekend suggest – leaves a person to wonder just what may come next. With 9/11, we kind of knew that the perpetrator of that attack, the Osama bin Laden-led Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, had shot everything the organization had into that travesty; with this attack in Paris, however, it was a meticulously run military-style operation that was well-planned and could be transplanted to any major city on the planet. Moscow? London? Tokyo? Rio de Janeiro? Mexico City? Los Angeles? New York again? It would not take much to have a similar style Paris-type attack occur at these or any one of hundreds of major locales in the world.

As the weekend continued, the dichotomy between the thoughts of people was vastly different. My Facebook and Twitter accounts hummed with the drumbeats of war, with the sentiment of “bomb them back to the Stone Age,” while a smaller faction of voices advocated for a peaceful remedy to the situation. This same point/counterpoint was seen on Sunday morning when some of the opinion show’s hosts (such as Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN) suggested not taking any action against ISIS (with the opinion being that, by the world not showing any aftereffect from the terrorist attack, it would force the group from their terroristic actions) while their guests, mostly members of the United States government and former military commanders, sounded the clarion call for the troops to come to the battlefield for another Middle East conflict.

Being the Marine at heart that I once was on active duty, you never want to see war. I don’t know of any military person – from the seaman on a nuclear sub in the Navy to a grunt in the Army trenches to a flyboy in the Air Force dropping his bombs from afar – who actually cheers when his brethren are sent off to a conflict. The U.S. military, if we are to be honest, has been wrongly used arguably since the end of World War II, put in situations where it is supposed to fight but not win and defend without going on offense.

The unfortunate thing is war is probably where we are headed again. France has “declared war” (according to its leaders) against ISIS and enacted bombing runs (approximately 20 over the past few days) against ISIS strongholds in the Middle East. Beyond that, the U. S. and Russia continue to battle “terrorist elements” (the problem being is that the U. S. and Russia don’t exactly view the same people as terrorists) that may include ISIS in Syria and the Iraq government, known for its ability to tuck tail and run in the face of the black flag of ISIS, continues to “fight” the group inside its borders.

Diplomacy is always the correct route to take first but, in the situation with ISIS, what do you diplomatically do? It isn’t as if there is a way to put sanctions on the money that ISIS has and, if there is, no one has done it as of yet. You cannot restrict the travel of the group’s “leaders” (because that is a constantly changing cast of characters) or appeal to a segment of the ISIS community that they should “rise up” and overthrow those in control of the organization. Hell, there isn’t even representation in the United Nations nor an elected figure whom you could have logical negotiations with.

By all estimations, ISIS is one of the biggest terrorist groups in the world but probably one of the smallest military groups. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates the size of ISIS inside Syria and Iraq to be somewhere between 20,000-31,000 people, with other organizations stating it is more along the lines of 100K-200K. Outside of Syria and Iraq, in such areas as Africa and Asia, the count is between 32,600-57,900 jihadists that are considered the “Military of ISIS.” If those numbers were totaled up, ISIS followers and military totals somewhere between 52,600 and 257,900, depending on who you believe. That is slightly more (if we take the high end) than what the country of Saudi Arabia has (249,000) but less than that of Japan (317,913).

Spread out as the organization is, one nation cannot take on the entire responsibility of battling ISIS. It has to be a worldwide coalition of countries using every bit of their resources, including putting men and women at risk of losing their lives or being maimed, on the battlefield (remember, I personally dislike the term “boots on the ground” because it removes the human factor that people might actually die from your actions), through the skies and by locking down the borders where ISIS is supposedly in power. It would take Europe, Russia, the U. S. and the Middle East – countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, who haven’t exactly been stepping up to the plate in this fight – putting aside their personal distrusts if (and that is a mighty big IF) they are to destroy the group.

But here’s a thought… what if the answer, the response to “terrorism,” was to do nothing at all?

By its inherent definition, “terrorism” is the usage of “terror” or frightening people to achieve a political goal. Whether the terrorism is an attack on a military ship (the USS Stark in 1987 and the USS Cole in 2000), on an iconic building, monument or area (9/11, the Paris attacks) or on people who supposedly follow the same faith (ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Beirut on November 12 that killed 43 people, mostly Muslims; it was overshadowed by the Paris attack the next day), the goal is to force changes in lifestyle, actions or political philosophies. There are some differences with ISIS, though, that make it a bit different.

In the past, terrorist organizations would make political or financial demands, such as when the Irish Republican Army or Red Army Faction in Germany would request the release of key leaders of their organizations during the 1970s or a ransom for hostages they held. While ISIS does this too (especially if it is a Western hostage), they are more interested in building a nation of their own, taken from other Muslim countries in the Middle East. Would their power – and their uncanny ability to draw in followers from around the world – be dismantled by simply ignoring their actions?

Israel is an example of what might be done regarding terrorism. While they are one of the most aggressive countries when it comes to protecting their own people (as any nation should be), they don’t dwell on the subject when an attack occurs. The knifing attacks over the past few months, while they did draw attention, quickly went away as Israelis cleaned up from the attacks and continued about their lives as if nothing happened. They have gotten used to the air-raid sirens that will pierce the night or shatter a day’s tranquility. They choose not to let terrorism dictate what they will do with their lives.

I know many would say, “Well, I don’t want to live like that.” Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice anymore. This isn’t the 1970s, where it took days to traverse between continents. Today, a person in Nebraska can be in Baghdad within 24 hours if they so desire. That same holds true for potential terrorists, provided they can penetrate the extreme amount of security that is in place around the world.

Second, there is a fallacy that we can be “perfectly safe.” No matter what restrictions are put on, no matter how many security devices are used, there is nothing that can be made “perfectly safe.” All you can do is make it as safe as humanly possible and, if there is a failure, you reinforce the safeguards and continue on with life’s activities.

Finally, let’s look at the actual opponent. Despite the boogeyman persona that has been laid upon ISIS, nearly the entire world will never cross paths with a member of the group. To battle ISIS, we have to ignore what they do while simultaneously thwart their attempts through diligent security measures that will on occasion fail. By giving them the credence that they are at the proverbial “barbarians at the gates” puts unnecessary fear into the weak and wastes the efforts for those that are vigilant.

Terrorism isn’t a “war” that can be won. In war, you battle over territory until one or the other side is defeated. With terrorism, there is a nine-headed Hydra that can never be extinguished. The best that can be hoped with terrorism is that it is castrated to the point where its actions are miniscule and its impact on people nearly non-existent. If we are able to reach that point with ISIS, then the battle will have been won.