This memorandum is addressed to the brave souls advising presidential candidates. As you know, the recent terrorist attacks in France — and in Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel — have altered the political landscape. With less than a year to go before the 2016 election, the landscape may stay altered even if there are no more attacks — and that seems unlikely.
I’m going to start with the Democratic candidates, by which I mean Hillary Rodham Clinton. OK, I suppose Bernard Sanders might still be considered a contender, so to his advisers I offer this word of wisdom: French President Francois Hollande, a socialist like your boss, has vowed to fight a “war without pity.” Do you really think it’s a smart idea to position Mr. Sanders to Mr. Hollande’s left?
Moving on to Mrs. Clinton’s advisers: You’re not going to want to hear this, but national security now needs to become her top priority. If she is seen to believe, as does President Obama, that the most serious threat facing the world is climate change, Americans will conclude that electing her means shrinking our carbon footprint while allowing the jihadi footprint to continue to grow. You can try saying that’s a “false choice.” Most voters won’t buy it.
Last week, you had Mrs. Clinton give what you billed as a major speech on fighting the Islamic State (or ISIS). It was rife with boilerplate, contradictions and odd assertions. By no means the most egregious: “Russia and Iran have to face the fact that continuing to prop up a vicious dictator will not bring stability.” Actually, they have to do no such thing. And if you think Russia and Iran are in pursuit of “stability,” you’re not paying close attention.
To those advising Republican candidates: You’ll be tempted to rest on Mr. Obama’s lack of laurels, the failure of his policy to “end wars” rather than win wars, and his bad bet that what happens in the Middle East stays in the Middle East. You’ll remind voters that Mrs. Clinton, having served as his secretary of State, shares responsibility.
That’s not enough. A Republican candidate should be seen as passionately committed to keeping Americans secure in their homeland and safe in their homes. He (or she) should say without equivocation that in a dangerous world, America needs to lead — from the front, not from behind.
Only America can stop terrorism and tyranny from spreading like the plague; only an American president who demonstrates Churchillian resolve and Reaganesque confidence can prevent the demolition of the liberal world order.
To both Democratic and Republican campaign advisers: If we begin with the premise that the tide of war is not receding after all, and that a long war is underway instead, certain conclusions follow. Among them: It is imperative to strengthen — not continue to weaken — America’s military. And those allies willing and able to battle jihadism should receive our unstinting support.
The Islamic State is now on the front pages, but your candidate should understand that the enemy is all those — Sunni and Shia alike — intent on establishing Islamic domination. Recruiting even moderate Sunnis to this cause will not be possible if Washington appears to have forged an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran whose “supreme leader” proudly calls himself a jihadi and global revolutionary.
Along these lines, the next president must end the “politically correct” ban on government officials studying the ideologies and theologies that motivate our enemies. Such study can reveal important vulnerabilities. One example: When jihadi movements are defeated on the battlefield they lose legitimacy. Why? Because they believe victory and defeat are divinely ordained.
All this — and more — will be necessary if America and its allies are to defend themselves. Does it amount to a strategy for the defeat of jihadism? No. Realistically, that can be developed only when we have a new commander in chief, one who orders the military, the intelligence community, the secretaries of State, Treasury, Justice, Energy, Homeland Security and other government agencies to present strategic options for getting that job done.
Paradoxically, the more creative those strategies, the harder they will be to sell to the public. The “surge” implemented by Gen. David Petraeus was derided by most of the Washington establishment — until its success became impossible to deny.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on America, President Franklin D. Roosevelt deployed troops to North Africa. The object was to prevent the Nazis from seizing the Middle Eastern oil they desperately needed for their war machine. But imagine if he had proposed that in a campaign debate: “Does Mr. Roosevelt think we’re at war with the Barbary Pirates? The 1800s called! They want their foreign policy back!”
And immediately following World War II, President Harry S. Truman initiated the Cold War — a long-term strategy to collapse the Soviet empire. Many war-weary Americans opposed him. “Better red than dead,” some said.
A bold candidate today might articulate this hard truth: “Peace on earth” is a lovely Christmas wish, but history demonstrates it’s not mankind’s natural state of being. We live not in a global village but a global jungle — and the law of the jungle operates.
In the recent past, American voters chose presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, who led successful efforts to defeat Nazis (racial supremacists) and communists (class supremacists). Are American voters wise enough — or at least sane enough — to choose as their next president someone capable of figuring out how to the defeat jihadis (religious supremacists)?
I honestly don’t know. I do know this: If your candidate is not such a leader, perhaps, you should find someone else to advise.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.