Ted Cruz never says anything good just once — when he finds a line or a joke that gets applause, he repeats it over and over. And one of his big crowd-pleasers at the moment is this little ditty about the Islamic State: "We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out!"
In front of audiences that want to know who's going to be most ruthless in fighting those terrible terrorists that are terrifying us, it never fails. And it reflects prevailing Republican sentiment, which says that ISIS hasn't been defeated only because Barack Obama is weak, and with the application of enough force, this problem can be solved.
Just last week, I praised Cruz for being nearly alone among the Republican candidates (Rand Paul joins him in this) in realizing the pitfalls of nation-building. He has said repeatedly that it's a bad idea for us to go in and occupy a place like Syria in the hopes that we can create a thriving and peaceful democracy there, and that if we were to depose Bashar al-Assad, the vacuum created by his departure would likely be filled by a theocratic regime. But Cruz's apparent willingness to entertain the idea of unintended consequences obviously has its limits.
Does Cruz actually want to drop nuclear weapons on places where ISIS is operating? That's what's implied by the bit about sand glowing in the dark, but he'd never cop to that. How about carpet-bombing? After all, part of the difficulty with fighting ISIS from the air is that they control cities full of civilians. The American military doesn't lack for ordnance; we could level those cities if we wanted. But doing so would mean thousands and thousands of civilian casualties, killing the very people we'd be claiming to want to save. That's not only morally abhorrent, it would be extremely likely to produce the kind of hatred towards America that helped Al Qaeda thrive, helped ISIS replace Al Qaeda, and would help the next terrorist group take ISIS's place.
In an interview Wednesday with NPR, Cruz got asked about this problem, and put his finely honed evasion skills to work. Asked by host Steve Inskeep whether he wanted to "flatten" cities where ISIS is located, Cruz said, "I think we need to use every military tool at our disposal to defeat ISIS." Inskeep pressed him: "You can flatten a city. Do you want to do that?" Cruz responded, "The problem with what President Obama is doing" is that he's too soft, noting that in World War II we didn't worry about the welfare of the German people, we just fought. "FDR carpet-bombed cities," Inskeep noted. "Is that what you want to do?" Cruz answered, "I want to carpet-bomb ISIS."
Now perhaps President Cruz's powers of persuasion would be so extraordinary that he could convince ISIS to leave the cities it controls, where its members sit amongst the innocent civilians it's oppressing, and march out to the desert so we could more efficiently carpet-bomb them. But I doubt it.
Of course, Cruz is hardly the only presidential candidate offering absurdly simplistic ideas about how to solve this problem. But one might think that the destruction we could wreak upon civilian populations in the Middle East would be a matter of particular concern given our recent history. Estimates of the civilian casualties in the Iraq War range somewhere between 165,000 and 500,000, but conservatives seem convinced that all that suffering and death had nothing to do with the rise of ISIS, and repeating it would be regrettable but not produce any blowback. It appears to be gospel on the right that the people in countries we've invaded or bombed are so understanding and forgiving that none of that matters to them; those who become radicalized only "hate us for our freedoms." Which doesn't explain why ISIS doesn't hate Japan or Costa Rica or Switzerland just as much, since in those countries they also have freedoms.
Perhaps we have trouble understanding what it's like to have a foreign army bombing or occupying your country because it's been so long. We haven't had such an army on our soil since the War of 1812, and though we were attacked at Pearl Harbor and then 60 years later on 9/11, those were events confined to a single day. So we can't seem to grasp the kind of resentment and even hatred that an extended military campaign can foster, no matter how noble the ideals of the country that sent the army carrying it out. When the Bush administration assumed we'd be "greeted as liberators" in Iraq (as Dick Cheney put it), they simply couldn't contemplate that Iraqis might not be excited to see us rain down bombs, destroy their infrastructure, and then occupy their country, even if they didn't like the dictator they were living under.
Grasping that requires empathy and a little imagination, neither of which is in good supply in the GOP these days, let alone among its presidential candidates. It's the luxury of running for office that you can make all problems sound simple, pretend that you can carpet-bomb a city and kill only the bad guys and not the people living there, and act as though strength and resolve are all you need to solve problems. The scary thing to contemplate is that someone like Ted Cruz might actually believe his campaign rhetoric, and put it into action if he became president.