In South Carolina, Voters Want Total War on ISIS

Republican voters wonder why Washington isn't sending in the troops yet.

Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi security forces patrol on a road as smoke billows from the Khubbaz oil field, some 25 km west of the northern city of Kirkuk, on February 2, 2015, a fews days after Peshmerga forces and police retook the area from Islamic State (IS) group.

Photographer: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images)

HARDEEVILLE, S.C. – After the Beaufort County Republicans finished their bureaucratic business, after Representative Mark Sanford gave a 10-minute update on the doings in Washington, it was time for questions. It took roughly 10 seconds for a voter to ask Sanford how he’d vote on an authorization of military force against the Islamic State.

 “I think my position is the same one shared by y’all,” said Sanford. “The Constitution is crystal clear; only Congress can declare war. And I think the founders made that call for a reason. At the end of the day, body bags don’t flow back to Washington, DC. They flow back to congressional districts and states across this country.”

Sanford talked through his own thinking on the AUMF, and how its combination of limits on military action (no “enduring” forces on the ground) and entanglements made him inclined to oppose it. "It’s almost like Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, the way he’s gonna pick war targets," said Sanford. "It’s a really convoluted declaration. In general, I believe in Congress being the one that declares. I would vote against declaration of war in that instance. The Middle East is messy. We’ve gone over there before, and there are a lot of unintended consequences."

U.S. Representative Mark Sanford addresses a town hall meeting in South Carolina.

U.S. Representative Mark Sanford addresses a town hall meeting in South Carolina.

Photographer: David Weigel/Bloomberg

That answer set off Mary Severns, a retiree who was sitting with her husband, William. "We’ve got military families that are receiving military messages from ISIS people, threatening them," she said. "I think it’s something very serious. I don’t think it’s just something over there. I don’t think I’ve ever been so fearful – it’s not just messy."

"No, it's gruesome!" said Sanford, agreeing with her.

"Make sure that the generals run the war, and not the politicians," said Mary Severns. "We proved in Vietnam what happens when the generals run the war."

There were more questions about the AUMF; Sanford expressed genuine surprise about how much the Republicans wanted to hear about foreign policy. But that was the story at several conservative events in South Carolina this week, as members of Congress returned for a short recess. When voters got chances to grill Republican politicians, they generally ignored the looming immigration/Homeland Security funding vote, and asked how Republicans would fight ISIS.

In Greenville, one voter compared ISIS to the threat of Hitler's Germany and asked three Republican congressmen to "to create a state of war where we take the fight to them." In Columbia, where Ohio Governor John Kasich was stumping for the state to pass a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he ended up getting a question about ISIS fighters sneaking into America.

"I would like to hear some discussion about immigrants from Islamic countries," retiree Linda Kaster asked.

"Well, we have a big Somali population in Columbus," said Kasich. "I think work needs to be done to make sure they're integrated into our community."

Kasich argued that strong economic opportunities could coax people away from radicalism. Kaster appreciated the answer, but wanted more

"I feel that when someone that is here in the United States and goes back to a radical Islamic country, they should not be allowed back into the United States," she said. "What was it that happened in Oklahoma a year ago, a man beheaded a woman? Don't tell me we don't have radicalism here."

What worried these voters was a sense that a war on ISIS was winnable, and President Barack Obama would prevent the military from winning it. After Sanford's Q&A, as the congressman talked to other voters, William Severns described what he learned during his service in Vietnam. 

"The brief period that the military was in charge, things were going well," he said. "But then it became political. The rules of engagement changed – you can’t do this, you can’t do it here, you can’t do it there, you can’t drop bombs on these people. Hell, we wouldn’t have lost as many people if we just lined up the army and marched up the country north to south."

Severns posited that a small, strong force could defeat ISIS, and that military leaders probably knew how to coordinate that. "What I want my Congress to do is go back to the president, modifying what he sent them, and saying, no, we don’t put limits here and there," he said. "We hand it to the generals."

"If they’re gonna send that up at all, be prepared to do the job," said Mary Severns. "You know, I have a joke–well, kind of a joke. We wait until it’s prayer time. Don’t they have to pray five times a day? When they’re all down there, with their heads down, go over and strafe them." 

"As far as I’m concerned they can carpet bomb the whole portion of Iraq and Syria and let God sort out the good guys," said William Severns.

After the room cleared out, Sanford grabbed dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant and thought through what he'd heard at a week of public meetings.

"The sentiment that you heard in there is representative," he said. "People are skeptical about the president’s intentions. 'Let the generals fight the war' is something I hear throughout the district. Now, mind you, we have a very heavy military retiree population. But it’s a very strong sentiment – that, and the belief that the president vacillates."

Did Sanford agree with that? "You hate to be skeptical about anybody else’s intentions," he said. "You can’t ever judge the heart of another man. With that caveat I’d say, in fairness to the president, he’s stuck in the middle. From the left, they’d say there aren’t enough limitations. On the Republican side they’d say it’s too restrictive. I don’t know whether it’s legit or not, but I’d say the consensus position on the Republican side is that the White House is gaming the process so that they, the Republicans, can own the outcome."

Unlike some Republicans, and unlike some voters, Sanford didn't ascribe bad faith to the White House. He just understood the frustration at the slow-burning, word-parsing AUMF strategy.

"There’s a belief that we’re talking about a couple thousand ISIS fighters," he said. People are saying: You’re kidding me! The greatest military force in the world can’t wipe these guys out in a couple of battles?"

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