Are Americans Wrong to Trust Republicans More on Terrorism?

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President Barack Obama on Thursday outlined his strategy against the extremist militant group ISIL, also referred to as ISIS, explaining his plans for aiding forces in the Middle East while emphasizing his unwillingness to engage in another ground war. Gallup released a poll soon after his speech — which brought on an onslaught of commentary and criticism from both sides of the aisle — that revealed a majority of respondents (55 percent) see Republicans as more capable of combating terrorism.

That’s a full 23 percentage points more than respondents who said Democrats are the more capable party in handling terrorism and military threats. According to Gallup, this is the biggest advantage the GOP has shown in this poll since 2002, when the firm began polling on the topic.

What is the poll measuring?

It’s worth debating whether or not the poll is an accurate take on the public’s perception of terrorism or if it might be a reflection of Obama’s weak approval ratings. As of early August, his approval sat at 44 percent, and his approval on foreign affairs specifically was even lower, at 36 percent. It’s likely that with the news focused so much on his interactions with Russia over the Ukraine conflict and affairs in Iraq, most people associate the Democratic Party with Obama’s activity overseas.

Moreover, the party in the executive office often takes much of the flak, especially at this point in the second term. Obama’s approval rating is low, but not beyond what Gallup shows for other presidents in the same position. Considering that midterm elections are ongoing and races currently neck-to-neck, many incumbents and congressional hopefuls are putting in digs at Obama that may have further decreased confidence in his capabilities.

Are Republicans more aggressive?

Even if Obama’s ratings, recent news on ISIL, and his strategy speech are nudging polls one way, Gallup reports that over the last 12 years it’s asked that question, the Republican Party has had an advantage in all but two years. That begs the question: If Americans really do see Republicans as more effective against terrorism, why?

It’s worth looking back at an old argument that Americans sometimes prefer brawn over brains when it comes to international politics and fear of the looming “other.” Arizona Sen. John McCain may have put his finger on Americans’ problems with Obama and/or Democrats when he wrote, “Obama has made America look weak” in an op-ed for The New York Times. Democrats in general have a less aggressive reputation when it comes to international politics, seeming to be less militarily focused.

It’s probable that this has had an effect on Democrats’ past and present-day appeal to the public on issues like terrorism. That doesn’t mean a more cerebral approach to the conflict isn’t valid; it also doesn’t mean Democrats haven’t made mistakes.

Assuming the poll is true to its title, are Americans right?

There’s merit to the argument that pulling out of Iraq as quickly as the Obama administration did left a vacuum and that some of the current situation could be blamed on Obama’s withdrawal for the sake of expediency. Many on the right were critical of the pace and strategy of Democrats coming into office, and some arguably had more experience and deserved a closer listen.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also made a good point on this when he defended aspects of the president’s recent strategy speech on Fox News. When asked if he felt America had won the war and would have avoided current problems had Obama kept forces in Iraq for longer, he said, “Well I guess the question would be: We have the same situation in Libya — are there enough troops to stabilize Libya, are there enough troops to take over and stabilize Syria, and are there enough troops to take over and stabilize Iraq?”

He argued that historically secular governments have failed in Iraq, and that it is a nation that was artificially put together, creating inherent problems. Politics and government in Iraq are volatile and complicated, and there were no guarantees then, just as there is no clear and easy path now.

Democrats may be cautious and Republicans may give Americans a greater sense of security with a more aggressive stance, and there’s an argument for a balance of both — which is why it’s especially important going forward for Congress to demonstrate that bipartisanship isn’t dead.

Obama has been careful, and that doesn’t always come across as strong, decisive, or aggressive: His interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin are an example. But as Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, pointed out in a tweet, “Better to be tentative about strategy when there are no easy answers than claiming to have strategy when [you] don’t.”

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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