The major-party candidates for Georgia’s open Senate seat exhibit their different leadership styles in how theytalk about a developing foreign-policy challenge thousands of miles away. The news and social media have been full of reports about the swift land conquests and brutal atrocities of the Islamic Statein Iraq and Syria, ISIS, a militant group spun off from al-Qaeda. It has claimed responsibility in videos it released of the beheading of two American journalists, and Amnesty International says it is systematically purging ethnic and religious minoritiesacross the territory it controls.
No one had ever heard of ISIS when the Senate campaign began, and few had even during primary runoff that concluded in July.So, it’s not the type of issue like gun control, taxes or abortion where political candidates have been schooled by their campaign consultants on the positions and phraseology that focus groups deem politically safe. Even the national politicians, those serving in Congress who provide leadership to their parties, haven’t sorted out theirstance yet on ISIS so that all Republican candidates wind up adopting one pithy phrase while Democrats memorize their own.
Before those national positions evolve, voters get a rare glimpse at their candidates’ decision making in real time. In this case, Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn have different approaches.
Perdue, whose career as a corporate executive included years running overseas divisions, embraces the topic of foreign affairs and regularly brings it up in stump speeches. He uses it to hammer an unpopular Democratic president. “President (Barack) Obama has naively underestimated the brutality and capabilities of ISIS,” he said. “Unfortunately, President Obama failed to secure peace and stability in Iraq and Syria, and this failure is partly responsible for the rise of ISIS and other terrorist organizations in the region.” And he uses the issue to appeal to conservative voters who feel current policies undermine America’s position as the globe’s dominant power. “If elected to the U.S. Senate, I will work to advance policies that ensure America is capable of defending our freedoms andsupporting our allies around the world,” Perdue says. “Regarding the current situation, the United States must take action to combat the growing threat of ISIS so that this dangerous terrorist organization cannot continue to carry out attacks againstAmericans or our way of life.”
The GOP nominee also uses mention of ISIS as an opportunity to attack Nunn by recalling her response in an Atlanta Press Club debate when she said she would “defer to the president.” She didn’t say she would defer to Obama in all instances, and during her campaign, she has parted ways with the White House on some issues.
When asked by reporters about ISIS during a campaign stop in College Park, she gave nearly the same response to each of themin separate interviews. It doesn’t flow out of her stump speech like it does when Perdue takes the floor, but her answers put a little distance between her and the administration. “I think first of all we must recognize that ISIS is a very great terrorist threat to the region and ultimately to America’s national security that we have to defeat,” she said. “I think we need to continue the air strikes, but I think we also haveto recognize that there needs to be a broader, multipronged strategy that involves American leadership but also involves theregional players who ultimately are going to have to solve this sectarian divides in the region.”
Ironically, Perdue offers nearly the same formulation in his strategy prescription. “The president needs to define a long-term strategy and develop a regional plan working with our allies,” he said. “The president also needs to present this plan to the American people in order to build public and congressional support to sustain it.” On the topic of congressional support, Nunn goes one step further and calls for a straight vote on significant commitment of manpower and resources. “It’s really important that we have alignment towards American policy and that we have congressional authorization for long-term engagement,” she said. Both candidates want American allies — especially those in the region — to shoulder some of the military burden. However, neither offered specific responses to questions about whether the United States should expand drone attacks to Syria or whether to supply arms to either Syria’s Assad regime or its rebels. They don’t seem to want to get out ahead of Washington on such complicated details. Nunn, whose career before entering this race was in social services, doesn’t stress the need for a “strong military” or talk of defending “our way of life” like Perdue does. Instead, she calls for leaders in the Middle East to “solve the sectarian divides in the region.” As Perdue calls for decisive action, Nunn calls for “guidelines around our involvement.”
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