After Brussels, Will Voters Demand Foreign-Policy Experience?

Solidarity messages are written in chalk outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

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Solidarity messages are written in chalk outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Trump wants waterboarding, Cruz wants to ‘secure’ Muslim neighborhoods in wake of attacks.

Will today’s horror in Brussels tilt Americans toward presidential candidates with foreign-policy experience—or simply whet their appetite for more red-meat, get-tough rhetoric?

Immediately after news broke of the rush-hour bombings, television networks raced to ask Donald Trump for reaction. (Trump gained 7 percent in the polls shortly after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, statistician Nate Silver pointed out Tuesday on Twitter.) The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination has been talking for months about banning Muslims from entering the United States. He didn’t disappoint.

Trump told journalists that America had to “close up our borders to people until we figure out what is going on” and that “we’re taking in people without real documentation…We don’t know where they’re coming from. We don’t know who they are. You look at them from any standpoint: They could be ISIS. They could be ISIS-related.”

The billionaire businessman also repeated his push for a return to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

“Frankly, the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we changed the laws or had the laws, waterboarding would be fine,” Trump said. “If they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding.” 

Not to be outdone, Republican presidential candidate Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called a press conference to say that the Brussels attacks make clear “that this is a war.” Said Cruz, “we absolutely have to revisit our immigration policy across the board to prevent Islamic terrorists from coming in.”

Cruz also said this: “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”

Other long-time Republicans, including those with foreign-policy experience, were more cautious. Tom Korologos, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Belgium from 2004 to 2007, described his shock at today’s attack.

“That was my second home and it still is,” Korologos said of Brussels. “We go back a lot and I am anxious quite frankly to see what the fatality list is.”

Korologos, who has attended every GOP presidential convention since 1972 and is now supporting Gov. John Kasich, cautioned against any overreaction in the face of the suicide bombings in the heart of Brussels.

“What we have here is a situation that is going to take some leadership and some guidance, somebody that knows it and has done it and has structure behind him and a support group that knows what the Middle East is,” he said. “We hadn’t better be sending any amateurs in to do a heavy-hitting job.”

Others renewed a call for more action. James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, says that despite the horrible loss of life, he expects little change ahead in U.S. policy.

“These guys are just dangerous,” Jeffrey said of ISIS. “They need to be taken down and nobody is doing it.”

Jeffrey is among those who have long called for more active U.S. intervention in the fight against ISIS.

“They are just inflicting terror attack after terror attack and they are becoming part of the scenery, aren’t they?” Jeffrey said of ISIS. “The situation is you take down their little army and their little state out there in the desert and if President Obama doesn’t do it, no one will.”

Those fleeing bombings and murder at home now find the killings have followed them to Europe.

ISIS doesn’t represent Islam or the Syrian people,” said Fatima Ismail, a 23-year-old Syrian who lived under ISIS inside her country and is now working to help fellow refugees in Turkey. “ISIS did a lot of bad things, and I saw how they killed my neighbor. I want to send a message to the West that ISIS does not represent Islam.”

Getting that message to the American public has become both more urgent and more difficult. In December, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll made news with its finding that “heightened fear of terrorism is rippling through the electorate, thrusting national-security issues to the center of the 2016 presidential campaign.” One month later, Politico noted that “the polls vary, but after attacks in Paris, California and Philadelphia, security of the homeland has jumped from a low-single digit issue to the top concern of nearly 20 percent of voters, according to multiple senior Republican lawmakers and aides.”

Today, Brussels is added to that grim list. And national security once again returns to the fore.

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