ISIS South of the Border

Republicans in tight races are hoping the jihadists will help get them elected.

Rep. Tom Cotton looks for questions in a crowd of supporters at a Republican.

Senate candidate Tom Cotton spots an ISIS militant at a rally in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on April 26, 2014.

Photo by Stephen B. Thornton for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Arkansas Rep.—and Senate hopeful—Tom Cotton is a smart man. He has two degrees from Harvard University, a sharp mind, and the clear admiration of conservative intellectuals. And while intelligence doesn’t guarantee a thing in politics, it does tend to be a barrier to the most ridiculous attacks from candidates, who value their reputations as much as they do their success. For Cotton, however, that doesn’t seem to be true.

Earlier this week, the GOP Senate candidate held a town hall meeting with voters, where those present asked why the government allowed children crossing the border to stay temporarily. Cotton could have told the truth—they were likely in line for a court date and would likely leave the country afterward—or he could have made a generic swipe at Sen. Mark Pryor,  his Democratic opponent, and President Obama. (It’s part of the president’s plan for illegal amnesty, or something to that effect.) But Cotton took a different, more outlandish approach.

“The problem is with Mark Pryor and Barack Obama refusing to enforce our immigration laws, and refusing to secure our border,” he began, before dropping the pretense of reality. “And I would add,” he continued, “it’s not just an immigration problem. We now know that it’s a security problem. Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”

This claim is insane, and what’s worse is that Cotton isn’t the first Republican to make it. In an ad attacking an Arizona Democrat, the National Republican Campaign Committee warns, “Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day. Their entry into our country? Through Arizona’s backyard.” The (hopefully obvious) truth is that this is a fantasy. As Zeke Miller notes for Time, “[F]ederal law enforcement officials have repeatedly stated that there is no active plot against the U.S. from ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, and no intelligence to suggest incursions on the Southern border.”

If you want to know where the invention began, New York Times columnist Charles Blow traced it to right-wing clearinghouse World Net Daily, which claimed that—according to a “top U.S. Defense Department analyst under President Bush”—ISIS “could use the Mexican border to infiltrate America, and it could happen ‘sooner rather than later.’ ” From there, it traveled to a Texas representative who echoed the thought, a Fox News report on alleged ISIS infiltration of the border, and Gov. Rick Perry, who declared that there’s “a very real possibility” terrorists have crossed the border.

Less drastic ISIS claims have also come from North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis, who has attacked Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan for being timid on the alleged threat—“While ISIS grew, Obama kept waiting, and Kay Hagan kept quiet. The price for their failure is danger,” a recent ad said—and Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner, who has used similar attacks against Sen. Mark Udall.

Now, some of this is the usual scaremongering of an election year. Cotton, Tillis, and Gardner are in tight races, with Tillis trailing, Gardner tied, and Cotton fighting to break away from Sen. Pryor, who has kept the race close despite deep-red territory and an unpopular president. And for Gov. Perry—who is all but running for president—flashing the ISIS siren signals a “tough” position on war and immigration.

But to a large degree, it just reflects the basic hawkishness of Republican Party. With few exceptions (Sen. Rand Paul, mostly), Republicans still have the same war fever that led them to Iraq in 2003. And while Washington writ large favors military force above all other options—hence liberal anger with Obama on his present path in Iraq—segments of the GOP are especially eager, with regular calls for intervention in nearly every area of the world, from Iran to Ukraine.

And these ISIS warnings are just the beginning. We’re just months away from the official start of the Republican presidential primaries, and with a host of would-be Pattons in the running—in a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared that “The best way to avoid battle is to prepare for it”—we should expect much more of this language in the very near future.