Every time a major terrorist attack hits a Western nation, it dominates the political conversation. Acts of terrorism demand attention. They beg dramatic, often global, actions. That's their goal. And since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they've been very successful.
As such, terrorism—and the Islamic State in particular—have come to dominate the 2016 election. The presumptive presidential nominees, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, have devoted much of this election cycle talking about ISIS (aka ISIL). Trump says his plan would lead to ISIS disappearing “very, very quickly,” while Clinton charges that “no other country can rally allies and partners to defeat ISIS and win the generational struggle against radical jihadist terrorism.”
“Hillary has gotten a free pass on a whole lot of things as a result of this deeply, deeply degenerated and screwed up election cycle.”
However, when it comes to the nitty-gritty details of exactly how the candidates want to take on ISIS in the Middle East, many foreign policy experts have been left wanting. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has advised Clinton in the past, labeled Trump “not a constructive force on foreign policy,” adding that the former reality TV star's rhetoric has been “horrendous ... [and] reprehensible.”
For Clinton, O'Hanlon said her policy prescriptions have been relatively thin, with the candidate leaning on her tenure as secretary of state rather than proactively asserting a specific vision for what her foreign policy in the region would entail.
“Even though I think she's quite competent, experienced, and established, and has a good track record as secretary of state, today's problems are different in many dimensions from the ones she was handling as secretary, so I don't think we can easily infer just from her track record ... exactly what she would do going forward,” he told the Daily Dot in a phone interview. “None of these problems can be solved just by saying that I'm a reasonable, empirical, thoughtful, experienced person—which is essentially what she's doing.”
O'Hanlon adds: “If I was really going to evaluate any candidate, I would like to see some specifics. What do you think you can do in Syria? What do you think you could do in Iraq?”
So, what do Clinton and Trump think they can do against ISIS?
The core of Trump's over-arching foreign policy philosophy can be summed up in a single tweet.The America First movement is most closely associated with an effort in the 1930s to avoid the United States’ entry into the World War II. The most famous face of the America First movement was aviator Charles Lindburgh, who argued that the U.S. should negotiate a neutrality pact with German dictator Adolph Hitler rather than support allies like Great Britain or get directly involved in the war itself. While the American First effort was deeply tarnished by revelations about Lindbergh's antisemitism, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor effectively put it out of business.
For Trump, "America First" means a foreign policy considerably more isolationist than what Washington has pursued for generations. Trump's belief is that U.S. involvement in international conflicts should be rare, only occurring when the nation has a very direct, material interest in the outcome.
“We don't have a dog in most of the world's dogfights,” Trump wrote in his 2000 public policy book, The America We Deserve. “We have no business, and certainly no right, to intervene in conflicts just because we don't like to see innocent people being killed or dislocated. ... It should be clear by now that when we intervene in these conflicts we do little more than temporary tilt the balance of power.”
For example, stopping an ongoing genocide, like the one that caused President Bill Clinton to intervene in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or promoting democracy, would not meet Trump's threshold for military intervention.
Promoting democracy through regime change was one of the many reasons the administration of President George W. Bush used to push the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Trump insists he did not support the invasion; however, a recording from that a 2002 interview on the Howard Stern Show, reveals Trump was a backer of the war, albeit not a particularly enthusiastic one.
“Everybody that's touched the Middle East, they've gotten bogged down,” Trump said during a March 2016 interview on Meet The Press. “I don't want to see the United States get bogged down. We've spent now $2 trillion in Iraq, probably a trillion in Afghanistan. We're destroying our country.”
Trump also said the U.S. has “no choice” but to put 20,000 to 30,000 troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS.
In this context, Trump's plan for combating ISIS in its home base of Iraq and Syria is a bit contradictory. He argues that the United States has little role in cleaning up the world's messes—in this case, the bloody Syrian Civil War—but argues the only way to eliminate the threat posed by ISIS is with an overwhelming show of U.S. military force.
For a candidate who believes the U.S. is spending too much of its own treasure acting as the world's policeman, Trump has indicated he will take steps to bring Middle Eastern nations without troops currently on the ground against ISIS in Syria and Iraq into combat. In an interview the New York Times, Trump said he would considering placing an embargo on all U.S. energy purchases from America's oil-producing allies in the region unless they put boots on the ground against ISIS.
As for the overall mission of this U.S.-led coalition, Trump would narrow the focus exclusively to fighting ISIS with little to no concern about removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Trump called efforts to take down ISIS that are simultaneously pushing for Assad's removal from power “madness and idiocy.”
For many people deeply invested in the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, transitioning Assad out of power is an essential step in stopping ISIS.
“This is the problem that the West doesn't understand,” Mohammed Saleh—co-founder of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an online news organization operating covertly within the capital of of ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate—the Daily Dot during an interview late last year. Saleh insisted that the rise of ISIS in Syria is a direct reaction to Assad's authoritarian grasp on Syria, and that the group's appeal to people within the war-torn nation will instantly dissipate after his deposition.
Trump has also advocated for the destruction of ISIS-controlled oil production facilities, which the terrorist group is using to generate revenue. “Bomb the shit out of 'em,” Trump urged at a rally in Iowa last year. What oil fields the U.S. doesn't destroy, Trump argues, should be sized by the military and turned over to U.S. energy companies, which can develop them for a profit.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who served as the top U.S. military official in Iraq between 2008 and 2010, criticized Trump's plan to co-opt energy resources controlled by the ISIS, saying that these tactics go beyond the limits of the what the military is able to do.
Similarly, Saleh slammed attacks aimed at oil production facilities as actions that primarily serve to strengthen ISIS over the long term by allowing the terrorist group to blame the U.S. and its allies for destroying critical infrastructure. “These airstrikes are all affecting the people—especially air strikes that are targeting oil refineries and oil sources,” Saleh said. “It's winter and people need oil to cook and keep warm. There are air strikes that affect ISIS, but it affects the people at the same time.”
However, in Trump's philosophy, there should be no limits to how far the United States is willing to go to fight terrorists, saying he wouldn't rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS, nor would he let international war crimes conventions preclude him from ordering the military to target family members of ISIS fighters.
The key, Trump argues, is not tipping his hand to America's opponents. “I won’t tell them where, and I won’t tell them how,” Trump said of his plan for beating ISIS. “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable.”
There is a sense among many in the foreign policy world, that, due to the nature of the 2016 election cycle, Clinton hasn't had to lay out the specifics of her foreign policy plan—especially for a candidate with extensive foreign policy bona fides from her term as secretary of state. Substantive policy proposals have never been Trump's strong suit and, during her unexpectedly busing primary fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the focus was overwhelmingly on domestic policy.
“Bernie Sanders, whatever his merits, when he spoke about foreign policy, seemed secretly to wish that foreign policy was not in the portfolio of the president of the United States,” said Grame Wood, a foreign policy writer who serves as the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There was no substantive discussion of foreign policy at all during the Democratic primary either. Hillary has gotten a free pass on a whole lot of things as a result of this deeply, deeply degenerated and screwed up election cycle.”
“We have a sense, of course, [of what her presidency would look like], because she served the current president and because she has such a long track record of being in Washington, roughly what her temperament might be, and probably what many of her policies might be,” Wood continued. “But, so far, we've had none of the political process that would elicit the really tough details and distinctions between Obama and Hillary Clinton.”
The distinctions between Clinton and Obama are important, because Clinton is largely running for her former boss's third term when it comes to anti-terror policy. That isn't to say there aren't differences between Clinton and Obama, both in terms of specific policy prescriptions and overall temperament, but Clinton has conspicuously avoided criticizing Obama's handling the fight against ISIS.
In broad strokes, Clinton is widely seen as more of a hawk, someone willing to flex American military muscle, than is Obama. She was one the administration's strongest backers of the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan and advocated for leaving a larger force in Iraq after the official conclusion of the war there. While Obama eventually came around to arming certain Syrian rebel groups, Clinton was one of the administration's earliest and move vociferous advocates of the U.S. putting its finger on the scale in the fight against Assad.
Clinton's assertions about the need to take a more active role in Syria is likely one of the reasons why she reacted so personally when people like Sander campaign manager Jeff Weaver or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani asserted that she was personally responsible for ISIS establishing a foothold in the Middle East. “That is beyond absurd,” Clinton told CNN's Jake Tapper earlier this year. “I'm just going to let them say whatever they choose to say. ... ISIS was primarily the result of the [power] vacuum in Syria caused by Assad.”
Nevertheless, Clinton's overall strategy toward ISIS appears to be the same as Obama's, just a little bit harder and a little bit faster: providing air support and military supplies to a largely local force in an effort to degrade ISIS's operational capabilities while creating the space necessary for a political solution to coalesce in Syria.
“As I think people are now starting to understand, destroying ISIS is not the hard part. It's placing something in its place that would be satisfactory to the population there and treating Syria and ISIS as a regional and national issue rather than just an issue of killing ISIS,” Wood said. “What the Obama administration, and by extension a Clinton administration, would be looking at, would be ways to make sure that ISIS is destroyed and that the larger problems of the region, including Bashar Al Assad, are dealt with in a way that doesn't cause something equally bad to arise in its place.”
Clinton has indicated she would be open to putting a significant number of U.S. troops on the group in Syria and Iraq to combat ISIS; however, she said the large number advocated by Trump would ultimately prove counterproductive. “I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here,” she said during a speech late last year. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities.”
Clinton has also called for ramping up airstrikes against ISIS. According to the running tally kept by Airwars.org, under Obama, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted over 13,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, dropping over 46,000 bombs, and killing at least 1,300 civilians.
The biggest fundamental break between Clinton and Obama on Syria is the former's advocacy for the imposition of the no fly zone over the country. “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what's happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” Clinton said during an interview last year.
Obama has been reticent to enforce a no-fly zone. In an interview on former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod's podcast, Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration's deputy national security advisor, slammed Clinton's plan for a no-fly zone. “A no-fly zone in Syria would not solve the problem," Rhodes said. “If you had an area of geography in Syria where planes couldn't fly over it, people would still be killing each other on the ground. ISIL doesn't have planes, so that doesn't solve the ISIL problem. They would still be able to massacre people on the ground. And we would have to devote an enormous amount of our resources—which are currently devoted to finding ISIL and killing them wherever they are—to maintaining this no-fly zone. So it's just not a good use of resources.”
While Clinton is pushing a marginally more aggressive strategy in Syria relative to Obama, she has been careful to temper her hawkishness with calls for restraint. “It would ... be a serious mistake to begin carpet bombing populated areas into oblivion,” Clinton said in response to comments by erstwhile GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) statements last year calling for the carpet bombing of ISIS-held territory. “Proposing that doesn't make you sound tough. It makes you sound like you are in over your head. Slogans aren't a strategy. Loose cannons often misfire.”
Where Trump generally seems OK with allowing Assad to stay in power, Clinton has taken a harder line on the Syrian president, saying Assad's removal is an essential part of gaining the support of the Syrian people, which is necessary to beat ISIS. However, in her view, the U.S. is limited in what it can do to dislodge Assad. “There is not going to be a successful military effort at this point to overturn Assad,” Clinton said. “That can only happen through the political process. So our effort should be focused on ISIS.”
Trump has suggested pulling back from America's military alliances throughout the world—even going as far as withdrawing from NATO, which he views as too draining on the nation's coffers. Clinton, on the other hand, views those relationships as essential. “What Republicans like Trump don’t understand is that we need Europe,” reads a post on Clinton's campaign website. “We need European intelligence and diplomacy, European banks fighting terrorist financing, European aircraft flying missions in the Middle East, and European special forces helping train and equip local forces fighting ISIS.”
Yet, for Wood, the biggest unanswered question for both candidates is, what does the region look like post-ISIS? Who controls that territory? How does destroying the control the group has over its swath of territory in Iraq and Syria not allow for the creation of something just as bad—or even worse?
“To talk about that as if defeating them in the acute narrow sense ... is not a resonate way to look at the problem,” Wood said. “What comes next? That's the problem. That's the difficult part.”