The Islamic State, belittled by President Obama just two years ago as a “JV” terrorist group, will dominate the attention of newly elected President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump as they face the challenge of taking on the extremists abroad and while preventing another Orlando-style attack that could shake public confidence in the next administration just as it’s leaving the starting gate.
Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton offer sharply differing proposals to defend the homeland and to destroy the extremist network that has occupied so much of Mr. Obama’s national security focus in his second term.
The Republican nominee, for example, advocates “extreme vetting” of immigrants from predominantly Muslim nations to weed out potential terrorists, coupled with aggressive coalition military operations in the Middle East. He has spoken about “bombing the sh**” out of the extremists and “going after” the families of terrorists. He said the U.S. made a mistake in not seizing Iraq’s oil during the U.S.-led invasion as a way to block funding for terror groups like Islamic State. He hasn’t ruled out using nuclear weapons.
The Democratic nominee, by contrast, wants to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to protect U.S.-friendly ground forces fighting the extremists, combined with essentially a more robust version of Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism strategy.
Thomas Sanderson, director of the Transnational Threat Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the evolving challenge posed by the Islamic State is “an unbelievable monster” for the next president, whoever wins the election.
“The nature and degree of the threat is changing daily,” Mr. Sanderson said. “It is very difficult for any president to manage a threat like this, whether they plan to have a light touch on it or more a covert touch, the way Obama has done.”
Mr. Sanderson said he favors Mrs. Clinton’s approach because it would be more forceful than Mr. Obama’s strategy, but “carefully calibrated” to avoid a backlash among U.S. allies in the Muslim world.
“Trump would come in with a sledgehammer, and I think you need a claw hammer,” Mr. Sanderson said.
In spite of Mrs. Clinton’s hawkish reputation and her four years as secretary of state, Mr. Trump has an advantage among likely voters on the question of which candidate would handle terrorism better. A CNN/ORC poll released Sept. 6 showed voters favor Mr. Trump on the issue by 51 percent to 45 percent.
The same survey in late July rated both candidates evenly on terrorism. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in early August found voters giving Mrs. Clinton a narrow advantage on terrorism, 44 percent to 43 percent.
To voters, perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between the candidates on terrorism is rhetorical — Mr. Trump’s eagerness, and Mrs. Clinton’s reluctance, like Mr. Obama, to label terrorists as “radical Islamic extremists.”
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” Mr. Trump has said. “Anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our president.”
Mrs. Clinton said she’s not afraid to utter the words “radical Islam” — she did so during a CNN interview in June, for example. “Whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either,” she said at the time. But she asserted that “it matters what we do more than what we say.”
“It mattered we got [Osama] bin Laden, not what name we called him,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Mr. Obama has argued that using the phrase plays into Islamic State’s hands, essentially adopting the terror group’s propaganda narrative that they are the true defenders of the Muslim faith against “infidel” outsiders.
The Democratic nominee says she would continue the U.S.-led military coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria, and add the no-fly zone over Syria. Buoyed by a recent agreement with Russia for coordinated operations against Islamic State and other jihadi groups, the administration says the allied coalition is steadily reclaiming ground and preparing assaults on Islamic State strongholds such as Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Mrs. Clinton says her goal is to protect refugees and Syrians who are fighting on the side of the U.S. against both Syrian President Bashar Assad and the extremists.
“Efforts to defeat ISIS on the battlefield must succeed,” she said after the June Orlando massacre, using an acronym for the Islamic State, “but it will take more than that.”
Drawbacks and continuity
James Phillips, a specialist on the Middle East at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said there are drawbacks to Mrs. Clinton’s approach to fighting terrorism and her record toward extremists while serving as secretary of state. He said she “would be likely to continue the administration’s policies in Syria and downplay the ISIS threat, which grew explosively after she left the State Department.”
He said Mrs. Clinton was “more hawkish” against Mr. Assad than others in the Obama administration, “but still made the mistake of considering Assad to be somewhat of a reformer early in the crisis.”
Mrs. Clinton proposes to stop “lone wolf” attacks in the U.S. by assembling a special team across government agencies to identify suspects and catch them. Obama administration officials say multiple federal agencies already are coordinating the work of trying to identify Islamic State-inspired loners and stop them from attacking soft targets in the U.S.
She also would work with allies to dismantle terrorist networks, beef up law enforcement and intelligence agencies and counter Islamic State recruiting — all of which is currently being done to varying degrees.
Mr. Trump blames Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and Mr. Obama’s policies for enabling the Islamic State to flourish. He faults them for “the reckless way” in which they pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011.
“After we had made those hard-fought sacrifices and gains, we should never have made such a sudden withdrawal — on a timetable advertised to our enemies,” Mr. Trump said last month. “Al Qaeda in Iraq had been decimated, and Obama and Clinton gave it new life and allowed it to spread across the world.”
Mrs. Clinton argued inside the administration to keep at least a residual force in Iraq beyond 2011, but was overruled by the president, who has said the U.S. was unable to reach a so-called “status of forces agreement” with Baghdad that would have provided legal immunity for any remaining U.S. troops.
At the time, however, Mr. Trump also said he favored a troop withdrawal from Iraq. Asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan in February 2011 what he would do about U.S. troops in Iraq, Mr. Trump said he would “get them out real fast.”
But he also warned that leaving Iraq would open its oil fields to exploitation by Iran, and said the U.S. should be the one to benefit from Iraqi oil as the victors in the war.
The Republican nominee also points to the U.S. attack of Libya in 2011 as perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s biggest failure, saying the overthrow of leader Moammar Gadhafi created another power vacuum that allowed extremists to gain a foothold there. He said the U.S. shouldn’t make the mistake again of engaging in nation-building in the Middle East.
Mr. Sanderson cites the long-running civil war in Syria as an example of how Mrs. Clinton’s proposals have a better chance of succeeding against the Islamic State.
“We are taking away [the Islamic State’s] territory, but the best fighters on the ground need to know that the next president is going to be as supportive, if not more supportive” than Mr. Obama, he said. “We really do need to be more supportive of our Kurdish partners.”
Mr. Trump, he said, “doesn’t want to move Assad out of Damascus.”
“I don’t know how you get [the Kurds] to really fight unless that is part of the program,” Mr. Sanderson said. “Our best fighters have as part of their goal removing Assad. We need to find the formula that works with all the partners on the ground. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is 100 percent for removing Assad, but she clearly is more inclined to do it than Trump is.”