The terror attack in Brussels by ISIS has prompted the U.S. presidential contenders to now address the threat of terrorism – which has been dormant since San Bernardino. The question: do the candidates have a strategy to defeat and destroy ISIS?
First of all, how serious is the threat? In an interview by Jeffery Goldberg, writing a controversial article in “The Atlantic,” President Obama is quoted as saying “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” but then this week he stated this is his number one priority, and remarked he would not change his current strategy.
The current policy by the administration focuses on tactical and operational strategy to defeat ISIS by utilizing air power and special operations forces to go after the Islamic State, as was the case last week with Special Forces killing the deputy leader of ISIS.
The threat has become a lot more serious with the attack on one of our European allies and the continued threats our allies face from ISIS.
Since the recent terror attacks, each of the presidential candidates have spoken out against the attacks and addressed what they would do, but none of the candidates, nor the president, have articulated with any clarity what replaces ISIS inside Syria?
The threat by ISIS has now resurfaced to be the dominate issue in the presidential election. All the candidates responded, but in each case they act just like the president, focusing on both the tactical and operational level, without ever conveying what are the strategic objectives.
The missing component, as I have often written about, and as articulated by Clausewitz in his famous military treatise, “War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.”
What is our strategic aim to defeat ISIS, and what replaces the Islamic State? Neither the president nor any of the candidates running for the presidency have articulated this.
Hillary Clinton’s Approach
Former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, spoke at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), urged greater U.S. leadership and calling for a greater use of air power, better equipping Arab and Kurdish forces, and at the same time using diplomacy to end the Syria civil war.
The problem with her approach is that many of the Sunni Arabs she speaks about are heavily involved in fighting terrorism along their borders, with Saudi Arabia battling Iranian sponsored Shiite Houthis rebel’s in northern Yemen. Egypt also has its own ISIS problem in the Sinai. Jordan is facing a massive crisis inside its border from the influx of refugee’s fleeing the Syrian civil war. The Iraqi army is in a dysfunctional state and currently having a difficult time fighting ISIS inside Iraq. None of these Sunni armies have ever worked together, let alone have the ability to fight in a combined military campaign without some level of U.S. commitment.
Presently, no one is advocating massive U.S. ground involvement, but without some level of commitment by the United States, they would be hard pressed to stand up a Sunni Arab army to go inside Syria and defeat ISIS.
All during the campaign for president, Mrs. Clinton has linked herself to the Obama presidency to shore up her domestic base, but she has never stated what she would do different from President Obama on foreign policy.
Donald Trump’s Stance
The Republican front runner Donald Trump offers bombastic and often irrational comments by re-examining U.S. involvement in NATO, going beyond waterboarding but never stating how far and what techniques would be utilized.
Even last week, Trump stated during a broadcast interview in reply to the use of nuclear weapons, “I’m never going to rule anything out – I wouldn’t want to say. Even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to tell you that because at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would use them. We need unpredictability. We don’t know who these people are. The fact is, we need unpredictability, and when you ask a question like that, it’s a very sad thing to have to answer it. The enemy is watching and I have a very good chance of winning and I frankly don’t want the enemy to know how I’m thinking. But with that being said, I don’t rule out anything.”
Senator Ted Cruz has openly stated that the U.S. should carpet bomb ISIS, which has drawn criticism from Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the ground commander in the fight against ISIS, when he stated…“Some indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”
Even the surreal Governor Kasich condemned the terror attack, and leveled his sharpest criticism at President Obama for not returning from his Latin American trip, but has only given an ambiguous strategy on what he would do to defeat ISIS.
The situation is complicated and again, neither the president nor the presidential challengers have articulated a coherent political strategy in defeating ISIS, or for the rest of the Middle East region.
It is easy to thump your chest or give political speeches appealing to your base, but the defeat of ISIS will take a regional approach, as all of it is intertwined in the morass of the Middle East.
Which Terror Group Emerges Next?
If the policy of the United States is the defeat and destruction of ISIS, what replaces the Islamic State…will the U.S. allow the Al-Nusra Front, commonly known as al-Qaeda in Syria to fill the vacuum?
ISIS is more than a traditional terror organization, but it actually is a functioning state which provides services, no matter how brutal those services are.
Neither candidate has discussed what their strategy would be in dealing with Syria, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni allies we would need in defeating ISIS; nor have any of the candidates discussed the influx of refugees pouring into Europe, which is at the heart of the Brussel terror attack.
How do the Sunni Arab nations view the threat from ISIS? The Sunni Arabs see the threat differently than the U.S. and view Iran as the dominate threat to the region. The Iran nuclear deal has further poisoned the often tense relationship with Washington even further.
“The Atlantic” article even further eroded this relationship, with President Obama calling our closest allies “free riders”, and wanting to further retrench the U.S. from the region to focus on Asia.
The time is long past due for a solid strategy in the region, not more bluster or partisan political policy. If we don’t force the candidates to articulate a deeper and more comprehensive approach, the U.S. will ultimately face the consequences of its inaction.