Five questions for Clinton and Trump: ISIS and terrorism

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pose for a photo holding an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria flag in the village of Sultan Mari, west of the city of Kirkuk, March 9, 2015, after they reportedly re-took the area from ISIS jihadists.


The campaign to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syris (ISIS) is approaching a pivotal moment, as the Iraqi army, with the support of United States forces, moves to retake the city of Mosul, the terrorist group’s main base of power in Iraq.

In-advance of tonight’s final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, here’s a look at how the two presidential candidates have proposed defeating ISIS and preventing the spread of terrorism.

How do you plan to defeat ISIS?

In announcing candidacy on June 16th, 2015, Trump said, “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. Nobody.” But Trump has offered few specifics of how he would defeat the group, saying that revealing his plan would tip off U.S enemies. Trump has said he will give his top generals 30 days after he enters office to come up with a plan to defeat ISIS, but at a rally last November Trump declared: “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” One Trump advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, has pushed for the United States to closely ally itself with Russia in the fight against Islamist militants – a position to which the candidate may be receptive, based on his positive comments about Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Clinton and Trump spar over ISIS, Iraq War and Putin

The fundamental question for Donald Trump is: how can voters judge your plans if you won’t reveal any specifics?

Hillary Clinton has taken a different approach – most notably in her criticism of Russian support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.  Clinton has outlined three major policy points for defeating ISIS: “Take out ISIS’s stronghold in Iraq and Syria; Dismantle the global terror network; Harden our defenses at home to prevent attacks.”  After June’s attack at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida by an ISIS-inspired gunman, Clinton said: “We should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.” Although she is viewed as more of a ‘hawk’ than President Obama, many of her positions on fighting terrorism mirror the current administration’s policies.

A question for Clinton is: what are you willing to do beyond what’s being done by the Obama administration to defeat ISIS?

The candidates do have some policy points in common. Both advocate for using cyber warfare to prevent the spread of ISIS ideology and both advocate for coordinating with other countries to destroy ISIS. This could take the form of intelligence sharing and pooling resources.

How would you help end the Syrian civil war?

The problem of defeating ISIS has been greatly complicated by the Syrian civil war, which has inflamed tensions in the region, created a power vacuum, and deprived the U.S. of a credible partner to help bring a halt to hostilities. Donald Trump has said he will only support a ceasefire in Syria if all parties involved would agree to the ceasefire. However he is not optimistic. During the Republican nominee presidential debate on February 24th Trump said: “The countries aren’t agreeing to it and the rebels aren’t agreeing and Syria is not agreeing. It’s a meaningless ceasefire.”  He’s suggested he could tolerate Bashar Assad staying in power, calling him a “bad” guy but saying defeating ISIS must take precedence.

How would Donald Trump bring Syrian rebels to the table when they are sworn-to the defeat of the Assad regime?  And how would he prevent ceding even more control over the region to Russia?

Clinton has been considerably more hostile to Assad, echoing the Obama administration line that a lasting peace cannot be secured while he’s in power. However, Clinton has broken with Obama on the issue of arming rebel groups who were involved in the early fight against Assad, and she has long supported a no-fly zone over Syria to protect refugees leaving the area.

How would Hillary Clinton create a no-fly zone, given Russia’s aggressive air campaign in the region?

Will you commit ground troops to ISIS held areas in Syria?

Trump called for more ground troops in Syria as recently as March and has s repeatedly called for more military spending. Like most of his plan to defeat ISIS, Trump has been elusive on the details, saying he does not want to broadcast his plans to U.S. enemies.

Clinton has said the option of putting troops on the ground in Syria “is off the table.” At a national security forum earlier this month she said: “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops.” Some national security analysts have said Clinton should not make an ironclad promise not to commit ground troops, because she can’t know how the situation will evolve.

How would either candidate make the case to the American people to send US troops into Syria?

How would you prevent attacks on U.S. soil?

For Donald Trump, stopping attacks at home starts with preventing radicalized people from entering the U.S. in the first place. After the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, the Republican nominee called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. He’s since walked back that statement, calling instead for “extreme vetting” for those that come into the United States and a temporary halt on immigration from dangerous areas. Again, Trump has offered few details on the vetting process – most importantly, how it would differ from the procedures already in-place.  Trump has also avoided commenting on how immigration reform would be any deterrent against terrorism by US citizens as seen in the San Bernadino, Orlando and New York City attacks.

How realistic is Donald Trump's "extreme vetting"?

Trump has also advocated profiling U.S. Muslim communities to better track radicalization and prevent lone wolves from hatching destructive plots, but he has not addressed how he’d do so without violating civil liberties, nor has he addressed fears that the move could alienate moderate Muslims who could help recognize and report emerging threats.

How would Donald Trump enlist the support of Muslim-American communities, especially considering his heated rhetoric on banning future Muslim immigration and unspecified promises to perform “extreme vetting” on potential immigrants from Muslim-majority nations?

Clinton’s domestic counter-terrorism plan focuses on providing resources to first responders and law enforcement. She also advocates for a special force whose focus is to isolate and stop lone wolf attackers, a plan she highlighted in her speech after the attack in Orlando in June. Another significant difference from Trump is Clinton’s support for the “no fly-no buy” plan, which would ban suspects on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms.

How would Clinton do more than is already being done by law enforcement to proactively stop lone-wolf attacks?  And how would she get the “no fly – no buy” proposal past gun-rights advocates in Congress?