5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates


The final episode of this year’s worst reality television show — the GOP presidential primary contest — airs on CNN tonight. The final Republican primary debate of the year will likely bring more of the same: lots of colorful language and chest thumping on national security. Candidates will likely pledge to “get tough” on the self-proclaimed Islamic State and subsequently offer no tangible points to detail how their approaches might differ from that of the Obama administration.

To criticize only the Republicans would be unfair. The Democratic presidential debate last month initially focused on national security and proved equally atrocious. Democratic counterterrorism strategy questions veered strangely to discussions on climate change and the economy. Despite attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in recent weeks, neither party’s candidates, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, appears to offer any reasonable policy positions for defeating the Islamic State menace some so enjoy inflating when bashing the current administration.

Political debates at this level are inherently political theater, but presidential primary debates have become more bizarre and grotesque with each election cycle. We should expect no difficult questions from CNN moderators regarding U.S. counterterrorism strategy broadly, or more narrowly about how to defeat the Islamic State. But, let’s imagine an ideal debate where candidates didn’t really know the questions in advance and were required to elaborate on their tough talk. Here are five counterterrorism questions pertaining to the Islamic State that might be asked.

Question #1 — “Grand Strategy”
Do you believe the U.S. should continue to spread democracy across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as a long-term strategy to counter violent extremism?

Think back to more than a decade ago, when the United States sought to build democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The big idea of the Bush administration: Americans would win the hearts and minds of communities gripped by extremists by providing them freedoms and civil liberties they had never before seen. In return, extremist in previously unstable enclaves would lay down their arms and settle their disputes peacefully through democratic processes. Headlines trumpeted the success of elections as Iraqis were photographed proudly displaying purple fingers showing they had voted. The result in Iraq — a failing state ripped by sectarian divides, whose American-trained Army proved incapable of repelling a mounted Toyota army called the Islamic State. The other result, in Afghanistan — a largely failed state where corruption and tribalism have provided endless opportunities for the always-resilient Taliban. Even during the Obama administration, the United States touted the amazing revolutions of the Arab Spring as social media posts toppled apostate dictators in a matter of days and weeks. The United States stood by and watched these flailing efforts at democracy in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia ultimately devolve into safe havens for extremism.

This counterterrorism strategy question is ultimately a choice between principles and pragmatism. American counterterrorism strategy was clearly one of idealism in the wake of 9/11. After two long wars, neither of which has entirely ended, Americans have stood by and whined about counterterrorism strategy as it has drifted further and further toward pragmatism. Drone operations, intelligence gathering, training and equipping incompetent armies in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as detention policies and even the return of prisoners from Guantanamo — all of these counterterrorism policies have come under fire in recent years by politicians, pundits and the public.

If the presidential candidates choose principles, then they will be for democracy and thus our counterterrorism approach should drift back to 2003, deploying troops, pursuing counterinsurgency, building government institutions, training armies — all expensive approaches we’ve failed to effectively implement since 9/11. If they choose pragmatism, then they are endorsing the current administration’s strategy, which introduces the risks of inaction, the backing of often nefarious proxies, reliance on drones, expansive intelligence operations, negotiating with enemies — all approaches the United States would have to take, but Americans don’t feel entirely comfortable doing.

Question #2 — “Counter-Islamic State Tough Talk”
Would you deploy 50-100,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State?

“Get Tough On the Islamic State” has been the preferred mantra of the candidates for president in 2016. The current U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State remains the toughest approach available short of deploying a large contingent of U.S. forces back to Iraq. President Obama just increased the deployment of special operations forces to combat the Islamic State twice in recent weeks. Any further deployment of troops will begin to feel like Iraq 2003.

A large-scale American military deployment is exactly what the Islamic State wants. American full-scale engagement in Syria and Iraq confirms the group’s narrative, will send foreign fighters flocking to Islamic State ranks, and will likely inspire further rounds of terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad. Meanwhile, one might argue that European and Arab governments should take on a larger burden of the fight against the Islamic State. It’s their foreign fighters that have flocked to and now power the group. Russia and Iran, both adversaries of the United States, also seem less incentivized to counter the Islamic State when the United States so boldly seeks the lead in countering the group. Russia has increasingly become a target for jihadist angst, so why would the United States want to step further back into jihadist crosshairs?

For any candidate that says he or she wouldn’t deploy troops to Iraq and Syria, I’d immediately follow up with: “You say you wouldn’t deploy troops to Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State, but what if the United States suffered an Islamic State-directed attack in a major American city like we saw in Paris last month? What if they bombed a U.S. embassy overseas?” I’d like to see them stay the course in their responses under those circumstances.

Question #3 — Terrorism Comparative
If elected, which of the following will present the greatest threat to U.S. national security during your administration?

  • Jihadist Extremism from al Qaeda and the Islamic State
  • Russian Aggression in Ukraine, Syria and in Cyberspace
  • Iranian Pursuit of a Nuclear Weapon
  • Continued Amassing of U.S. National Debt
  • China’s Territorial Aggression And Rampant Theft Of Intellectual Property through cyber attacks
  • Climate Change

The question would be impossible to deliver during a televised debate, but provides an interesting spectrum for argument’s sake. Republicans over the last four years have shut down the government at times, posing rising national debt as a security concern. China and Russia have become incrementally more aggressive in recent years. Both countries have beefed up their militaries, deployed forces in ways not seen in decades, and utilized new opportunities on the cyber battlefield to strike asymmetrically at the United States.

The Iranian nuclear deal just this past year became a focal point for partisan debate. Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon puts the United States at great odds with its Arab allies in the Gulf and Israel. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders posed climate change as the greatest threat during the Democratic debate and received sharp criticism across the board, appearing unfit to lead America’s foreign policy.

When evaluated comparatively across this list, jihadist extremism may very well be the least important national security challenge for the next administration — that’s right, last place, six out of six. News headlines gravitate to the bloody, but al Qaeda today is not al Qaeda of 9/11. Even in 2001, the terrorist group never posed an existential threat to U.S. stability. The Islamic State is violent, bloody and despicable, and they more than likely will execute a terrorist attack in the near term against American targets abroad or at home. However, neither terrorist group may actually be one of our top five national security priorities despite all of the attention they enjoy from our politicians and the media.

Question #4 — ISIS Big Picture
Under your administration, how would you bring an end to the Syrian conflict?

Any serious strategy for defeating the Islamic State requires an end to the Syrian conflict. The Islamic State’s rise over the past four years came in large part from U.S. and Western negligence. The Syrian civil war not only empowered the rise of the Islamic State, but has provided al Qaeda yet another opportunity, through its affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, to survive and thrive in a post-Bin Laden era.

The persistence of the Syrian civil war ignites detrimental migrations both into and out of Syria. The conflict sends foreign fighters into Syria where they take up arms and get indoctrinated into extremism, later becoming hardened, trained fighters that will propel future waves of terrorism. The conflict then sends innocent civilians fleeing Syria filling refugee camps regionally and igniting a refugee debate in Europe and even the United States. As long as the Syrian civil war continues, these problems will persist.

Strategically, the U.S. effort to defeat the Islamic State without solving the Syrian civil war remains untenable. Any Iraqi Army success pushing the group from western Iraq or Kurdish advances into northern Syria only displace the Islamic State to other security vacuums in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran focus their efforts on crushing a Syrian resistance the United States may later need to govern a post-Islamic State Syria. Any Syrian civil war settlement will require negotiation with Russia and Iran — something no “Tough On the Islamic State” presidential candidate will want to admit on live television.

Question #5 — Tactics Against the Islamic State
Training and equipping armies and militias to fight the Islamic State has failed. How would you propose the United States build Sunni Arab partners in western Iraq and eastern Syria to destroy the group and restore governance?

Identifying and empowering Sunni Arab partners to counter the Islamic State remains the longest pole in the U.S. counter-Islamic State tent. The American withdrawal from Iraq failed to leave promised governance and opportunity to Sunni Iraqis. Their disenfranchisement left the door for the Islamic State open. Sunni Arabs in western Iraq and eastern Syria may not be particularly enthused about living in the Caliphate, but for some it’s the best option available. Dictatorships have proven unpalatable and democracy has failed to deliver the dream. At least in some parts of the Caliphate, the lights are on and the water flows.

Even if all other parts of the U.S. strategy were successful, victory will not come unless the United States and its Western partners can find some Sunni Arab partners to fill the void left in the Islamic State’s wake. Failing to gain such a partner will result in either a lingering Islamic State or a protracted Sunni–Shia conflict where countries throughout the region pick militias as proxies to do their bidding — a quagmire that will plague any victorious presidential candidate.

Four years ago, both candidates and constituents sought to avoid foreign policy discussions, instead seeking to focus on domestic issues. But this round of presidential candidates will not be so lucky. The international scene today has proven more complex and the United States faces national security challenges of magnitude and degree of complexity it hasn’t seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Americans will be well served, when they hear the coming months of national security tough talk regarding the Islamic State, to look for those candidates that can explain “how” they’ll be tough.


Clint Watts is a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.


Image credit: Peter Stevens