Since the Paris attacks last November and the San Bernardino shootings a month later – the first directed by ISIS and the latter inspired by the terror group - the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates have offered more details on their plans to counter the Islamic State. The presidential hopefuls have presented an array of opinions, with some urging a more aggressive posture, including American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have so far resulted in six frontrunner candidates: For Democrats, the candidates are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; for Republicans, the leading candidates are billionaire Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor, John Kasich. One of those six will likely be the next U.S. president.
ISIS actually cares about the identity of the next American president. The actions of one U.S. president helped create ISIS in the wake of the Iraq war; the non-action of another U.S. president allowed the group to emerge as the political and military power that we know now. Like voters, ISIS prefers candidates who serve its objectives.
Although the Islamic State has not made its preferences about the candidates known, there’s no doubt that some of the contenders appeal to the group more. More than anything, ISIS wants a president who will play into its hands by inspiring more recruits to join the fight against the West. Perhaps the best recruiting tool ISIS could hope for would be having more American soldiers on the ground fighting against the self-proclaimed caliphate. Other potential recruiting points include discriminatory regulations aimed at Muslims in the West, the explicit use of torture, more aggressive alliances with Shia military groups, and indiscriminate bombing.
Here's a roundup of how the candidates say they'd manage the threat from ISIS and what ISIS’s response might be for each of them.
Trump: Trump has argued that the U.S. should temporarily prevent all non-American Muslims from entering the U.S. He also said that he would consider shutting down mosques at home. Trump recently said he would bring back “waterboarding,” a form of torture used by the CIA in the Iraq War, and used by ISIS. He also said he would use methods that go beyond waterboarding. His approach to defeating the terror group is to “bomb the hell of them.” He said he would even consider sending 10,000 U.S. troops to Syria and Iraq. Trump has also praised Russia for its attacks against ISIS. He has pledged to deport all Syrian refugees who resettle in the U.S. if he is elected president.
ISIS: Trump’s controversial statements on Muslims and his family members’ Jewish ties definitely rank him as ISIS’s most preferred candidate. His consideration of sending 10,000 U.S. troops to fight ISIS is another reason for the terror group to wish him luck in his presidential quest. We know that the Somali terror group al-Shabaab that is affiliated with al-Qaeda has already used his statements against Muslims in one of their propaganda videos. With Trump in the White House, ISIS would likely try to attack the U.S. homeland to provoke Trump to take more radical positions than he already has, to encourage him to send as many U.S. troops as possible to the battlefield.
Sanders: The Vermont socialist wants to build a global coalition to take on ISIS, saying that he would even be open to working with Russia and Iran to defeat the extremist group. Sanders says the coalition should include Western powers, Muslim nations and Russia. He also called on Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to play a greater role in the campaign against ISIS. In terms of the U.S. military role, Sanders says that military force should be a last resort, not a first move.
ISIS: Among the six candidates, Sanders’ position is the least militarized. This will look to ISIS as a continuation of the Obama administration’s approach. However, his Jewish background would be a great propaganda tool for a terror group from the Arab world, where anything and everything wrong is blamed on a “Jewish conspiracy.” For these reasons, he could very well be ISIS’s most preferred candidate.
Cruz: Senator Cruz considers the Kurds the boots on the ground that could finish the job of defeating ISIS. He has called on Congress to pass a bill he introduced in 2014 that would allow government officials to take away U.S. citizenship for anyone suspected of supporting terror groups. Cruz has said that the U.S. should reject Muslim refugees from Syria but allow Christians to enter. He also thinks the president must declare war against the group and step up the existing bombing campaign. He said during a speech in Iowa on Dec. 5, "We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out."
ISIS: Cruz favors Christian Syrians over Muslims and his constant support for Israel could make him another preferred candidate for ISIS. His has a bill pending in Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and the largest Islamic political movement in the Middle East, a terrorist organization. That would be music to ISIS’s ears. His opposition to arming the Syrian rebels will make him even more appealing. If Cruz were elected, ISIS might try harder to attack the U.S. homeland and Israel in the hopes of forcing him to send U.S. troops to the front.
Rubio: It is worth noting that the Florida senator is the only candidate among the six who has a detailed and specific plan for combating ISIS on his website. Rubio said that the U.S. will need a significant number of special operators to supplement a majority Sunni ground force (made up of Sunni fighters from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and Sunnis from Iraq and Syria) to defeat ISIS militarily and ideologically. He has called for the United States to provide both air support and logistical support.
Rubio has also said the U.S. should stop the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States by enforcing no-fly zones in Syria, restore the NSA's data collection powers and reverse mandatory defense spending cuts. He says he would demand that Iraq's government give greater autonomy to Sunnis. At home, Rubio has suggested that the U.S. should shut down any institution where radicals are being inspired. Rubio has also called for the removal of al-Assad’s regime in Syria by arming the Syrian rebels. Another strategy put forth by Rubio is his plan to have U.S. special operation forces destroy ISIS training camps, and have the forces film these attacks in order to humiliate ISIS.
ISIS: Many of Rubio’s suggested actions to counter ISIS are closer to Clinton than Trump. However, his statement on the clash of civilization (indicating an ideological war between the Christian West and Islam) is exactly what ISIS has been promoting for years. If he is elected president, ISIS might find a use for that statement as an introduction to every propaganda video the terror group produces. ISIS’s reaction to his election would likely be an attack on the U.S., thereby bringing Rubio’s (and ISIS’s) views on the clash of civilizations to fruition.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor calls for a worldwide coalition, including NATO countries, along with other Middle East nations to become involved in fighting ISIS. He also supports no fly-zones and arming the Kurds. But he, too, has called for boots on the ground to defeat the group. He offered an odd non-military solution in an interview last Nov. 18 with NBC News when he said, “We need to beam messages around the world about what it means to have a Western ethic, to be a part of a Christian-Judeo society.” He then announced his plan to create a new federal agency tasked with supporting the Jewish and Christian traditions around the world. Kasich said his new agency would have a “clear mandate to promote core Judeo-Christian, Western values that we and our friends and allies share.”
ISIS: Kasich’s approach to defeating ISIS is something between that of Sanders and Cruz. ISIS’s reaction to his election for the U.S. presidency would be likely mean attacks on the U.S. homeland.
Clinton: Clinton’s strategy calls for more air strikes on the group's strongholds in Iraq and Syria. But she said it would be a mistake to send in American combat troops, even if there is an attack on U.S. soil. Instead, Clinton has said she would work to persuade more Iraqi Sunnis to join the fight, arm them if necessary, and convince Turkey and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to partner with the U.S. She advocates for a no-fly zone over northern Syria to protect civilians from the violence, but says the U.S. should admit refugees after they pass rigorous background checks.
ISIS: For ISIS, U.S. presidents with no foreign affairs experience are a gift. Among the six contenders, Clinton is the only one with that experience, thus, least preferred of all five. Clinton’s commitment not to send U.S. boots on the ground and her argument for increasing air strikes against the terror group – which is a major demand for those who fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria – make her more problematic for ISIS. Because of her strategy, ISIS might step up its efforts to target the U.S. homeland and Europe to pressure any upcoming Clinton administration and its European partners to send U.S. and Western troops to Iraq and Syria.