from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Guest Post: Clinton vs. Trump on Defeating the Islamic State

March 11, 2016

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Tina Huang is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State will be a leading foreign policy issue for the incoming administration. Thus, it is crucial to understand the proposed policies of the candidates. The current results of the primary elections indicate that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump will likely win their party’s nominations. Though both candidates use strikingly similar rhetoric to describe how to counter the Islamic State, a close analysis of the details they each have provided exposes starkly different approaches.

First, Clinton and Trump have both stated that they would disrupt the Islamic State’s Internet access and social media presence. During a Republican debate, Trump said, “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.” Similarly, Clinton expressed that her administration would “deny them virtual territory.” The two candidates agree that, to do this, private companies should play a role. Clinton has urged Silicon Valley to “disrupt” the Islamic State by blocking or removing militant websites, videos, and encrypted communication. Trump, more vaguely, has claimed, “we have to get them [Silicon Valley] engaged.”

However, other details the candidates have proposed for limiting the group’s online presence differ. Clinton has focused on attacking specific online infrastructure that the Islamic State utilizes to disseminate propaganda and communicate, whereas Trump has suggested he would close undefined “areas” of the Internet where the group is known to operate. He has not expanded on where those “areas” are, which therefore could be interpreted as cutting off specific geographical areas in the Middle East or blocking part of the Internet worldwide.

Second, Clinton and Trump both believe that severing funding to the Islamic State is vital to defeating the group. Currently, the Islamic State brings in about $500 million a year from oil revenue, which makes up nearly 38 percent of its annual income. The group’s remaining profits stem from kidnapping ransoms, anonymous donations from governments and individuals, agricultural trade, and taxation. If elected, Trump has claimed he will “take away their wealth…take away the oil…I’d bomb the hell out of that oil field.” Contrastingly, Clinton has argued, “we have to go after nodes that facilitate illicit trade and transaction,” urging the UN Security Council to “update its terrorism sanctions” and “place more obligations on countries to police their own banks.” She directs responsibility toward governments and international organizations to take action that would prevent funds from reaching the Islamic State; whether states will take this initiative is speculative.

Lastly, both candidates have expressed support for U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and ground troops to counter the Islamic State, but they differ on the specifics. Trump has advocated employing airstrikes to destroy oil fields, as previously mentioned. During a campaign speech in Iowa, he stated, “I would just bomb those suckers…I’d blow up the pipes…I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.” Though he suggested he would target the families of terrorists—a statement he later disputed—he did not clarify whether he would use airstrikes for this purpose. Rather, Trump has claimed, “I don’t like talking so specific….I want to be unpredictable.” Clinton, on the other hand, has proposed a three stage counterterrorism campaign that, in addition to targeting the group’s finances and online presence, aims to strip its control over territories in Syria and Iraq by executing a “more effective coalition air campaign, with more allies’ planes, more strikes, and a broader target set.”

Looking to their proposals for ground troops, when Trump has been asked if he would send troops to the Middle East, he has provided an ambiguous response such as “I would do whatever you have to do” or “’ll need some ground troops.” Trump has said that their purpose would be "to protect the oil," but has not elaborated. Clinton has delineated her plan to take back territory and asserted that “airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces.” She insisted that Congress should approve the deployment of U.S. special forces, not exceeding one hundred thousand soldiers. Clinton has gone further to explain what these groups should do once they are deployed: “We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni Awakening” by providing training and support for Sunnis within the region.

Clinton and Trump both agree that defeating the Islamic State will require precluding the group’s exploitation of the Internet, hindering its funding, leading an air coalition, and deploying ground troops. However, how they would each go about this and for what purpose differs. Clinton is firm in her position that defeating the Islamic State requires destruction, not containment, and has developed a thorough campaign to reinforce her stance. While Trump has yet to buttress his strategy with details, he should take the opportunity to expand on the specifics of his plan as the primaries continue and, potentially, during the general election debates. If Trump and Clinton compete in the general election, comparing and understanding their strategies for countering the Islamic State is imperative to ensuring the greatest security for the United States during the next administration.