Ending the scourge of terrorism that is sending shivers around the world, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Monday, requires a two-pronged approach: keep terrorists from coming to the U.S., and kill them where they live. But his remarks, while full of bluster, offered few specifics on doing either.
“Only those we expect to flourish in this country and to embrace a tolerant American society should be issued visas,” Trump said, declaring that admission would be restricted to “those who support our values.” He called for a return to the kind of Cold War-era ideological exclusions the U.S. used to keep communists out. He added that he would be willing, as commander in chief, to partner with any nation—specifically mentioning communist Russia—dedicated to the destruction of Islamic terrorism: “Any country which shares this goal will be our ally.”
In sweeping remarks in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump made clear he sees the war on violent Islamic fundamentalism as a clash of civilizations, something Presidents Bush and Obama have refrained from saying. “Anyone who cannot name our enemy, is not fit to lead this country,” Trump said. “Anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our President.”
He blamed Obama and Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent who served as Obama’s first secretary of state, for the rise of the Islamic State, which Trump said has spread from seven to 24 nations since 2014. “My Administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS,” Trump said. But he didn’t spell out how he would accomplish that, beyond calling for an “international conference focused on this goal.”
Make no mistake about it: While Obama has cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq from 180,000 to 15,000 during his time in office, the fear of terrorism on U.S. soil has only grown on his watch. Clinton’s policy for handling the threat posed by ISIS and other terror groups largely replicates what Obama is already doing. Basically, she just wants to do more of it, faster. “It is not enough to contain ISIS and the threat of radical jihadism—we have to defeat it,” her campaign says on her website, echoing Obama’s pledge, first made two years ago, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Like Trump, Clinton offers few specifics of how she would actually do it.
The threat of terrorism remains perhaps the most combustible issue in the election, and one difficult for many voters to keep in perspective. “I don’t believe that we ought to just simply scare people and instill a lot of fear in them, and to predict the inevitability of the next terrorist attack,” Jeh Johnson, chief of the Department of Homeland Security, told TIME recently. “We have an obligation to lay out all the things that we are doing for public safety and for homeland security.” But there will be additional terror attacks on Americans on U.S. soil. The key to any successful long-term U.S. anti-terror strategy is to build the public’s resilience so that the nation can fight terrorists without launching wars to do so.
Trump declared that he would no longer engage in nation-building, which has sucked tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury to such efforts (some valiant, some dubious) in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon has long argued that it doesn’t do nation building, but that line fell apart as the U.S. troop presence in both countries stretched into years, and it became clear that the military was the only U.S. agency with sufficient money to get things done.
Every senior U.S. military officer knows military force isn’t sufficient to turn the tide in these conflicts. “It should be clear by now, and no one knows this better than our military leaders, that even as we need to crush [ISIS] on the battlefield, their military defeat will not be enough,” Obama said during a visit to the Pentagon Aug. 4. While Clinton and Obama’s first Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, called for a massive civilian increase in U.S. efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, that never happened. Inevitably, that meant as the U.S. military pulled out, so did the creaky scaffolding it provided each country’s shaky central government.
Trump’s pledge to scrub would-be terrorists disguised as immigrants from coming to America ignores the rigorous screening those wishing to come to the U.S. already undergo. It follows his call last year to suspend all Muslim immigration to the U.S. until the policy is reviewed and tightened, if necessary. And it does nothing to address the threat posed by homegrown terrorists whose only link to Islamic jihadists is via the Internet.
Trump’s speech echoed his first major foreign-policy address in April. He is trying to convince voters that he has the smarts and temperament to serve as President. Earlier this month, a group of 50 GOP national-security heavyweights declared they would not vote for him because he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”
Trump’s willingness to embrace as an ally, at least temporarily, any state fighting ISIS, represents the flip side of what President George W. Bush said a week after the 9/11 attacks. “From this day forward,” Bush told Congress, “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Eighteen months later, that language led the U.S. to invade Iraq.
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