Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had their first presidential debate and early indications are that it was a big win for Clinton (although post-debate media coverage is equally as important in impacting polls). But where did the candidates stand on issues related to radical Islam?
The War on the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL)
The major point of difference here was the wisdom of publicizing a plan, even a general one, against ISIS.
Clinton argued that she is the only one of the two who has proposed a plan, which she summarized as waging cyber warfare, closer partnerships with technology companies to stop radicalization, intensifying airstrikes and providing more support to Kurdish and Arab allies on the ground.
She said she believed ISIS could be expelled from Iraq within one year and “squeezed” in Syria in order to undermine their claims of having established a caliphate. Clinton also vowed to target the ISIS leadership like she did with Al-Qaeda and to “take out” the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
She criticized Trump for not publishing a plan beyond saying he’d pick the best generals and “knock the hell out of” ISIS with NATO support. She suggested that this means he has no plan and that his comments related to the Muslim world would alienate allies from working with us.
Trump argued that he has a secret plan and it is most responsible to not publicize it. He said that Clinton and the political class are unable to defeat ISIS, as evidenced by how “you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” Clinton responded by telling the audience to fact-check him.
The U.S. campaign against ISIS began in September 2014 after the group became independent of Al-Qaeda and declared a caliphate. Technically, Trump could argue that it existed previously as an Al-Qaeda branch and took the name of “Islamic State of Iraq” in 2006 and, before that, was an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq birthed in 1999. The answer depends on when you consider ISIS’ existence to begin.
Trump blamed the rise of ISIS on the Obama Administration’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (when Clinton was secretary of state), saying that at least 10,000 troops should have been left behind, and that the U.S. should have seized the oil in Iraq and Libya to prevent a group like ISIS from financing itself.
Clinton responded that the Obama Administration withdrew based on a timeline established by the Bush Administration and the elected Iraqi government. She says the only way troops could have been left behind would have been getting Iraq to agree to an adjustment that would grant immunity to U.S. troops in the country, which the Iraqis were unwilling to do at the time.
The two also argued over whether Trump is accurate in saying that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq before it began and the NATO military intervention to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The main point of contention between the two candidates was the nuclear deal with Iran.
Trump blasted the financial transfers to Iran and said the deal puts Iran on the path to become a “major power.” He said that the Israeli prime minister is “not a happy camper.” The deal, he said, rescued the Iranian regime when it could have fallen due to the sanctions. He also blasted the deal for not accounting for Iran’s weapons of mass destruction work with North Korea and support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Clinton argued that Iran was closer to developing a nuclear weapon before the deal and that an attempt at diplomacy is preferable to war. She took credit for implementing the tough sanctions that Trump praised.
She also chastised him for his reaction to the Iranian military taunting U.S. personnel at sea by saying he’d authorize our forces to “blow them out of the water.” She said that would start a new war, which he disagreed with.
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the Homeland
Clinton proposed an “intelligence surge” to produce “every scrap of information” possible about terrorist groups and plots against the U.S. She described the Muslim-American community as the “front line” in fighting terrorism because they are most likely to develop the intelligence that law enforcement needs.
She argued that Trump’s comments alienate Muslims inside the U.S. and around the world and make it less likely they’ll work with law enforcement.
Trump responded by pointing to endorsements from generals, admirals and Customs and Border Protection agents as proof that he can be trusted to protect the homeland.
Blocking Gun Sales Based on Terror Watch Lists
Clinton proposed that individuals whose names appear on terrorist watch lists and the no-fly list should be barred from purchasing firearms. Trump surprisingly expressed agreement, with the caveat that any move must include a way for those incorrectly placed on the lists to appeal and get removed.
The proposal is a touchy subject. Islamist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) accuses supporters of such proposals to be anti-Muslim and mislead audiences about the issue. Gun rights advocates understandably argue that the watch/no-fly lists are filled with errors and amount to a suspension of the Second Amendment without due process.
Clinton emphasized her opposition to more countries like Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons and claimed that Trump said he’d be willing to accept such scenarios so they are less reliant upon the U.S. She said that it shows his “cavalier attitude towards nuclear weapons.”
Trump denied that was his position and said he agreed with Clinton that nuclear proliferation is the number one security threat to the U.S.
Both candidates agreed that the U.S. must remain or become the leader in cyber warfare and defense technology, but disagreed on how Russian cyber aggression fits into the equation.
Clinton argued that the U.S. needs to convince adversaries like Russia and Iran that state-sponsored cyber attacks will result in retaliation. She criticized Trump for his history of favorable comments towards Russian President Vladimir Putin. He protested her depiction of him as a supporter of Putin.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.