WASHINGTON — Presidential campaign rhetoric on the Islamic State often revolves around airstrikes and boots on the ground, but experts said Monday the candidates should be talking about the importance of fighting terrorism at its roots.
“You have to try to bring some of these civil wars to a close,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the think tank Center for a New American Security. “As long as the civil wars rage, I think you’re going to have the problem of terrorism, and that problem is going to affect the United States.”
Although Fontaine admitted that ending war is easier said than done, he said a military-only approach to combatting terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida is incomplete.
A panel of analysts convened hours before voting begins in the caucuses in Iowa, where on the campaign stump terrorism has remained a main talking point following the deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. last year.
But throughout the campaign, candidates’ proposals have been limited to imbedding ground troops, arming proxy soldiers or relying on airstrikes, said Larry Attree of Saferworld, a London-based not-for-profit organization focused on conflict prevention. Those strategies tend to stoke anti-Americanism in the countries they target, Attree said.
“I think there are more options on the table than we’re being told about,” he said, advising candidates to hone in on solutions such as improving governance through large-scale political change.
Among likely Republican Iowa caucus voters, Donald Trump is considered the best candidate for dealing with terrorism, according to a Jan. 11 poll by Quinnipiac University. Trump — who leads the Republican pack in Iowa based on the latest polls — has said, if elected, he plans to impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
Other Republican hopefuls have pushed for reducing terrorism using a bolstered U.S. military. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has argued for an increased defense budget to fight the Islamic State, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz promised in December to “carpet bomb them into oblivion.”
Contrary to the Republican rhetoric, the Barack Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategies have been just as militarized as those employed during the George W. Bush administration, said Sarah Chayes with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The only difference is the type of militarization; Obama uses drones to target major players in radical groups, Chayes said.
On the Democratic side, the candidates have emphasized avoiding use of U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS. Hillary Clinton has said she would continue President Obama’s strategies of striking ISIS by air and supporting local ground forces, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has encouraged neighboring Muslim countries to lend troops to fight the radical group.
But Chayes said U.S. leadership has largely ignored underlying issues of corrupt governance in countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, where radical terrorist groups thrive.
Although she recommended that the next president dial down military-focused counterterrorism strategies in favor of improving government, she said, “I don’t see that happening at all.”