Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, Dec. 16, 2915:
The fifth Republican presidential debate took place last night and focused on national security. It was filled with substance discussions of how the U.S. should fight Islamist extremism, highlighting important differences on handling Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, democracy promotion and an almost universal desire to ally with Muslims who stand against Islamist extremism.
You can read the Clarion Project’s factsheets on each Democratic and Republican presidential candidate’s positions related to Islamist extremism here. These factsheets do not reflect new positions taken during last night’s debate. Here is a round-up the specific issues discussed by the candidates last night:
Identifying the Ideology
All the candidates defined the enemy with different variants of “radical Islam,” as opposed to Hillary Clinton’s definition of it as “jihadism” and President Obama’s choice of “violent extremism.” A few of the candidates displayed a greater knowledge of the nature of the Islamist ideology.
Rick Santorum identified the core threat as a “theocracy doctrine” emanating from the fact that Islam originated as a dual religious-governmental system under sharia law.
He said this feature makes Islam “different” from other major faiths. “Islam is not just a religion. It is also a political governing structure. The fact of the matter is that Islam is a religion but it is also sharialaw; it is also a civil government; a form of government. And so the idea that that is protected under the First Amendment is wrong. And, in fact, that political structure is what is the big problem. The imposition of sharia law adherence in fundamental Islam, as it was practiced in the 7th Century. There has to be a line drawn,” he said.
Santorum also said the conflict has evolved into World War III because U.S. policy has “lit the fuse of a nuclear Iran.”
Mike Huckabee stated that he agreed with Santorum’s assessment of Islam. He later said that the objective must be to defeat “every form of radical Islam,” which is an expansion from the exclusive focus on ISIS and Iran.
Ted Cruz said that the U.S. is not at war with the faith of Islam but with a political-theocratic Islamic ideology. He pointed to India, a country with a large Muslim population, to show that the West is not at war with the entire Muslim world. However, Cruz said that being a “Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter” is not the answer and mocked democracy-promoters for touting moderate Muslim forces that are like “a purple unicorn” and end up being jihadists.
Proposed Ban on Muslim Immigration
Donald Trump stood by his call for a halt to all entry of Muslims into the United States, though he has clarified in recent days that there would be a small number of exceptions such as Muslims who serve in the U.S. armed forces. His proposal was rejected by each of the other candidates.
Lindsey Graham directly addressed the estimated 3,500 Muslims serving in the U.S. military to thank them for their service and said that U.S. strategy needs to work with those within the faith of Islam to defeat the extremists. He told the following brief story to make his point:
“I was at the second presidential election in Afghanistan. The guy guarding me was an American-Muslim sergeant in the Army who grew up in Kabul, left when he was—he graduated high school, joined the U.S. Army, went back to his high school where they were doing polling, people voting. He took me there and cried like a baby. And I cried like a baby. He is the solution to this problem, folks. He is not the problem. Leave the faith alone.”
Graham said that Trump’s language has done the “one single-most thing you should not do—declare a war on Islam,” adding that “ISIS would be dancing in the streets [at Trump’s language]—if they believed in dancing.”
George Pataki condemned the proposed ban and Trump’s overall attitude towards Muslims, accusing him of demeaning millions of Muslim-Americans. He described Trump as a modern-day version of the Know-Nothing Party that opposed Catholic immigration. Pataki said the U.S. should embrace Muslims who oppose jihad within the U.S. and abroad.
Mike Huckabee pointed out that the ban is also impractical. A jihadist who desires to kill will certainly be willing to lie about whether they are a Muslim when attempting to enter the country.
Resettling of Syrian Refugees inside America
All of the candidates opposed President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in some way.
Several pointed out that the female ISIS terrorist who participated in the San Bernardino terrorist attack expressed her desire on social media to commit violent jihad and still passed through the Department of Homeland Security’s vetting process for a K-1 visa to come to the country. Shockingly, immigration officials are prohibitedfrom reviewing social media postings of visa applicants. Only now is the Department of Homeland Security revising its vetting process to include social media activity.
Ben Carson said that the best solution is to help the Syrian refugees resettle in the region and in safe zones inside Syria. He said that an alliance of Syrian Kurds, Christians and moderate Sunnis have come together (referring to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) that oppose both Assad and ISIS and is creating such a safe zone in the Hasakah Province in Syria.
Rick Santorum added that the Department of Homeland Security should be able to consider a broader range of indicators of Islamist radicalization when granting visas to enter the country, such as whether the applicant attends a mosque with a history of extremist preaching.
Santorum also said that bringing in persecuted religious minorities into the U.S. as refugees isn’t the preferred option because then they lose their ancestral homeland. He said it also means the U.S. has less moderate Muslim allies in the area, so it’s better to assist with setting up refugee camps.
Carly Fiorina explained some of the flaws in the Department of Homeland Security vetting process. She said that names are checked against databases of suspected terrorists, but that would not necessarily include terrorist sympathizers. She pointed out that parents and employers regularly review social media accounts of other people but the security officials cannot.
John Kasich emphasized that he is opposed to an eternal ban on resettling Syrian refugees but that a pause is needed as the vetting process is reviewed in light of discovered flaws.
Mike Huckabee took strong offense to the notion that opposing the resettlement of refugees is a hypocritical position for a Christian to take.
Ted Cruz explained his opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone metadata and his vote in favor of the USA Freedom Act to stop the bulk collection. He argued that the act actually expand the amount of counter-terrorism intelligence available to authorities, reduce information overload that inhibits operations and expand the surveillance of other phones used by terrorists.
Marco Rubio defended his support of the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata and said the changes under the USA Freedom Act means that federal authorities have lost valuable intelligence. He alluded to the fact that his position in the Senate gives him access to classified information that would vindicate his position.
Rand Paul sided with Cruz in opposing the NSA’s metadata collection program on the grounds of civil liberties and that it results in information overload for the authorities.
George Pataki most strongly spoke about Islamist extremist networks within the U.S. aside from terrorist cells. He cited the NYPD’scontroversial counter-terrorism intelligence-gathering as a model of success because it focused on mosques, community meetings and social media where radical ideologies are present. In the past, he has said he’d apply the same standard to any houses of worship or public venue where it is known that violent extremism is being advocated.
Pataki said that the advocating of violence against Americans, including support for jihad against the U.S., is not protected free speech and should be prosecuted. He has previously stated that non-profit organizations that promote terrorist groups or incite violence against Americans should lose their tax-exempt status.
Pataki said that the U.S. must work with Muslims who oppose violent jihad abroad and at home, implying that the U.S. has not done enough to support moderate leaders domestically like the newly-announced Muslim Reform Movement.
He twice emphasized the need for a law to force communications companies to have a backdoor key so the authorities can decode any encrypted message sent through their service, pointing to how 109 encrypted messages sent by an ISIS supporter who committed a shooting in Texas have still not been deciphered by the FBI.
Carly Fiorina opposes a federal law like Pataki talked about, saying that private companies will cooperate if asked as she did when she led Hewlett-Packard. She recalled an incident where she responded to the NSA’s request for assistance.
John Kasich spoke about the need to enable the federal authorities to decode the encrypted messages of terrorists.
Mike Huckabee agreed with Pataki that it is not a violation of the Constitution for the NYPD and other agencies to attend public venues just like any American citizen can, whether it’s to listen to a sermon at a mosque or a church. Huckabee questioned the motives of Islamic groups that oppose such practices. He said that a house of worship with a true message of peace would be okay with anyone attending and would hope of winning a convert.
Ben Carson says he supports the authorities monitoring anywhere that shows signs of radicalization, including mosques and Islamic schools. He explicitly referenced a 1991 U.S. Muslim Brotherhood Explanatory Memorandum that was released during the trial of the Holy Land Foundation for financing Hamas. Carson mentioned how the memo indicates that the Brotherhood planned to use political correctness against us.
Rick Santorum, as mentioned above, said that the political-governmental aspects of Islam should not be treated the same way as the solely religious part of Islam. He said the former is not protected by the First Amendment in the same way.
He supports the NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection and emphasized that the data is not the content of conversations and has no personal identifiers unless someone’s phone number is linked to a phone number used by an overseas terrorist. His argument is that the collection of more anonymous data enables less intrusive intelligence collection that raises privacy issues.
He opposes a measure by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to prevent the purchase of guns by those who are on the no-fly list because of constitutional concerns. The individual is denied a right by being placed on a secret list without recourse. He said that a better option is stronger coordination between the government agencies so background checks detect suspected terrorists trying to purchase guns.
Lindsey Graham supports the NSA’s metadata collection program. He added that once an American’s phone number is found in a terrorist’s phone, a court order is still needed in order to authorize a wiretap of that American citizen’s communications.
Chris Christie emphasized that he worked as the U.S. Attorney for N.J. and prosecuted terrorists using controversial programs like the Patriot Act and maintained his support for them. He said he worked successfully with the Muslim community in his state on counter-terrorism efforts.
Jeb Bush sounded dismissive of the need for broader authority to monitor radicalization within the U.S. He said that the FBI and other agencies are already watching anti-American activity and it shouldn’t even be a part of the public discussion.
War Against ISIS in Iraq and Syria
Lindsey Graham remains the only candidate calling for a major U.S. ground offensive against the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS/ISIL) involving 10,000 troops in Iraq and 10,000 in Syria. He said that only 10% of the troops in Syria would be American, with another 90,000 coming from Turkey and neighboring Arab countries. He believes that the Syrian-Russian airstrikes have eliminated the option of supporting Syrian rebels on the ground to do the fighting for us.
His plan would involve a long-term occupation of territory and nation-building, including building girls’ schools in villages, in order to counter the radical Islamic ideology. His plan is opposed by Santorum and Pataki.
Rick Santorum supports increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and providing trainers in Syria but would not deploy combat troops to Syria because it risks “crossing a tripwire theologically that could turn on us.” He accurately explained that ISIS’ propaganda is that it is fulfilling apocalyptic End Times prophecies and that luring U.S. troops into Syria and a “particular town” (referring to Dabiq) would vindicate its claims.
He said that Islamic teachings compel Muslims to follow thecaliphate and ISIS has the first one since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. He believes that the key to defeating ISIS is that Islamic law teaches that a caliphate’s defeat means it does not have Allah‘s blessing, so forcing it to lose territory to Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis would destroy its legitimacy.
George Pataki supports increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and brought attention to the success of Iraqi Sunni tribes who are advancing against ISIS in Ramadi and want more U.S. assistance. He said he would not direct aid through the central Iraqi government in Baghdad to ensure speedy delivery.
In Syria, Pataki advocates supporting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern and eastern Syria that defeated ISIS in Kobani. He favors working with Turkey to establish a no-fly zone along the Syrian border to stem the flow of refugees. Russian aircraft that violated the no-fly zone would be targeted.
He opposes a long-term occupation as described by Graham. He pointed out that the 2003 invasion of Iraq took a turn for the worst once the population viewed U.S. troops as long-term occupiers instead of liberators, particularly when U.S. forces were hosted inside of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.
He recommended working with Saudi Arabia because it justannounced an alliance of 34 Muslim countries to combat terrorist organizations and promoters of violent ideologies (even though alliance members included known sponsors of extremism).
Marco Rubio described ISIS as the most sophisticated terrorist group the U.S. has ever faced and warned that it is growing in Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen and has Jordan “in its sights.” He warned that ISIS is winning the propaganda war and that the U.S. needs a strategy that exposes the hardships of life under the ISIS caliphate and broadcasts our successes so that they no longer look invincible to recruits.
Rubio, like Santorum, referred to the apocalyptic brand of radical Islam practiced by ISIS. He said that the perception that ISIS is succeeding furthers their propaganda that they are waging a war foretold in prophecy that will end with the West’s defeat.
Jeb Bush said that the U.S. must arm the Kurds directly and go around the central Iraqi government’s authority, as well as establish a no-fly zone over Syria. He would embed U.S. forces within the Iraqi security forces to improve their effectiveness and “get lawyers off the backs” of the U.S. military so there’d be less restrictions.
Mike Huckabee said he supports increasing U.S. troops in Iraq and would be comfortable with an addition of 10-20,000 troops. He would dramatically increase the air campaign against ISIS, pointing out that President Obama boasts of 9,000 air sorties against the group over 18 months but 3,000 sorties happened daily during the Gulf War. He would also loosen the rules of engagement.
Ted Cruz similarly said he would use “overwhelming air power” to defeat ISIS and would directly arm the Kurds. He made a similar statement as Huckabee did but with different numbers. He claimed that there were 1,100 air attacks per day during the Gulf War and today it is only between 15 and 30.
Ben Carson spoke in support of arming certain groups inside Syria that oppose both Assad and ISIS and emphasized destroying ISIS’ ability to raise money through black market oil sales. He claimed that ISIS is able to recruit disaffected people by offering money, indicating he believes that there is a connection between poverty and Islamist terrorism.
Carly Fiorina said that she’d involve Arab partners like Jordan and Egypt to fight ISIS and would bring back the best military minds like General Keane, General Petraeus, General McCarthy, and Lt.-General and former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn.
John Kasich likewise pointed to Saudi Arabia’s announcement of an alliance against terrorist groups and ideologies and said the U.S. must work closely with it. He called for a major international ground offensive like what happened in the Gulf War.
Donald Trump said the U.S. should have a cyber warfare team that takes down the Internet over parts of Iraq and Syria where ISIS operate. He also criticized the media for glorifying ISIS terrorists as “masterminds” of plots. Trump also defended his idea to kill or punish the families of ISIS terrorists since they desire to lose their own lives.
Rand Paul was the most direct opponent of using U.S. combat forces in the region, saying that only Arab troops should partake. He also does not support arming Syrian rebels against ISIS because they are allies of Al-Qaeda and other jihadists.
He criticized Trump’s idea of killing or punishing the families of terrorists by saying it would require that the U.S. withdraw from international treaties like the Geneva Convention.
Toppling the Pro-Iran Syrian Dictatorship
Lindsey Graham said it is “imperative” that Assad be removed from power because he has killed nearly a quarter-million Syrians and the civil war will not end until he leaves. He also said that supporting Assad is akin to supporting Iran because he is their ally and a sponsor of terrorism.
Rick Santorum agrees that the U.S. must force Assad out of power, partially because of a dangerous perception in the region that the U.S. has chosen to ally with Iran and Shiite extremists against the Sunnis. He said that ISIS uses this as powerful anti-American propaganda.
Marco Rubio supports removing Assad from power because his reign is a “main reason” why ISIS exists. The Assad dictatorship’s oppression caused and sustains the civil war that enables ISIS to find safe havens. He also mentioned that Assad is an anti-American ally of Iran who sponsored terrorists in Iraq to kill U.S. servicemen.
Chris Christie supports removing Assad and says his rule is interconnected with the strength of ISIS. He said that ISIS recruits from the oppression of Sunnis by Assad and Iran.
John Kasich supports a policy of removing Assad from power with the help of regional allies like the bloc announced by Saudi Arabia.
Rand Paul opposes a policy of removing Assad from power and removing secular dictatorships more generally, arguing that history shows it leads to the rise of radical Islam. He said that supporting Syrian rebels means supporting the allies of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Paul also criticized proposals for a no-fly zone over Syria, saying it would risk World War III if Russian aircraft violated it and were shot down.
Donald Trump made a similar argument in opposing overthrowing Assad and reminding the audience of his opposition to the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya. He said the U.S. should seize the oil of Iraq and use the revenue to pay those that served in the war.
Ted Cruz said that he would not have a foreign policy of democracy promotion, involvement in civil wars removing Assad from power. He predicted that ISIS would take over the rest of Syria if Assad falls.
Mike Huckabee indicated that he does not support a policy of removing Bashar Assad from power because he is not killing Americans. He compared supporting the Syrian opposition to the Obama Administration’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
All of the candidates oppose the nuclear deal with Iran and the debate did not highlight their differences on whether they would immediately withdraw from the deal, alter it in cooperation with allies or only abandon it if Iranian violations are detected.
George Pataki argued that the deal does not technically exist and so the U.S. is not required to abide by it any longer. He said it was not ratified as a treaty by the Iranian government and they already violated the agreement by testing long-range ballistic missiles. The U.S. would therefore not be withdrawing from the agreement.
Rick Santorum said that the deal is effectively over because the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed in a recent report that Iran is still withholding information about its past nuclear weapons work.
Mike Huckabee said he would sanction Iran and stop unduly pressuring Israel, accusing the administration of putting more pressure on Israel over building bedrooms in Judea and Samara (also known as the West Bank) than on Iran for building nuclear weapons.
Ted Cruz made sure to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group when he criticized those who supported the removal of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Ben Carson explicitly referenced a 1991 U.S. Muslim Brotherhood Explanatory Memorandum that was released during the trial of the Holy Land Foundation for financing Hamas. Carson mentioned how the memo indicates that the Brotherhood planned to use political correctness against us.
Mike Huckabee criticized the Obama Administration for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Ted Cruz blasted the Obama Administration and his Republican rivals who supported the NATO intervention in Libya’s civil war to topple the Gaddafi dictatorship. He characterized Gaddafi as a counter-terrorism partner. Cruz contrasted their argument that he would be replaced by moderates with the current instability and ISIS presence in Libya.
Marco Rubio countered that the U.S. did not start the revolution in Libya and that inaction would have brought results similar to what we see in Syria, where extremist militias and terrorists grow in power as the civil war continues. He pointed to Gaddafi’s record of sponsoring terrorism against the U.S., including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and the bombing of a club in Germany frequented by U.S. troops.
Rand Paul opposed the U.S. involvement in Libya’s civil war that removed Gaddafi from power, describing it as an example of a flawed strategy of undermining secular dictatorships in Muslim countries.
Lindsey Graham did not directly say whether he would deploy U.S. troops to Libya to fight ISIS’ advances in that country.
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.