Harold Hutchison / September 30, 2016

Debating How to Deal With the Islamic State

Clinton and Trump both skirt what must be done.

Watching the first debate, in which Hillary Clinton came out swinging against Donald Trump (with Lester Holt acting as Candy Crowley Lite), one could be skeptical about our willingness to deal with the Islamic State. Both Hillary and Donald made some points, but both avoided what really has to be done.

Let’s get the one good point Hillary Clinton made out of the way. We have allies in the region. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are friendly to us. Yes, some Saudis may have participated in 9/11, and their government has been somewhat negligent in dealing with Islamic extremism, but compared to the Iranian regime, the Saudis are mostly on our side. Jordan has fought alongside the U.S., and had one of their pilots burned alive by those ISIL swine.

But the fact is, Clinton bears plenty of responsibility for the present state of affairs. She and Obama simply failed to negotiate an extension to the Status of Forces Agreement George W. Bush lined up (although Bush should have made the original deal for 10 years to preclude a timetable-based withdrawal). She and Obama could have secured that deal in any number of ways — yet they chose to do none of them, because they both had a political agenda to attend to. Her blaming of Bush is but a typical Clinton dodge.

Trump, on the other hand, has a lot more right. He’s correct that Hillary is revealing too much of her playbook to the Islamic State. If they’re recruiting online, they’re probably looking at other stuff online. ISIL is not to be underestimated; why tip our hand? Trump was also right that a residual force in Iraq would have arrested the development of ISIL in that country, confining them to Syria.

That said, while Trump is likely to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” what’s missing is the appropriate follow-through once that decision has been made. Let’s be very clear: In 30 hours from the final “go” order, the United States could pull a page from the playbook of Sir Arthur Harris and use it on Raqqa, delivering a punishing blow to that terrorist group. In 30 days, two divisions of American ground troops could help Iraqi forces chase Islamic State fighters back to their holes. But that’s only the short-term solution.

The problem is that Trump isn’t thinking about what to do after the initial round of fighting. This would repeat the mistakes that both George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama made in the region: They didn’t finish the job, and in both cases, the U.S. had to send troops back into harm’s way. Bush Senior’s mistake had American troops going back a decade later. Obama’s had Americans back three years after they left.

To defeat the Islamic State over the long term, the best option is to look at what we did after the Korean War. Unlike the fight with ISIL, the Korean War was a draw when the armistice was signed. However, the U.S. turned that draw into a strategic victory. It took a residual force, but by the 1980s, South Korea was becoming a capable partner, and by 2000, that country could pretty much take care of itself.

The good news is that Iraq is not as bad off as South Korea was in 1953. The bad news is that it will still take a long time and will thus require patience. That is somewhat of an open question with Trump. It will also require that he listen to George W. Bush’s 2007 warning about the consequences of leaving too soon. This situation can be salvaged and turned into a long-term win, but it requires an honest look at what must be done.

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