On ISIS, Clinton Has the Edge Over Rubio


When ISIS attacked Paris on Nov. 13, killing 130 and injuring hundreds more, national security became the most important issue in the U.S. presidential race. Less than a week later, on Nov. 19, two of the top contenders for the presidency, a Republican and a Democrat, released their plans for defeating ISIS. Marco Rubio released his strategy in an op-ed published in Politico, and Hillary Clinton explained hers during a speech given at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The plans are similar in many ways, but on the whole, they show that Clinton has a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and is likely to make a better commander-in-chief than Rubio (not to mention all the other candidates).

To start, both recognize the need to deal with Bashar al-Assad, and they do so in nearly the same way. Rubio and Clinton both call for no-fly zones to keep Assad's air forces grounded, as well as the creation of safe areas to which Syrians can flee without leaving the country. These measures would make Assad less of an immediate threat to Syrian opposition forces, freeing them up to focus more on fighting ISIS.

This isn't, by any means, a permanent solution to the problem of Bashar al-Assad, as it would leave him in power. According to Clinton, however, it is necessary to focus on ISIS and leave Assad for later. “Right now, we've got the Russians in protecting Assad, the Iranians and Hezbollah protecting Assad,” she said, “We need people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS.”

Rubio is less clear, saying that “[c]utting off oxygen to ISIL also requires defeating Assad in Syria.” What exactly does it mean to “defeat” Assad? Presumably, to defeat Assad would be to remove him from power, but Rubio does not specify how he would do this.

Both plans also call for the use of ground forces to reclaim territory from ISIS. Neither specifies to what extent these forces would come from the United States.

According to Clinton, the United States is supposed to lead primarily by instructing and training local forces, and that outside troops, including our own, will play a supportive role. “Local people and nations have to secure their own communities,” she said, “We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them.”

Rubio appears to agree, saying that he would “build a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria to aid local forces on the ground.” But he also sounds more eager to send in U.S. troops: “I will tell my commanders that the mission is the total destruction of ISIL and will send them the forces necessary to succeed.” Does this mean another U.S. war in Iraq? Perhaps Rubio is being purposefully vague in order to keep as many options open as possible.

In particular, Rubio and Clinton believe that the Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis, both of whom are marginalized by Iraq's Shiite government, must be armed. Rubio says he would “demand that Iraq's Shiite-dominated government grant greater autonomy to Sunnis, and would provide direct military support to Sunnis and Kurds if Baghdad fails to support them.” Similarly, Clinton calls for “national reconciliation” and cooperation. “Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS,” she said, “But if Baghdad won't do that, the coalition should do so directly.”

Last but not least of the big similarities between the two plans, both call for the expansion  of airstrikes against ISIS, as well as the improvement of intelligence-gathering to make these strikes more effective.

One of the few points on which Rubio and Clinton explicitly disagree is whether or not to let Syrian refugees into the country. Whereas the first thing Rubio says he will do in his plan is stop Syrian refugees from coming into the United States, Clinton believes that refusing to accept refugees is unnecessary, and would be equivalent to “abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations.”

As explained by Dr. Joseph Loconte, Associate Professor of History at The King's College in New York City, in a Nov. 24 article in Providence Magazine, there's little reason to think that allowing Syrian refugees to come into the country will significantly increase our risk of being attacked. The U.S. screening process for refugees is already extensive, and can take up to two years. While it's not unreasonable to call for caution, it is unreasonable to pretend that we're not being cautious already.

However, Rubio's promise to stop Syrian refugees from coming into the country is just one symptom of the disease that afflicts his plan—he prioritizes politics over policy.

Rather than laying out his policies in detail, Rubio chose to publish a buzzword-loaded Politico op-ed of about 900 words, a sizeable portion of which he devotes to criticizing Obama, Clinton and the other Republican candidates. In doing so, he put his rhetoric on display while hardly giving us a glimpse of his reasoning. In order to secure more votes, Rubio is pandering to an electorate that perceives President Obama as too soft.

In contrast, Clinton's speech was over 4000 words, not counting a Q&A session which took place afterwards. Not once did she make negative comments about any of her opponents. It was all about her policies and the rationale behind them.

Again, the plans differ little in substance, but greatly in form. And it is precisely these differences in form that tell us what we need to know about our candidates. Rubio can talk the talk, but he is less experienced and less knowledgeable than Clinton, and he hides behind his rhetorical ability. He focuses more on painting himself as the anti-ISIS candidate than on putting forth a viable strategy and explaining why it will work. I don't think Rubio is ignorant, but I'm also not nearly as confident in his understanding of the conflict in the Middle East as I am in Clinton's after reading both of their plans.

Sounding like you know what you're talking about isn't enough; wars are not won with words. If Rubio wants to strengthen his candidacy, he should take his cue from Clinton and discuss his policies in greater detail without using flashy rhetoric and presidential put-downs to score easy political points.