Hillary Clinton's ISIS Speech at CFR

Summary of the Speech and Q&A

On November 19, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on how she would defeat ISIS.  Her plan “to defeat and destroy ISIS” would have three core goals: 1) defeat and destroy ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; 2) disrupt and dismantle the infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing arms, and propaganda; and 3) harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.

Clinton devoted much of the speech to the first prong of her strategy. On the Iraqi side, she proposed an “intelligence surge” of technical and linguistic experts into the region, alongside closer cooperation with allied intelligence services. She called for a more effective air campaign, featuring more planes, strikes, and targets, in tandem with ground forces aiming to retake territory from ISIS.  Clinton also implied that she would consider increasing freedom of movement for our own troops, potentially allowing them to embed in local units and help target airstrikes. She suggested that Congress should pass a new authorization of military force to signal its commitment to the fight.

Yet Clinton underscored that any increased efforts “will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight.”  That cannot happen, she argued, “so long as [Sunnis] do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS.” Harkening back to the Surge, she acknowledged Washington’s success in persuading Sunni tribes to root out al-Qaeda. But she blamed the collapse of those gains on Nouri al-Maliki, under whose rule the tribes “were betrayed and forgotten.” To reverse course, she called for the United States to “lay the foundation for a second ‘Sunni awakening’” by pressuring Baghdad to foster reconciliation.

On the Syrian front, she endorsed multinational negotiations over a new government. She also backed President Obama’s deployment of 50 special operations forces and indicated that she may consider sending more. In addition, Clinton argued that Washington must retool and ramp up training of Syrian opposition forces alongside its Arab partners, whom she suggested should send their own forces into battle. Clinton also proposed establishing a no-fly zone to staunch Assad’s slaughter and choke off ISIS’ supply lines.

As far as other key actors, she described Vladimir Putin, as “making things somewhat worse,” but stated that “there is an important role for Russia to help in resolving the conflict.” Clinton was particularly critical of Turkey, arguing that “we must get them to carry their share of the burden” and “stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS and become a full partner in our coalition.”  She argued the same of Arab states, noting that to encourage their participation, the United States “cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges” and must raise their confidence by raising costs for Iranian bad behavior.

In terms of disrupting wider terrorist networks, Clinton reminded her audience not to forget about al-Qaeda and other organizations.  She proposed a focus on slowing the flow of foreign fighters through coordinating with allies, again focusing on Ankara. “We should not stop pressing,” she said, “until Turkey... finally locks down its border.”  She also called on the U.N. Security Council to update its terrorism sanctions, and declared that “once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris, and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations” and the schools and mosques that radicalize.

On homeland security, Clinton triangulated on intelligence gathering and civil liberties. While “law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals... have warned that impenetrable encryption may prevent them from accessing terrorist communications,” she said, “we know there are legitimate concerns about government intrusion.”  She urged “our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy.”  Clinton also insisted on allowing Syrian refugees to enter the country.

Outside of her foreign policy outline, Clinton discussed the debate over how to name the adversary. She rejected use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” contending that it is not only a “distraction” but also alienates partners and gives terrorists “more standing than they deserve.”  She argued, “In the end, it didn’t matter what kind of terrorist we called bin Laden. It mattered that we killed bin Laden.”

 Clinton Then versus Now

In Iraq, Clinton’s call for a “second Sunni awakening” contrasts with her views on the Surge while serving in the Senate. There, she voted against the effort, arguing that it would “take us down the wrong road” and calling it a “dead end.” She later told Gen. David Petraeus that believing his first progress report on the mission required a “willing suspension of disbelief.” In her CFR speech, Clinton also blamed Nouri al-Maliki for mistreating the Sunni tribes of the awakening. But she overlooked her own administration’s responsibility for disengaging from Iraq entirely and for giving Maliki such uncritical support as he launched his repression. In sum, Clinton praised the surge that she opposed, and bemoaned the Sunni oppression she did little to stop.

 Clinton’s speech at CFR was preceded by a prior CFR address in June of 2014 where she admitted, “I could not have predicted…the extent to which ISIS could be effective in seizing cities in Iraq and trying to erase boundaries to create an Islamic state.” While Clinton can be forgiven for not having predicted some factors in ISIS’ success, she is guilty for not having heeded warnings about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Bush administration, the Pentagon, and al-Maliki himself.  Like President Obama, she misjudged the threat posed by ISIS, which was a highly consequential failure for the nation’s chief diplomat at the time of ISIS’ emergence

Clinton’s proposal for greater U.S. engagement in Syria—and her attempt to distance herself from President Obama’s record—also contrasts with her actions as Secretary of State. In 2009, she spearheaded the Obama administration’s outreach to Assad, touting it as a “fruitful engagement.” The negotiations produced little progress. In fact, Clinton admitted that Syria had reactivated the pipeline of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq, and the State Department caught Assad lying about arming Hezbollah with SCUD missiles.  Despite these revelations, Clinton stated—even after the Syrian revolt had begun—that ”there is a different leader in Syria,” and implicitly agreed with those who believed he was a reformer.

Most critically, she endorsed President Obama’s decision to sacrifice his red line against the use of chemical weapons, something she called an “important step.”  This failure to back rhetoric with action ushered in a U.S. withdrawal from the conflict, one that contributed to the survival of Assad, the rapid rise and spread of ISIS, and diminished U.S. credibility not only in the region but around the world.

Flaws in Clinton’s Current Proposal

Clinton’s current proposals to defeat ISIS would only deepen Sunni discord.  Although she argued that “regional politics are too interwoven” to separate the challenges of ISIS and Iran, her policy would do just that.  In the Q&A session, Clinton clarified that, “I think right now we have one overriding goal, as I outlined [ISIS]. There is not going to be a successful military effort at this point to overturn Assad.”  Yet Assad’s survival, with Iran’s aid, is a key driver of Sunni exclusion.  And the Iran nuclear deal that Clinton supports further discourages Sunni opposition to ISIS.  Why risk so much to fight, when the replacement means oppression from another source?  Clinton’s plan, therefore, would simply continue Obama’s failed approach:  putting aside our differences with Tehran and Moscow, when doing so only would deepen Sunni discord.

Clinton now says she favors a no-fly zone, although she did not explain how that would work with a Russian military entrenched in Syria.  Likewise, Clinton has a goal to “defeat and destroy ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East” but she didn’t explain how that would be achieved without the extensive use of U.S. ground forces that such a goal likely requires. 

Lastly, Clinton obscures the nature of the enemy and the terms of the debate.  By arguing that it “didn’t matter what kind of terrorist we called bin Laden,” she simplifies a deeply complex issue.  Although al-Qaeda and ISIS share broad ideological proclivities—as do other terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah—the differences between them are crucial to understanding their short-term tactics and long-term aims.  Obscuring these distinctions undermines our ability to develop a sound strategy for each threat.