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How President Trump Or President Clinton Might Deal With ISIS


This week, NPR and its member stations are examining how candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump view America's role in the world. The project is called A Nation Engaged.


And one way the next president will have to engage with the rest of the world is when it comes to international terrorism. Joby Warrick, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of the book "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS," came by our studios. He said there is no doubt ISIS is losing territory. The group's dream of creating a caliphate might be in jeopardy, but they are still able to carry out horrific attacks, something Trump or Clinton will have to deal with.

JOBY WARRICK: So they've got a problem that's not going to go away anytime soon for the next administration, no matter who it is. They're going to be continuing to fight this fight in the Middle East. They're going to have to continue the effort to take down the caliphate. And they're going to have terrorist attacks they're going to have to deal with. And those terrorist attacks, when they happen, create a lot of fear. It panics people. It makes them want to do rash things. So part of the challenge is not just preventing terrorism attacks, but preventing a bad outcome when they happen, preventing people from making choices that will be harmful to us in the long run.

GREENE: Choices like sending in troops to somewhere that might be dangerous and counterproductive, or what are the bad choices that are the real risk?

WARRICK: Yes, everything from overreaction militarily, doing things that really harm us or overextend us, to just people making political choices. Deciding to exclude large groups of people would actually - is helpful to ISIS and really counter our own values and our own message as a democracy.

GREENE: Now, hearing the words, exclude certain people, I mean, a lot of critics of Donald Trump would point and say, he's already talking about something like that in reaction to ISIS in this world. So talk to me about Donald Trump and what you see as his approach to ISIS if he's president.

WARRICK: This is the thing that probably troubles people the most. He talks about ISIS a lot. He talks about defeating them. He's not very specific in how he wants to do it, but he does talk quite a lot about dividing Muslims, somehow singling them out, making them different from everyone else. And he has some support from that. The problem is leaders of the Muslim world, you know, Muslims in this country, when you - when you alienate them, when you drive them away, you're driving away one of your best allies in this fight. And also, just ideologically, ISIS wants this to be a fight between the West and Islam. And if we create this dichotomy that you're either Muslim or you're with us, then that really helps them.

GREENE: Donald Trump makes the argument that the Obama administration, which Hillary Clinton was a part of, has failed in its fight against ISIS and suggests that if you bring in an entirely new idea, entirely new policy, entirely new group of people who are making policy that that might be the way to fight this group. Is there some legitimacy to that argument?

WARRICK: It's not so much legitimacy just as much as just popular appeal because that sounds great. You know, we've struggled with this for so long. People see these horrific images on TV. Let's just walk away from it. Let's do something completely different. But where you get into trouble is the specifics. What are you actually going to do? Are you going to bomb cities like Raqqa, where there are tens of thousands of civilians who are essentially captive to ISIS? What does that do for the U.S. image around the world and for ISIS' recruiting ability? Do you exclude Muslims and make it look like we're not really, you know, a democracy that believes in equal treatment under law, but we're an exclusivist country that fights Muslims as a matter of principle?

GREENE: Has President Obama's policy on ISIS been a success, a failure, somewhere in between?

WARRICK: It's hard to argue that Obama's policies have been successful if you just look at where we are on the ground. A lot of things that could have gone wrong have gone wrong in the Middle East under his watch. Many people, including some in the Hillary camp, argue that he should have been more proactive in the Syrian conflict, should have armed the rebels, should have prevented this area from sinking into this morass that it's in right now. Whether or not he could have really changed history by giving a few weapons to moderate rebels is just another question that we'll really never know the answer to.

GREENE: As you listen to what Donald Trump is saying and then what Hillary Clinton is saying, in terms of the specifics, in terms of the policies, do you see any really big differences when it comes to actually what they would do in office with ISIS?

WARRICK: Well, I think we know that Hillary Clinton will probably be a continuation of the strategy we have now, perhaps more muscular. She's known as a bit more hawkish on foreign policy. She wants a no-fly zone in Syria to protect Syrians and protect refugees and also Syrians who are fighting on our side. She's wanting to do things quicker, pick up the tempo.

GREENE: More so than President Obama - more hawkish, you would say.

WARRICK: Yeah, she's tried to distinguish herself on the margins from President Obama's policies right now. But a lot of it's more of the same. The problem that Trump and his supporters have is they haven't really articulated a policy except that they want to do sort of a quick victory in the Middle East, and nobody really knows what that looks like. They're very contradictory when they talk about it. So it's really hard to get a good picture of what Trump would actually do.

GREENE: Let me just finish with this. I mean, this is a project where we're really trying to connect voters to the issues. If a voter is thinking about his or her choice in this election and saying, God, ISIS is the thing that scares me most in this world - one or two things that you would want Americans to think about when it comes to ISIS as they make this decision and shape their vote.

WARRICK: Well, one has to avoid thinking of ISIS as this 10-foot giant because, really, what they do very well is attack soft targets - airports, shopping centers, that kind of thing. They're not an existential threat to this country or really any of our allies. They are a ongoing nuisance and also certainly a violent threat.

GREENE: You say nuisance. I mean, a lot of people, you know, might hear that and say, my God, but, I mean, think about Paris and think about Brussels and think about Istanbul. But you're saying that there's not evidence at this point that they could do something, say, like 9/11.

WARRICK: When we talk to security officials in this country, they don't see them having the capability of pulling off, say, a 9/11-style attack, the kinds of things that can really, you know, just rattle a country's economy and its - and its security. I think people see them as a bigger threat than they are, and that is helpful to them, too, because they absolutely want people to be afraid.

GREENE: Joby, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

WARRICK: Enjoyed being here.

GREENE: Joby Warrick is author of "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS." He is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.