Comparing the GOP candidates' ISIS strategies with Obama's

A motorcyclist travels through a heavily damaged neighborhood in Kobane, Syria, which was targeted by a series of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes aimed at the Islamic State. (The Washington Post)
A motorcyclist travels through a heavily damaged neighborhood in Kobane, Syria, which was targeted by a series of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes aimed at the Islamic State. (The Washington Post)

How did Republicans describe President Barack Obama’s ISIS strategy at the most recent presidential primary debate in Las Vegas? "Wrong," "reckless," "left us unsafe," "leads from behind" and "feckless weakling."

Behind that rhetoric, however, the proposals offered by the GOP field contain little detail or largely follow the White House’s plan.

The biggest issue is how few specifics the Republican candidates offer on how they would fight ISIS, the terrorist group that currently occupies territory in Syria and Iraq.

"When no one defines their terms, deals with key issues like where and when, or changes in land forces, then no one knows how much they agree or differ," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Christopher Preble, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, noted that while it’s easy to disparage Obama’s policies, the critics aren’t offering anything different.

"You’d expect them to stake out positions that are obviously hawkish — large number of troops, more involvement, limited amount of negotiations — but I haven't seen that, to be very honest," Preble said.

On ground troops and international cooperation

Virtually every Republican who participated in the debate has voiced general support for ground troops in the region, with the notable exception of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. But few have articulated how the deployment would differ from Obama’s current use of U.S. troops. Currently, there are 50 special ops but no combat troops in Syria and a task force of 200 servicemen, in addition to the 3,500 troops already in Iraq.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has advocated for increasing the number already stationed, but hasn’t given specific numbers. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has called for 6,500 additional troops in Iraq.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham had the most hawkish position, advocating for 10,000 troops in Syria as part of a larger regional force. But Graham dropped out of the race on Monday.

To our knowledge, while many have called for "boots on the ground," no other candidate has  specified where these boots should be stationed or how many pairs are needed.

Similarly, every one of the candidates has called for working with a coalition of Western and Arab countries and arming Kurdish and other tribal forces fighting ISIS.

The United States has been working with a multinational coalition since 2014 and indirectly arming the Kurds as well.  

On the air war

Since the air war against ISIS began in August 2014, the U.S.-led coalition has launched 9,011 airstrikes against ISIS, targeting weapons, checkpoints, buildings and positions, personnel, vehicles and oil assets.  

All of the GOP candidates support this campaign, though some have criticized it for being limited. For example, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has said he’d "bomb the ---- out of" ISIS while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz repeats a call to "carpet bomb them into oblivion."  

Trump has offered no specifics on what this would look like, besides targeting oil controlled by ISIS — which is already happening. Cruz, for his part, incorrectly defines "carpet bombing" as "embedding special forces" to select discrete targets — which "we are already doing," military historian Lance Janda told PolitiFact.

The notable policy option where the GOP candidates break with Obama’s plan is on the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria (in which unauthorized aircraft are prohibited from entering). The Republicans as well as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton are for it, while Obama has opposed it as unsustainable and unrealistic.

To establish a no-fly zone, the United States would have to play a central role in its management and upkeep, escalating its role in the Syrian civil war, writes Karl Mueller, an analyst with the global policy think tank the RAND Corporation. Yet many candidates who support a no-fly zone also oppose intervention in the Syrian civil war, at least for the time being.

On nonmilitary measures

The differences between the Republican field and Obama are more stark when it comes to humanitarian assistance and overall rhetoric.

The administration announced that it will accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees next year. Virtually all of the candidates oppose this, citing security concerns. Bush and Cruz want to make an exception for Christian refugees, while the campaigns for Paul and Graham emphasized that the ban would be temporary.

The GOP field also diverges from Obama in rhetoric, with the Republicans repeatedly using the term "radical Islamic terrorism." Obama avoids using the words as a strategy to isolate the group. Obama says he doesn’t want to feed the narrative of the United States being "at war with Islam."  

The candidates’ ISIS strategies, in one chart

Here’s a chart laying out the proposals we found from the candidates. Bold text reflects a position that is different from Obama’s.

 

Ground troops¹

Air war

International cooperation

Nonmilitary measures

Donald Trump (R)

Supports ground troops in the region¹

•Continue airstrikes

•Target oil assets

 

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Marco Rubio (R)

•Supports an unspecified number of special ops troops in the region

•Expand airstrikes

•Supports a no-fly zone

•Supports safe zones in Syria

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Arm and support Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces²

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

•Supports invoking Article 5³

Ted Cruz (R)

Opposes ground troops in the region⁴



 

•Expand airstrikes and targets

•Include Jordan and Egypt in the multinational coalition⁵

•Arm and support Kurdish and Peshmerga forces²

Supports accepting some Syrian refugees⁶

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Ben Carson (R)

•Supports special ops troops in the region¹

•Continue airstrikes

•Target oil assets

•Supports a no-fly zone

•Supports safe zones

•Include Jordan and Egypt in the multinational coalition⁵

•Arm and support Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces² 

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

•Supports declaring war on ISIS³

Jeb Bush (R)

•Increase ground troops in the region

•Continue airstrikes

•Supports a no-fly zone in Syria

•Supports safe zones in Syria

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Arm and support Kurdish and Iraqi forces²

Supports accepting some Syrian refugees⁶

•Supports declaring war³

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Carly Fiorina (R)

•Opposes ground troops in the region

•Supports special ops troops in the region

•Continue airstrikes

•Supports a no-fly zone in Syria

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Arm and support Kurdish forces²

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Chris Christie (R)

Supports ground troops in the region¹


 

•Supports a no-fly zone

•Supports safe zones in Syria

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam

John Kasich (R)

•Supports ground troops in the region¹

•Continue airstrikes

•Supports a no-fly zone

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Arm and support Kurdish forces²

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Supports invoking Article 5³

Rand Paul (R)

•Opposes combat troops in Syria⁷

•Opposes special troops in Syria

•Opposes combat troops in Iraq

•Continue airstrikes

•Opposes a no-fly zone

•Arm and support Kurdish forces²

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees⁸

•Supports invoking Article 5³

•Supports declaring war³

Mike Huckabee (R)

•Supports ground troops in the region¹

•Continue airstrikes

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Arm and support Kurdish forces²

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Rick  Santorum (R)

Station 10,000 troops in Iraq

Continue airstrikes

•Arm and support Kurdish forces²

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

George Pataki (R)

•Supports ground troops in the region¹

 

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Opposes accepting Syrian refugees

•Supports using phrases like "radical Islam"

Hillary Clinton (D)

•Opposes combat troops in Syria

•Supports special troops in Syria

• Opposes more combat troops in Iraq

•Expand airstrikes and targets

•Supports a no-fly zone in Syria

•Supports safe zones in Syria

•Work with a multinational coalition

• Arm and support Kurdish forces²

•Supports accepting Syrian refugees

•Rejects using phrases like "radical Islam"

•Supports declaring war³

Bernie Sanders (D)

•Opposes combat troops in Syria

•Opposes special troops in Syria

•Opposes combat troops in Iraq

•Continue airstrikes

•Opposes a no-fly zone

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Supports accepting Syrian refugees

•Rejects using phrases like "radical Islam"

Martin O’Malley (D)

Opposes combat troops in Syria

Supports special troops in Syria

•Opposes more combat troops in Iraq

•Continue airstrikes

Opposes a no-fly zone

•Work with a multinational coalition

•Supports accepting Syrian refugees

•Rejects using phrases like "radical Islam"

• Supports declaring war³

  1. Notes
  2. 1. Some candidates have not offered details on how the number and location deployed will differ from Obama’s use of ground troops.
  3. 2. The Obama administration has been indirectly arming Kurdish forces through the Iraqi government. The United States is legally prohibited from directly arming the group, which is not a fully independent nation.
  4. 3. Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any one member country shall be considered an attack on all. Neither France, which declared war on ISIS following the Paris attacks, nor the United States has yet to invoke it. Obama asked Congress to formally authorize the war on ISIS in February 2015, but Congress rejected it.
  5. 4. Cruz’s comments suggest that he opposes deploying combat troops in the region. A spokesperson for his campaign told PolitiFact he "has not taken anything off the table" regarding ground troops, but "we do need to maximize other resources before we put servicemen and women in harm's way."
  6. 5. Cruz and Carson have specifically mentioned Jordan and Egypt as countries that should be part of the global coalition against ISIS. Those two countries, however, have expressed no interest in joining.
  7. 6. Cruz and Bush support accepting Christian refugees fleeing from Syria.
  8. 7. Paul opposes sending ground troops into the region period, but said if Congress declared war, he’d send in "overwhelming force."
  9. 8. The Paul and Graham campaigns emphasized that the ban would be temporary.