Donald Trump says he has a master plan to defeat ISIS. But on Monday it was clear he has yet to update it to reflect the changing dynamics on the battlefield, which went either unnoticed or ignored by the Republican nominee in what was billed as a speech on how to defeat the terrorist group.
Trump spent a substantial amount of time in his speech hammering the Obama administration for not doing enough to defeat ISIS.
But in Syria, Libya, and Iraq, the multinational effort to defeat ISIS appears now to be on the upswing. And in the sparse moments when Trump actually proposed ideas to defeat ISIS, it sounded suspiciously like the ideas already being put into practice by his arch-nemesis Obama.
You know: the guy Trump called the “founder” of ISIS.
It was a speech that has become emblematic of Trump’s outreach to voters: deeply pessimistic, loose with the truth, and entirely unspecific.
“They’re trying to make it look much better than it is. It’s bad,” Trump said, referring to the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign’s assessment of ISIS. He noted U.S. Central Command’s overly optimistic reports on the rising ISIS threat and the internal strife that created, much of which was first reported by The Daily Beast.
But while the Republican nominee’s address in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday was billed as a speech describing new ways to defeat ISIS—in recent weeks ISIS has seen serious setbacks.
Trump denounced the situation in Libya, which he blamed on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But ISIS’s grip there is changing rapidly. ISIS appears to be on the verge of losing its African capital in the city of Sirte to local militia fighters who lately have been bolstered by U.S. airstrikes.
While Trump referred to stopping Syrian refugees from entering the United States, ISIS just suffered a major loss there Monday. After a months-long battle, Arab and Kurdish forces reclaimed a northern city that is on a key route for ISIS fighters, equipment and money traveling from Turkey into Syria. Over the weekend, video emerged showing female residents of this city burning their burkas and men cutting their beards, an outward display of the end of ISIS rule.
Meanwhile, ISIS already has lost territory in several Iraqi cities, including Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit.
To be sure, it is unclear how an often agile ISIS will adjust its tactics in the face of such territorial losses. Are its fighters simply fleeing in the hopes of fighting another day? Or will it increasingly seek to launch terror attacks in the face of territorial defeats?
These were not questions addressed by Trump, who nonetheless insisted he had the “mental and physical stamina” to defeat the terror group that Clinton lacks.
“The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary Clinton,” Trump said, adding later: “My administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation to cut off their funding, expanded intelligence sharing, and cyber warfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting.”
In fact, Trump did not offer many specifics about how to defeat ISIS but where he did, he largely repeated what already is happening.
Trump called for working with coalition partners, even as the U.S. war against ISIS consists of a coalition of more than 60 nations. He called for the use of drone strikes and the attempted capture of high-value targets, which already is happening.
He called for “extreme vetting” of those entering the United States, even as the U.S. has already done so. As of late last year, the United States had taken in fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees, out of millions fleeing violence in that country. And of that figure, the overwhelming majority are women, children, and the elderly. Half of those refugees who have found sanctuary in the United States are children, while only 2 percent are single males of so-called combat age.
On the lack of specifics he offered, Trump tried to lay out an explanation: “My administration will not telegraph exactly military plans and what they are,” he told the crowd, to applause.
Another major difference between Trump and Obama is that Trump called for working more closely with Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fatah el Sissi, to defeat ISIS, which has expanded its grip in the Sinai and along the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Much of the speech—much like his foreign policy speech earlier this year—was punctuated with contradictions.
While Trump said he would demand better human-rights treatment across the Middle East, he endorsed working with Sissi, who has systematically imprisoned thousands of opponents, limited freedom of speech and been unable to stop the expansion of ISIS in his country.
He said he would protect the LGBTQ community, even as he celebrated Russia, a state that has been historically resistant to embrace that segment of its population.
He also suggested a commission on “radical Islam,” suggesting that moderate American Muslims could explain to the American people and law enforcement community what drives and how to stop radicals within the population.
“We want to build bridges,” Trump said, despite having previously suggested during his campaign that he wanted a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country.
Trump also repeated a popular Republican talking point, saying Obama prematurely withdrew from Iraq. But while the withdrawal happened on Obama’s watch, the Bush administration negotiated the timetable for that withdraw with the Iraqi government.
It’s becoming a pattern with Trump: hype up a foreign policy speech, then deliver an unspecific diatribe long on rhetoric and short on specifics.
As he swiveled from side-to-side, reading the teleprompter he so famously maligned, he seemed to exude something far worse than his campaign’s tradition of half-truths and fear-mongering—in a monotonous voice, reading a speech that was out of touch with the current battlefield dynamics, he seemed, simply, bored.
Maybe he’d be less bored if he read up on the latest developments on the war with ISIS.