Trump ISIS Strategy Worries Top House Armed Services Democrat

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he speaks with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during a town hall in September. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he speaks with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during a town hall in September. Evan Vucci/AP

How President-elect Donald Trump’s national security team will conduct the war on ISIS just two months from now is anyone’s guess, said a worried House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Calif.

Trump’s war cabinet is still being assembled with retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn named as the next national security advisor and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., as CIA director, but no defense secretary yet tapped for the job. Smith sharply criticized Flynn's foreign policy stances and disqualified one leading contender for the Pentagon helm, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., for subscribing to Trump’s vision of a more aggressive and unilateral American foreign policy. Cotton, at the Defense One Summit on Thursday, decline to discuss the potential nomination but argued for adhering to NATO alliance obligations. 

Smith was the guest of C-SPAN's Newsmakers program, paired for an interview with defense reporters from Defense One and Politico. The full video is available here.

“I don’t think these people know” how they’re going to fight against ISIS, Smith said of the Republicans lining up to help Trump. “There’s aspects of what they say that make sense to me,” he said, like the basic tenet of taking the fight to the Islamic State where they live, but questioned what else Trump’s team would do to contain the global extremist movement, given their campaign rhetoric against Muslims.

“The broader issue is ideological. We have got to work with moderate Muslims. And, you know, people like [Trump’s hand-picked chief of staff Steve] Bannon and Flynn would laugh at that sentence (saying,) ‘Well, there’s no such thing.’ Well, yes, there is.”

“There are many that we can work with, but if our rhetoric is all Muslims are bad, we must take them on, then those partnerships fall apart and we become more divisive,” he said. "I don't know what their shift is from their campaign rhetoric to actually governing, and I think the scary thing is neither do they."

Will that attitude against multilateralism and Muslims amount to a unilateral escalation of the ISIS war?

“I’m a little bit worried,” Smith said. “The Republican foreign policy of the last eight years has been very simple: 'Whatever President Obama does, it’s wrong.' Ok, well, that’s not a foreign policy. That’s not national security strategy.”

Smith defended Obama’s approach to Syria and Iraq. “I think President Obama has made the right choices not over committing U.S. forces, not making it look like a Western power was coming in to conquer a Muslim land, but by working with whatever partners we can find. And it’s not easy.”

“I would like to see the general approach the president has taken continue.”

But what Trump does in January, leaves Smith unsure.

“How’s he going to change it? What’s he going to do? His rhetoric could have you believe he’s going to go anywhere from pulling everybody out and saying we shouldn’t be in there at all to… a much more robust presence and to make this more of an American fight. And I think that would be a huge mistake.”

“You’ve got to find partners in the Muslim world and let them lead. They don’t want a Western Christian nation to come in and tell them how to live, and fix their problems and fight their fights. Does Donald Trump understand that? Does Michael Flynn understand that? I have more confidence in the latter.”

Watch the rest of the C-SPAN Newsmaker interview, including Smith’s comments on the defense budget to come, intelligence drone priorities for the ISIS war, and why he believes Democrats lost the presidency, here.

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