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Much has been made about the differencees between the two candidates during last night’s debate: Donald Trump’s wild-eyed raving vs. Hillary Clinton’s calm poise; his waffling vs. her firm command of facts and figures.
When it came to the issue of national security, however, the candidates often seemed to be reading from the same playbook. Their convergence signals a bipartisan consensus on certain national security measures that is likely to carry on well past the election and into the president’s first term.
Both Trump and Clinton voiced the belief that the United States needs to be best in the world at cyber warfare. Clinton vowed to “make it very clear…the United States has much greater capacity” to wage such attacks itself. Trump agreed. “As far as the cyber,” he said, “we should be better than anybody else.”
Such rhetoric suggests both candidates are happy to commit the United States to escalating a global cyber arms race that would likely have dangerous consequences. Cyberattacks can theoretically undermine a nation’s financial system, shut down its power grid and even infiltrate its military’s computer systems.
By Obama’s admission, America has “more capacity than anybody, both offensively and defensively.” The Obama administration was responsible for the Stuxnet computer virus, which crippled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2010 and has been called “the most menacing malware in history” and “the first publicly disclosed cyberweapon.” The virus has been compared to a digital version of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and is blamed for triggering the existing global cyber arms build-up. The United States was planning a similar attack on North Korea that year and had also planned a much larger and more extensive cyberattack on Iran in case nuclear talks failed, with the aim of targeting the country’s power grid, air defenses and communication systems.
The risk is that by further amplifying its cyber capabilities, the United States will serve to escalate an already frantic global cyber arms race. At least 29 governments have been collecting malicious code and hacking software in response to fears of being left behind, while a multi-billion dollar “cyber-industrial complex” has sprung up in recent years. Just as with nuclear weapons decades ago, such an arms race threatens to destabilize a delicate global equilibrium.
Recruiting tech companies as global police
Next, the candidates suggested that the United States’ status as a tech hub could somehow be used against terror groups that use the internet.
“We came up with the Internet, and I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much…they’re beating us at our own game,” said Trump.
“I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the Internet to radicalize, even direct people in our country and Europe and elsewhere,” said Clinton.
It was a familiar refrain for Clinton, who in June (following the Orlando shooting) suggested tech companies should help with “intercepting ISIS’ communications, tracking and analyzing social media posts.”
The idea of weaponizing tech companies and using them as political operatives at the service of the government has the potential to set a dangerous precedent: Today, it’s terrorists; tomorrow, it will be another ideology viewed as suspect or dangerous.
In 2013, the revelation that U.S. telecommunications companies had been giving the NSA secret backdoor access to their data was a major scandal. Clinton’s proposal would be even more invasive, requiring Silicon Valley employees to monitor people’s communications online and determine whether or not they are security risks.
It’s also difficult to see how the plan would be workable in practice, as it would require tech workers to comb the Web for every suspicious-seeming communication. Facebook alone stores around 600 terabytes of data per day. The NSA itself is inundated with more data than its employees can handle, ironically making it less effective at discovering actual threats. Why would tech companies do any better?
“No fly, no buy”
Each candidate also endorsed the much-maligned so-called “no fly, no buy” proposal championed by Democrats after the Orlando shooting: the idea that anybody on a terrorist watchlist should be automatically barred from purchasing a gun.
“If you’re too dangerous to fly, you are too dangerous to buy a gun,” said Clinton. “I think we have to look very strongly at no-fly lists and watchlists,” said Trump.
As many pointed out the first time the measure was proposed, there are several problems with this. No-fly lists are notoriously unfair and riddled with errors, listing people who happen to share names with suspected terrorists, including a U.S. senator, reporters who have travelled to particular locations and, in one case, a baby. And once your name is added to a list, removing it proves virtually impossible.
Moreover, the measure would have done nothing to prevent any of the recent mass shootings carried out by terrorists in the United States, as none of those individuals were on watchlists when they bought their guns. The ban would simply entrench and legitimize a grossly unjust, not to mention constitutionally dubious, system.
Countering terror with terror
Neither Clinton nor Trump laid out a counter-terrorism strategy beyond simply bombing ISIS until it ceases to be.
Clinton recommended the United States “intensify our air strikes against ISIS and eventually support our Arab and Kurdish partners” against the group in Syria, while Trump asserted that “we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS.”
Such policies do little to address the underlying roots of the support for ISIS and terrorism in general. A campaign of endless bombing can do little against an endless supply of recruits.
Additionally, the situation with our “partners” is far from as simple as the candidates suggest. While the Kurds have been the most effective fighting force against ISIS, Turkey sees the Kurdish expansion in Syria as a threat to its own security and has waged war on the them. To avoid alienating Turkey, a key ally in the region, the U.S. has in fact lent air and ground support to the Turkish campaign against the “Kurdish partners” that Clinton pledges to support.
Clinton also spoke about a strategy she first outlined last week: defeating ISIS by taking out the group’s leadership, particularly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its top leader. To this end, she cited her successful efforts in eliminating the leadership of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden while she was secretary of state.
Except this strategy was only a success in the most narrow sense. While Democrats celebrated the killing of Bin Laden and the “decimation” of Al Qaeda in 2012, ISIS — a meaner, more extreme successor — was moving to fill the vacuum left by the weakening of the group. If ISIS were truly to disappear by this time next year, the conditions and grievances that animate its followers would simply push them into the arms of another group.
Trump’s eagerness to resume torturing prisoners and commit war crimes has often been cited as proof that a Trump presidency would be uniquely dangerous. Yet yesterday’s debate showed that when it comes to several crucial questions regarding national security, there is little daylight between the two candidates. If the debate is anything to go by, whoever wins come November, the United States is likely to continue marching inexorably down the path it began back in September 2001.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.