Donald Trump is no stranger to controversy. From spurious claims about Mexicans to mocking the disabled, Mr Trump has repeatedly outdone himself with over-the-top behaviour during the US presidential election. The Republican candidate’s comments on Islam, Muslims and the Middle East have been among his most incendiary.
He is now getting serious about policy in this region and we are paying close attention. After a week in which he claimed that American president Barack Obama and the Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton had founded ISIL – he later walked backed the comments – Mr Trump laid out his plan to defeat ISIL.
Mr Trump chronicled the dramatic rise of ISIL over the past five years. He then proposed that any Muslim immigrants, including refugees fleeing Syria, would be subject to “extreme vetting” and ideological tests. The ease at which Mr Trump lumped his ideas on combating extremism with the refugee crisis is a point of concern, as they are not connected issues. Linking them could send the wrong message to the candidate’s emboldened supporters.
Calling for increased use of drones and additional detentions in Guantanamo Bay, Mr Trump’s vision for the future is one of conflict and war. While the military campaign against ISIL is a critical part of the fight against the extremism, it is one part of a multifaceted assault on the group. Destroying ISIL’s ideology through cooperation among countries and counter-messaging campaigns is ultimately the most important and difficult part of this fight.
That is why the US and the UAE have joined forces with initiatives such the Sawab Centre in Abu Dhabi, which counters ISIL’s social media messaging. While Mr Trump vowed to work with moderate countries in the region, his insistance that the fight against ISIL is primarily on the battlefield misses the mark. Mr Trump, more than most, understands the value of messaging and branding. The fight against extremism is one of values and messages. If we focus too much on the battlefield, we run the risk of losing the larger war for hearts and minds.