Brussels attacks: How presidential candidates differ on US security

Statements made after the Brussels attacks by Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and others give insight into their vision for fighting terrorism.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to the media about events in Brussels Tuesday near the Capitol in Washington. Senator Cruz said he would use the 'full force and fury' of the US military to defeat the Islamic State group.

In the wake of the Brussels terror attacks Tuesday, presidential candidates in America weighed in, sharpening their positions on how they would try to prevent such an event from taking place in the United States.  

Many voters have already heard of Donald Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims entering the country “until we can figure out what’s going,” as he suggested in December. His other ideas have included bombing oil fields controlled by the Islamic State, shutting down portions of the Internet used by the Islamic State for recruiting, and going after the family members of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing attacks at the Belgian capital’s airport and subway system. Experts have said some of Trump's antiterror prescriptions might be illegal (targeting family members) or perhaps impossible (shutting down portions of the Internet).

In response to the Brussels attacks, Trump told Fox News: “I would close up our borders. We are taking in people without real documentation. We don’t know where they’re from or who they are.” 

But what do the other candidates propose?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas all offered responses to the Brussels attacks that give insight into their vision for fighting terrorism and keeping America safe. 

Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator’s stance on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and immigration is hands-off compared with the other candidates.

“Today’s attack is a brutal reminder that the international community must come together to destroy ISIS. This type of barbarism cannot be allowed to continue,” Senator Sanders said in a statement Tuesday.

His position on defeating ISIS is that the United States’ regional allies like Saudia Arabia and Jordan should lead military efforts against the group, with America in a supporting role.

“This is, as I understand it, a war for the soul of Islam and if that is the case, the Muslim countries in that area have got to stand up and they have got to fight. They have got to provide the ground troops,” Sanders's website says on the rise of ISIS.

His immigration policies focus mainly on America’s southern border, but do not detail measures for preventing potential terrorists entering the country. Should he become president, Sanders would shut down the National Security Agency.

“The idea that we have hoards of undocumented immigrants pouring across the border is a myth propagated by racist, right-wing media and political actors,” Sanders’s website says.

Sanders has consistently voted against legislation that proposes walling off America’s southern border.

Ted Cruz

Senator Cruz responded to the Brussels attacks with a statement saying America “must immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida and ISIS presence.” He also said “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”

He told the Heritage Foundation in December that the United States must do “whatever is necessary and required” to destroy ISIS. In the past, he has suggested carpet bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria – a tactic forbidden under the Geneva Convention, many say.

Cruz’s website does not outline a detailed national security plan, but it outlines his position by listing antiterrorism and other foreign policy bills Cruz introduced to the Senate. One is the Expatriate Terrorist Act, designed to prevent US citizens who join ISIS from reentering the United States.

Cruz also announced his national security team last week.

"As President, Ted Cruz will restore a foreign policy that prioritizes our national interests, unleashes our armed forces to prevail when called upon, distinguishes vital security measures from naïve adventurism, and tells other nations it is once again a boon to be America’s friend and a serious mistake to be America’s enemy," said former Assistant US Attorney Andrew McCarthy, one of the team members, who was a prosecutors of the first World Trade Center bombing.

John Kasich

Governor Kasich responded to the events in Brussels, saying, “We are not at war with Islam; we’re at war with radical Islam,” The New York Times reported. Drawing a contrast between his position and Cruz's, he added, “In our country, we don’t want to create divisions where we say, ‘O.K., well your religion, you’re a Muslim, so therefore we’re going to keep an eye on you.’ ” He added that “the last thing we need is more polarization.”

For Kasich, preventing terror attacks on home soil requires defeating ISIS and other terror networks overseas and reasserting America’s place in the world.

Kasich touts his 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee and a no-negotiation, get-tough attitude. A Kasich administration would achieve its national security goals by focusing on the Reaganesque model of building America’s economy to fund increased defense spending. It would also reenergize ties with US allies in the Middle East like Israel and Jordan, statements in the media and on his website say. This would all lead to the reassertion of Western values including democracy and human rights and winning the battle of ideas, according to Kasich.

Kasich said late last year that terrorists “pose a challenge that does not lend itself to resolution by negotiation. My view is that there can be no further delay in the concerted, coordinated effort that is required to defend ourselves and our allies and to defeat the terrorist threat,” The Washington Post reported.

Hillary Clinton

"We've got to be absolutely smart and strong and steady in how we respond," Mrs. Clinton told the "Today" show in response to the Brussels attacks. "It's unrealistic to say we're going to completely shut down our borders to everyone," she said, contrasting her position to Trump’s.

She separates herself from candidates like Trump and Cruz by distinguishing between Islamic extremism and ordinary Muslims, as well as through a more moderate stance on immigration.

Clinton’s approach involves a balance between hard and soft power. At the University of Minnesota in December, Clinton laid out five points she said were “a 360-degree strategy to keep America safe.” It involves:

  • Efforts to prevent groups like ISIS recruiting foreign fighters online.
  • Interrupting foreign training camps and stopping terrorists from entering the US.
  • Disrupting plots before they are carried out.
  • Supporting law enforcement.
  • Working with the Muslim-American community. 

She wants to eliminate terrorism at its root in an unstable Middle East by supporting regional allies, but she would stop short of putting boots on the ground. She says she would also aim to restore stability countries like Libya and Yemen, presumably in an effort to prevent them becoming havens for terrorists.    

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