The most solemn 33 minutes of a 2016 presidential debate so far took place Saturday night in Iowa, a day after a deadly terrorist rampage in Paris laid bare the serious threats that face the United States’ next commander in chief.
Three Democratic candidates stood on stage at Drake University in Des Moines, heads bowed, and observed a moment of silence for the dead in France. What followed was a series of somber exchanges about terrorism broken up only by a commercial break that brought the first applause of the evening.
The change in the debate’s focus appeared to help frontrunner Hillary Clinton, given her experience as the former U.S. secretary of state. Granted an opening statement to directly address the attacks, Clinton used it in its entirety to stake her position as the most seasoned contender terms of understanding the complexities of foreign policy.
“We need to have a resolve that will bring the world together to root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS, the barbaric, ruthless, violent jihadist, terrorist group,” she said, referring to the so-called Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris bloodshed.
In contrast, her main rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, uttered two sentences about the attacks — pledging that the U.S. would lead the fight to “rid our planet” of ISIS — and then reverted to his usual candidate pitch about a “rigged economy” and “corrupt campaign finance system.”
“What my campaign is about is a political revolution,” he said.
As the conversation continued, however, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — and questions from moderator John Dickerson of CBS News — underscored one of Clinton’s top challenges if she clinches the nomination: Republicans will undoubtedly ask her to answer for President Barack Obama’s decisions from North Africa to the Middle East to Afghanistan. (Two candidates who participated in the first debate last month, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, have since dropped out. So has another Democrat who wasn’t included, Harvard University Professor Lawrence Lessig.)
Clinton quickly broke with Obama, her former boss. When Dickerson noted that the president said in an ABC News interview hours before the Paris killings that ISIS had been “contained” in Iraq and Syria, Clinton didn’t hesitate to disagree.
“We have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network,” she said. “It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.”
It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.
Hillary Clinton on ISIS
Pressed on whether the Obama administration initially underestimated ISIS, Clinton noted the White House followed former President George W. Bush’s agreement for U.S. troops to leave Iraq in 2011. She blamed then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for “decimating” it, and said she pushed the Obama White House “early on” to back moderate Syrian forces so extremist groups wouldn’t be “filling the vacuum” against President Bashar Assad.
She invoked Bush a second time after Dickerson asked if she agreed with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising Republican presidential contender, who said the Paris attacks showed the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam” — a phrase Obama has carefully avoided in his presidency.
“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadis who have —”
Dickerson cut her off: “He didn’t say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam.”
“I think that you can — you can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists,” Clinton said, but sided with Obama in calling the phrase radical Islam “not particularly helpful.” Again, she invoked Bush, saying it was his “contribution” to say after 9/11 that the U.S. is at war with “violent extremism.”
“We are at war with those people that I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”
Said Sanders: “I don’t think the term is what’s important. What is important to understand is we have organizations, whether it is ISIS or al-Qaida, who do believe we should go back several thousand years, we should make women third-class citizens, that we should allow children to be sexually assaulted, that they are a danger to modern society.”
Said O’Malley: “To say radical jihadis, that’s to call it what it is.”
To say radical jihadis, that’s to call it what it is.
Sanders, who voted against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, repeatedly mentioned that Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, voted for it. She reiterated that her vote was a mistake. Then Dickerson asked why the Obama administration didn’t apply lessons from Iraq to Libya, where four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, died in a 2012 terrorist attack after the U.S.-backed ouster of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Clinton did not offer a crisp answer.
O’Malley, however, appeared to have one prepared: “Libya is now a mess. Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess. As Americans we have shown ourselves to have the greatest military on the face of the planet. But we are not so very good at anticipating threats and appreciating just how difficult it is to build up stable democracies and make the investments in sustainable development that we must as a nation if we are to attack the root causes of — of the source of — instability.”
Marking a clear difference with most of their Republican rivals, all three Democrats said the U.S. should accept Syrian refugees, though Sanders said he did not have a “magic number.” Clinton and O’Malley have said they’d be OK with up to 65,000, though Clinton in particular stressed that the refugees should be properly vetted in advance.
“I do not want us to — in any way — inadvertently allow people who wish us harm to come into our country,” she said.
O’Malley harkened to the enduring image of the Syrian refugee crisis that existed before the Paris attacks:
“I would want us to take our place among the nations of the world to alleviate the sort of death and the specter we saw: little kids’ bodies washing up on a beach.”