The Democratic Party heads into its primaries sharply divided over how to wage war against terrorism, a rift magnified by Americans’ growing fears following recent terrorist attacks and laid bare in the newest debate between their presidential candidates.
The party’s top two presidential candidates described starkly different philosophies on national security, sparking some of the liveliest exchanges in Saturday night’s debate just six weeks before the first nominating contest of the 2016 presidential election.
Front-runner Hillary Clinton took the more hawkish and interventionist approach, advocating that the U.S. should be aggressive in helping to resolve disputes around the globe, even if that involves sending special forces or overthrowing dictators. “If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader,” she said. “There is a vacuum.”
Her chief rival Bernie Sanders, who does not generally favor international intervention, touted his role in leading the effort against the war in Iraq, which he called one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the country’s history. “The United States of America cannot ... be thought of as the policeman of the world,” he said.
The debate marked the first Democratic faceoff since a husband-and-wife team of killers inspired by the Islamic State fatally shot 14 people in San Bernardino, California. The mass shooting came soon after the terrorist group claimed responsibility for killing more than 100 in Paris.
People are really worried and concerned about the issue in a way they might not have been before
Christopher Galdieri, a politics professor at Saint Anselm College
Sanders and Martin O’Malley hope to convince increasingly liberal primary voters that Clinton does not fit in the Democratic Party on the issue. It was the same strategy Barack Obama used to defeat Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008.
“They’re trying to find places where they can get to her left and that’s an easy one,” said Christopher Galdieri, a politics professor at Saint Anselm College, which hosted the debate. “Her foreign policy instincts are kind out of sync with a lot of activists in the Democratic Party.”
Rank and file Democrats remain more skeptical about the use of force than the country as a whole. In a recent poll by Quinnipiac University, for example, the country overall favored the use of U.S. ground forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by 54-41. Republicans favored ground forces by 71-23, Independents by 53-42. But Democrats opposed it by 56-39.
As New York senator, Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize military force against Iraq, but later admitted she was wrong. As member of the House, Sanders voted against it, saying that he was worried about the “problems of so-called unintended consequences.”
Now, their party’s two leading contenders for president differ on how to combat the Islamic State, and even whether that should be the first priority.
Clinton, a former secretary of state, calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, which is supported by some Republican presidential hopefuls and opposed by Obama and others who say the proposal is risky, costly and could lead to confrontations with Russia and Iran.
Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, opposes a no-fly zone, which he said could get the United States more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war.
Clinton supports Obama’s recent decision to send 50 special operations forces to Syria to fight the Islamic State, even if it increases beyond the initial small number.
Sanders has concerns that the decision could further draw the United States into a never-ending war.
Sanders also accused Clinton of supporting overthrowing dictators, only to leave vulnerable nations behind, including Iraq, Libya and Syria. He said he prefers putting together broad coalitions, having others lead the fight, so as to not leave a political vacuum that can be filled by terrorists, even if that takes time.
I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences could be...Getting rid of dictators is easy. But before you do that, you've got to think about what happens the day after
Clinton shot back at Sanders and a moderator who asked if she was partly responsible for the continued chaos in Libya after the United States helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi, saying the United States did as much as the Libyans would allow.
You know, this is not easy work. We did a lot to help...But we're always looking for ways about what more we can do to try to give people a chance to be successful
Clinton said it’s important to combat both the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who is bombing Syrians as part of the country’s civil war.
“We will not get the support on the ground in Syria to dislodge ISIS if the fighters there who are not associated with ISIS but whose principal goal of getting rid of Assad don't believe there is a political, diplomatic channel that is ongoing,” she said.
Sanders countered that Assad’s fate should be secondary to fighting the Islamic State. “We have got to get our foreign policies and priorities right, “ he said. “It is not Assad who is attacking the United States. It is ISIS.”
John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, said after the debate that Clinton’s willingness to use all the tools at the U.S.’s disposal, including diplomacy, will help Clinton, not hurt her, in the primary.
“The American public and primary voters are looking for someone who understands the world,” he said. “I think she just demonstrated a much more expansive knowledge of the region, had much clearer ideas about what to do in the region. So I think it’s a strength for us not a weakness.”