When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton faced criticism on foreign policy issues from her debate rivals Tuesday in Las Vegas, she pointed to her secretary of state appointment as evidence of President Barack Obama's vote of confidence in her abilities. Her tenure as the country's top diplomat — a qualification none of her rivals on stage could match — both set her apart and made her the focus of attacks.
“He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the situation room going over some very difficult issues," Clinton said.
The remarks came as Clinton’s rivals piled on her over voting to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq while she was a New York senator. Amid a pointed discussion of what to do about the crisis in Syria, they also jabbed at her proposal to institute a no-fly zone in that country.
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“You’re looking at someone that made that poor decision in 2002 to go into Iraq when there was no real evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor said. Chafee is known for declaring in the past that Clinton should be disqualified for serving as president based on that vote, which he said again on Tuesday shows "poor judgment."
Later, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said that he “would not be so quick” to call for a military response in Syria.
“I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria at this time, actually, secretary, would be a mistake,” he said, turning toward Clinton. “You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret."
Calling O’Malley’s remarks “loose talk,” Clinton responded that there are already American aircraft flying above Syria, and that the purpose of her call for a no-fly zone is to draw Russia into negotiations over Syria’s future. Earlier in the debate, she had also stated that the U.S. needs to stands up to what she described as Putin's bullying.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called the Syrian conflict a “quagmire in a quagmire” and called for the U.S. to support a coalition of Arab countries. “I do not support American ground troops in Syria,” Sanders said.
“Nobody does,” Clinton shot back.
“I think we have an opportunity here to try to get the Russians to have to deal with everybody in the region, to begin to move toward a political, diplomatic solution in Syria," Clinton said later.
The civil war in Syria has ground on since 2011, when the population first rose up against the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Since then, more than 200,000 Syrians have died in fighting, according to the United Nations. During that time, Assad struck back against his own population and a web of jihadist groups — including ISIS and a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda — took root there, fighting among themselves and against the regime.
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Russia began carrying out airstrikes on Sept. 30 against anti-Assad in forces in Syria. However, U.S. officials have said Russia is not targeting ISIS, as Russian President Vladimir Putin promised, but instead is targeting other forces, including groups supported by the US.
Clinton called on Oct. 1 for a no-fly zone, and for a humanitarian corridor for refugees fleeing the country. The position puts her ahead of Obama, who does not support a no-fly zone and who has said alternatives to his approach amount to “half-baked ideas.”
Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator, said that Russia’s entrance into Syria is tied to the nuclear accord with Iran, which he said sent signals of American weakness. Clinton has endorsed the Iran deal.
But Webb called the tense U.S. relationship with China a greater priority.
“To the unelected, authoritarian government of China, you do not own the South China Sea,” Webb said, referring to seven islands China has constructed on top of reefs in disputed maritime territory hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast. “You do not have the right to conduct cyber warfare against tens of millions of American citizens,” he added.
China’s activities in the South China Sea, and allegations of its involvement in a spate of cyber attacks against U.S. government and private computer networks were a topic of conversation when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with President Obama in Washington late last month. The meetings produced the beginning of an agreement to work together investigating cyber crimes, and to cease attacks aimed at stealing intellectual property.