DES MOINES, Iowa - Hillary Clinton pushed off challenges from rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley over the circumstances that led to the rise of the Islamic state in Saturday’s unexpectedly contentious Democratic presidential debate. With the stunning terror attacks in Paris providing a grim backdrop to the event, Clinton defended the Obama administration’s record on tackling the challenges of the Middle East as well as her own vote as a New York senator to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The debate, hosted by CBS News and once expected to focus on a range of general topics, took a firm turn to foreign affairs early on in light of the Paris attacks, which killed at least 129 people. As secretary of state during Obama’s first term, Clinton held an unmistakable advantage in her command of events on the global stage. But her record at State and in the Senate also made her a target for Sanders, a Vermont senator who has long criticized her vote on the Iraq invasion, and O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, who has pushed for a "fresh approach" to addressing domestic and international challenges.
“I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something which I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to rise of Al Qaeda and to ISIS,” Sanders said, adding that “it was the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of the Untied States.”
Clinton conceded, as she has many times, that the Iraq War had been a mistake but said the upheaval in the region that had helped spawn ISIS was due to several factors, including the dictatorship of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Clinton also defended her support for the toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya after Sanders criticized her support for “regime change." While she acknowledged "there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble” in Libya since Gaddafi fell – the country is essentially a failed state – she pointed to the country’s elections as a success.
“The Libyans turned out for one of the most successful fairest elections that any Arab country has had. They elected moderate leaders,” she said.
Clinton at one point seemed to distance herself from Obama, who had called ISIS a junior varsity terror organization and said just hours before the attack that ISIS was contained geographically.
Asked if the administration underestimated the organization’s strength, Clinton said. “I think that we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.”
But she added that she agreed with President Obama's strategy of allowing other countries to lead the fight while the U.S. plays a supporting role—an approach that Republicans have criticized as ineffectual.
While Clinton pledged that she would provide detailed plans to combat ISIS and pointed to the complexities of the Middle East, Sanders suggested judgment was more important—and that Clinton's is off because of her Iraq vote.
But while Clinton was often on defense, Sanders risked coming across has having only one card to play on national security. Asked if he disagreed with anything from Clinton’s record as secretary of state, Sanders had little to offer, once again repeating his opposition to the Iraq war vote.
Sanders, for his part, reiterated his contention that climate change – not terrorism -- was the biggest international threat.
Sanders and O’Malley also ganged up on Clinton for saying she does not thing the United States “has the bulk of the responsibility” in combating ISIS. “This actually is America's fight. It cannot solely be America's fight,” O'Malley said.