The Democratic debate Saturday was consumed from nearly the start by questions about how to handle the war against ISIS, and how to deal with the related and intractable problem of Syria’s civil war. The discussion highlighted differences of thought regarding national security policy and America’s role in the world.
While Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, declared that her strategy to defeat ISIS will not get the United States involved in “another ground war,” she argued in favor of using American special forces to beat back ISIS inside Iraq and Syria, and to pursue the militant group’s new affiliates through North Africa and South Asia. Americans would continue to lead the air campaign above Iraq and Syria, Clinton added, but would rely on a ground force made up largely of Arab and Kurdish fighters.
Sen. Bernie Sanders allowed that he agreed in some measure with Clinton’s plan, but he turned quickly to Clinton’s 2002 Iraq War vote. “I voted against the war in Iraq because I thought unilateral military action would not produce the results that were necessary, and would lead to the kind of unraveling and instability that we saw in the Middle East,” Sanders said.
Although Sanders warned against the use of any American ground troops in what he called the “quagmire of the Middle East,” his prescription for a coalition of major powers and Muslim nations did not differ substantively from the air campaign element of Clinton’s own plan.
But the attack on Clinton’s war vote -- which she only this year has called a mistake -- signaled a fault line on the pressing current question regarding the war in Syria and the future of its dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Asked whether pushing Assad out of Syria or defeating ISIS in that country should be more important, Clinton argued that the two objectives needed to be pursued at the same time. “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 is getting rid of Assad -- don’t believe there is a political, diplomatic channel that is ongoing,” Clinton said. “We now have that.”
On Friday, the UN Security Council agreed on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Syria, though the agreement does not resolve the question of Assad’s future.
The war in Syria has ground on for nearly five years, resulting in the deaths of more than 200,000 people and sparking a refugee crisis in Europe.
Despite the UN vote, Sanders said the priority of United States policy should be ISIS, and that Assad should be removed by democratic elections.
"Yes, of course, Assad is a terrible dictator," Sanders said. "It is not Assad attacking the United States. It is ISIS. And ISIS is attacking France, and attacking Russian airliners,” he continued, referring to the Paris attacks of November and the downing in October of the Russian Metrojet flight above Egypt.
The exchange opened the door for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who criticized Clinton’s stewardship as secretary of state of the intervention in Libya, which ended in the death four years ago of dictator Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of a street mob. The country has since devolved into its own civil war, with ISIS declaring affiliates in vast stretches of ungoverned land to the country’s south.
“I know Secretary Clinton was gleeful when Gaddafi was torn apart,” O’Malley said. “We didn’t know what was happening next,” he continued, “and we fell into the same trap with Assad, as if it’s our job to say Assad must go.”
Like Sanders, O’Malley argued that taking on ISIS is the priority.
“I wish it could be either or,” Clinton shot back.
But try as Clinton did to argue the logic for pursuing Assad’s eventual ouster, her Iraq War vote and her record as secretary of state – a period that saw the Libyan revolution and the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – offered her opponents an opportunity to chalk it all up to her predilections.
Clinton, Sanders said later, is "too much into regime change."
Clinton and O’Malley also sparred over the question of encrypted cell phone communications, which FBI director James Comey has been warning for months poses a national security risk, and which French investigators say the Paris attackers used to plot their Nov. 13 shooting spree. Clinton called for bringing tech leaders and government officials together in order to compromise on concerns about individual privacy and collective security. “Otherwise, law enforcement is blind,” Clinton said.
O’Malley, however, argued in favor of privacy. “I believe that we should never give up our privacy, never should give up our freedoms in exchange for a promise of security,” he said.
But on the subject of Donald Trump -- the GOP front-runner -- the candidates found common ground. Asked about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, the candidates were roundly critical.
“He is becoming ISIS's best recruiter,” Clinton said.