After Paris, National Security Issues Lead Democratic Debate

The format of the Democratic debate was altered at the last minute to give each candidate time to give a statement about the Paris terror attacks at the beginning of the debate.

Speaking first, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said that, “Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS.” However, it remains to be seen how Sanders would lead this fight since he advocates a non-interventionist approach and says that theU.S. should only have a very limited supporting role in the fight in Syria. Sanders believes that the fight against the Islamic State can only be effectively waged by Muslims.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly identified the enemy as jihadists, rejecting the non-descript terminology used by the Obama Administration who calls them “violent extremists.” Clinton made no sweeping promises as Sanders. Rather she said she would be laying out “in detail what I think we need to do to with our friends and allies — in Europe and elsewhere — to do a better job of coordinating efforts against the scourge of terrorisim.” She stressed that “all the other issues we want to deal with depend on us being secure and strong.”

In his opening statement, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said that the events in Paris spoke to the new face of “conflict and warfare” in the 21st century, and as such, required “new thinking, fresh approaches.” O’Malley remarked that “we have a lot of work to do to better prepare out nation and to better lead this world into this new century.”

Polling shows that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dominated last night’s Democratic presidential debate, particularly on national security.

Public Policy Polling came out with the first post-debate poll that showed 67% of Democratic primary voters declaring Clinton the overall winner of the second presidential primary debate and 75% saying they most trust her on national security of the three candidates. The following is a summary of the national security positions taken by each candidate during the debate:

Hillary Clinton

She aligned herself closely with President Obama throughout the debate but presented three areas of difference on Islamist extremism: Identification of the enemy; support for Syrian rebels and an implicit criticism of President Obama for suggesting that “containment” of the Islamic State is a sign of success.

Right off the bat, Clinton repeatedly used Islamic terminology to define the enemy as “jihadist.” She also seemed to understand that the root of violent jihad is in the Islamist ideology, which she emphasized is not subscribed to by most Muslims. She described the adversary as “Islamists who are jihadists,” but she did not discuss whether she believes that “moderate Islamists” like the Muslim Brotherhood should be embraced as allies against “jihadists” like the Islamic State.

The second point of difference came when she was asked about President Obama’s claim that the Islamic State is “contained” shortly before the Paris attacks. While Clinton avoided criticizing the president directly, she rejected containment as a measure of success, saying it is impossible to contain a group like the Islamic State and only its defeat is acceptable.

The third point of difference was on Syria. She explained that she urged President Obama to equip moderate Syrian rebels in the beginning of the civil war to prevent jihadists from creating a safe haven. Clinton believes that developing allies on the ground in Syria would have given us a valuable ally today.

Clinton also suggested a tougher approach towards the Gulf states and Turkey. She said it is time for them to “make up their mind about where they stand” on the fight against jihadism.

On the topic of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that preceded the rise of the Islamic State and the collapse of Iraqi security forces, Clinton said that the withdrawal was in compliance with a U.S.-Iraqi agreement signed by the Bush Administration. After U.S. forces left, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decimated the Iraqi security forces with his sectarianism and cronyism. This, combined with the civil war in Syria and other regional variables, enabled the Islamic State to seize large parts of Iraq.

She defended the NATO military intervention in Libya to topple Gaddafi by pointing out the large amount of American blood he had on his hands from supporting terrorism. Clinton also mentioned how the Libyans elected moderate leaders after he fell. She addressed the civil war in Libya by saying the U.S. should provide more support to the current moderate Libyan government.

On the topic of Syrian refugees, Clinton said she agrees in principle with bringing 65,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. (as O’Malley advocates) but only if they are completely vetted. Her tough language on vetting suggested that she envisions overhauling the process to become stricter, but she did not present a specific proposal.

Unlike Sanders, she would not commit to cutting the defense budget but promised to closely review military spending. She cited Chinese moves in the South China Sea and the increased aggressiveness of Russia, such as its broadcasting of a new drone submarine that can be equipped with tactical nuclear weapons.

Clinton is currently the frontrunner by a mile. She leads nationally with 55% in an average of polls; leads Iowa with 54%; is in second behind Sanders in New Hampshire with 43% and leads in South Carolina with 65%. You can read our factsheet on Clinton’s positions related to Islamism here.

Bernie Sanders

As we mentioned in our coverage of the recent Democratic forum, Sanders views the threat as being rooted in an Islamic ideology but—unlike Clinton—advocates a non-interventionist approach. His argument is that the U.S. should only have a very limited supporting role because the fight against the Islamic State can only be effectively waged by Muslims. He again stated that the fight with the Islamic State is part of a “war for the soul of Islam.”

Sanders rejected a strategy of pursuing regime change, apparently referring to the Syrian dictatorship and the removal of the Gaddafi regime in Libya when Clinton was Secretary of State. He cited U.S.-backed regime changes in places like Chile and Guatemala as counterproductive mistakes.

He spoke out in favor of cuts to the defense budget. He argued that U.S. military spending is far too high and that much of the excess costs are not even necessary for fighting terrorism.

Sanders is currently in second place overall. He is the runner-up nationally with 33%; is in second place in Iowa with 30%; leads in New Hampshire with 44% and is in second place in South Carolina with 17%. You can read our factsheet on Sanders’ positions related to Islamism here.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley

At the recent Democratic forum, O’Malley embraced the camp that believes Islamic terrorism is a byproduct of political grievances against the U.S. He did not repeat his ludicrous claim that U.S. troops overseas and the operation of Guantanamo Bay are the chief reasons for the strength of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

However, during the Saturday night debate, he acknowledged that the threat comes from an Islamic ideology. Unlike Clinton who defined the enemy as “jihadism,” O’Malley defined it as “radical jihadists”—which begs the question: What is a “non-radical jihadist?”

In describing where the Islamic State threat emerged from, O’Malley pointed to the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and especially the disbanding of the Iraqi army. He said that many of ISIS’ current members used to be a part of the Iraqi military until we fired them. There is truth to that statement, but it seems to suggest that O’Malley remains committed to the belief that the “root cause” of the Islamic State and other Islamist terrorists are mistreatment and political grievances, rather than ideology.

O’Malley continued to embrace a non-interventionist strategy, saying that the U.S. should not be trying to overthrow dictators. He then seemed to contradict himself when he said the U.S. should take the lead in fighting “evil.”  He said his “new” foreign policy would be one of “engagement” and “identifying threats” as they gather.

On several occasions, O’Malley cited the need for human intelligence sources as part of his strategy—but that’s nothing new and it’s not a strategy. Everyone agrees that more human intelligence is needed.

He reiterated his support for bringing 65,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S., up from the current 10,000 that President Obama plans to bring in. He did not address how they would be vetted and taken care of, especially when a poll of Syrian refugees found that 13% feel positively or somewhat positively towards the Islamic State.

O’Malley is in last place among the three remaining candidates. He is in last with 3% nationally; last in Iowa with 5%; last in New Hampshire with 3% and last in South Carolina with 2%. You can read our factsheet on O’Malley’s positions related to Islamism here.

You can read the Clarion Project‘s comprehensive factsheets on each party’s presidential candidates’ positions related to Islamism by clicking here.

ABOUT RYAN MAURO

Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.

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