Clinton wobbled on foreign policy in debate

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Olivier Knox
·Chief Washington Correspondent
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Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Hillary Clinton came to Saturday’s debate eager to showcase her confident command of foreign policy and to deliver a former secretary of state’s master class on world affairs — a day after the massacres in Paris reminded voters that the race to be president is also a contest to be commander in chief.

Instead, she essentially ducked tough questions about the lack of a postwar plan for Libya and whether the administration underestimated the so-called Islamic State. She embraced President Obama’s strategy for battling that terrorist army, putting her at odds with an American public that believes his approach is not working. She gave a confusing answer on the legal authority for the war. And she may have written a Republican attack ad by declaring that crushing ISIL, as the group is also known, “cannot be an American fight.”

It almost certainly won’t matter while the Democratic frontrunner’s rivals are independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — rather than a hawkish Republican — and while Americans focus on Paris, not Des Moines. But Clinton, playing with what should have been a policy home-field advantage, did not dominate her challengers the way she had been expected to. And she will face some of these questions again if she wins her party’s nomination.

One of her most interesting answers came in response to a question about whether the United States is at war with “radical Islam.” Republicans have argued that Democrats who refuse to say so cannot be trusted to find a solution because they cannot accurately diagnose the problem. Clinton, who dubbed IS “a barbaric, ruthless, violent jihadist terrorist group” in her opening statement, demurred — and invoked George W. Bush as a witness for the defense.

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“We’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries. We’ve got to have them be part of our coalition,” she said. “If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam, that was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11, when he basically said, after going to a mosque in Washington, ‘We are not at war with Islam or Muslims.’”

That was a reference to Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., where he declared “Islam is peace,” the first of many times he echoed that sentiment.

“We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression. And, yes, we are at war with those people,” she continued. “But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”

But Clinton, who had promised she would be “laying out in detail” how she would take on IS, didn’t. She broke with Obama’s comment that the Islamic State has been “contained,” declaring that the group “cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” But her methods were also his: U.S. troops training Iraq’s military and elite commandos undertaking higher-risk missions inside Syria alongside rebels there. And letting regional countries take the lead on the ground, while American warplanes strike from the air.

“But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential,” Clinton said. She never directly addressed whether the administration had underestimated IS.

She also sidestepped moderator John Dickerson’s question about how the Obama administration, when she was at the helm of the State Department, could have failed to have a plan for Libya after the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi — repeating, in effect, the biggest errors of the 2003 Iraq War.

“Well, we did have a plan,” she insisted. “The Libyans turned out for one of the most successful, fairest elections that any Arab country has had. They elected moderate leaders. Now, there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble as they have tried to deal with these radical elements, which you find in this arc of instability, from North Africa to Afghanistan.” But the Islamic State has put down roots in Libya, and no less an authority than Obama has acknowledged the absence of a post-Gadhafi blueprint.

“Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind,” the president said in a speech at the United Nations in September.

Some prominent congressional Democrats have broken with Obama on the issue of whether the war on the Islamic State requires new formal authorization from lawmakers. The president insists that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) and his constitutional powers as commander in chief cover the new conflict. Clinton, asked whether a new AUMF was necessary, gave a confusing answer.

Dickerson asked whether the legislation passed right after the 9/11 attacks covers this new conflict. Clinton replied: “It certainly does cover it. I would like to see it updated.”

Dickerson pressed her on whether, if she were in the Senate, she would think it acceptable for a president to be waging the war without congressional authority. “No, it would have to go through the Congress,” she replied.

The White House gave Congress an AUMF proposal, which stalled immediately upon reaching Capitol Hill. Lawmakers don’t seem particularly inclined to take it up, and Obama does not look eager to press the issue. The reasons are complex but boil down to this: Democrats want more restrictions on the president’s war-making powers, Republicans want fewer.

Neither of her rivals scored any major points on foreign policy. Clinton parried Sanders’ regular attack on her vote in favor of the Iraq War by repeating that it was a mistake, and when he pinned the rise of the Islamic State on a cascade of events triggered by the invasion, she responded that terrorists had been killing Americans for decades before that conflict.

And when the senator and O’Malley agreed that it was time to pare back the Pentagon’s budget, and the governor said that “huge standing armies” were the wrong weapon against terrorist groups, Clinton countered that traditional national security challenges still exist.

“We do have to take a hard look at the defense budget, and we do have to figure out how we get ready to fight the adversaries of the future, not the past,” she agreed. But “we’ve got challenges in the South China Sea because of what China is doing in building up these military installations.

“We have problems with Russia. Just the other day, Russia allowed a television camera to see the plans for a drone submarine that could carry a tactical nuclear weapon,” she added. “So we’ve got to look at the full range, and then come to some smart decisions about having [a] more streamlined and focused approach.”

It may have been her best exchange of the night, reflecting her sweeping knowledge of America’s challenges in the world.