Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called Thursday for a sharp escalation of the war against the so-called Islamic State on military, diplomatic and ideological fronts, embracing some ideas championed by Republicans and rejected by President Obama.
“It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate,” the former secretary of state said in a major foreign policy speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “This is a worldwide fight, and America must lead it.”
While heavy on policy, Clinton’s remarks served multiple political purposes. She contrasted herself with the current president, whose approach is broadly unpopular with the U.S. public. She rebutted Republicans who have criticized her for refusing to call the enemy “radical Islamic terrorism” and sharply rejected the GOP drive to turn Syrian refugees away from the U.S. border in the aftermath of the massacres in Paris. The speech also helped Clinton assert mastery of foreign policy issues after a wobbly debate performance and seize the initiative against her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hours before he addressed foreign policy in a speech of his own.
Like Obama, Clinton rejected the notion, advanced by some Republicans, that crushing ISIS, as the terrorist army is also known, would require a large U.S. troop presence on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
“That is just not the smart move to make here,” she said. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them.”
But Clinton said that Obama had not sent enough elite U.S. commandos into Syria, where they have been working with rebel forces caught between ISIS and government forces loyal to strongman Bashar Assad.
“We should be sending more,” she said.
At the same time, Clinton said an attack on U.S. soil might increase pressure to send conventional U.S. troops into Syria but that “it would be a mistake” to do so.
And American troops already in Iraq and Syria need more flexible rules of engagement that could bring them closer to the frontlines, she argued. “We may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility, including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes.”
Like Obama, Clinton called for escalating airstrikes on ISIS targets “with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set.” While she did not detail exactly how she would change the choice of targets, a campaign aide said she would take aim at ISIS’s economic lifelines, like tanker trucks.
In a sharper break with Obama, Clinton embraced two proposals that Republicans have long championed but that the president has rejected: creating and defending “safe refuges” for Syrians, and potentially arming Sunni and Kurdish fighters, bypassing the government in Baghdad. Republicans have complained that U.S. arms shipments must transit through the central Iraqi government, causing delays in getting crucial hardware into the hands of troops with the best odds of success against ISIS.
(Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Star Max/IPx via AP)
“Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly,” she said.
Additionally, Clinton called for something the Obama administration has specifically declined — no-fly zones in Syria. Clinton suggested this would help opposition groups who are fighting both ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad and would also ease the refugee crisis.
“We should also work with the coalition and the neighbors to impose no-fly zones that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air. Opposition forces on the ground, with material support from the coalition, could then help create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe,” Clinton said.
Clinton later acknowledged the Syrian refugee crisis has become one of the most “hotly debated” topics in the U.S. following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people. She criticized Republicans and others who have said American plans to accept Syrian refugees create an unacceptable terrorism risk. The country has accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees, and the Obama administration has said the plan is in keeping with American ideals and that its screening program is sufficiently rigorous. Clinton also defended the plan.
“Our highest priority, of course, must always be protecting the American people. So, yes, we do need to be vigilant in screening and vetting any refugees from Syria, guided by the best judgment of our security professionals in close coordination with our allies and partners, and Congress needs to make sure the necessary resources are provided for comprehensive background checks, drawing on the best intelligence we can get. And we should be taking a close look at the safeguards in the visa programs as well,” Clinton said, before adding, “But we cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations. Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee, that is just not who we are. We are better than that.”
Advocating for accepting the refugees was not the only part of the speech where Clinton put herself on the opposite side of many in the GOP presidential primary field. Clinton has faced criticism from Republicans for declining to use the phrase “radical Islam” when discussing terrorism. She doubled down on that decision in her remarks.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
“The bottom line is that we are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate, and we have to win. Let’s be clear, though, Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” Clinton said. “The obsession in some quarters with a clash of civilizations, or repeating the specific words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ isn’t just a distraction — it gives these criminals, these murderers, more standing than they deserve. It actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side.”
One of the Republican candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has specifically used the phrase “clash of civilizations” to refer to the fight against ISIS.
At the same time, Clinton took a surprisingly hard line on U.S. allies in the Gulf who have looked the other way — or worse — while their citizens funneled cash to terrorist groups.
“Once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations as well as the schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path to radicalization,” Clinton said. She did not spell out the consequences if they failed to do so.
Along with separating her from Obama and her 2016 rivals, Clinton’s speech may have helped draw a contrast with her own recent comments. Clinton was widely criticized for invoking the 9/11 attacks during the Nov. 14 Democratic debate when Sanders criticized her for taking donations from Wall Street. On that stage, Clinton pointed to her time representing New York in the U.S. Senate, from January 2001 until early 2009, and argued her work with Wall Street was part of the post-9/11 rebuilding effort and was “good for New York.”
In her speech on Thursday, Clinton reframed her discussion of 9/11. She began her remarks by invoking the attacks in the context of the recent violence from ISIS.
“After a major terrorist attack, every society faces a choice between fear and resolve. The world’s great democracies can’t sacrifice our values or turn our backs on those in need. Therefore, we must choose resolve. And we must lead the world to meet this threat,” Clinton said.
Later on in the speech, she returned to 9/11 and noted that, at the time, as senator from New York, she worked with “a Republican president, a Republican governor and a Republican mayor” and “put partisanship aside to rebuild our city and protect our country.”
After her remarks, Clinton took some questions. She was asked about the idea that she was putting some distance between herself and Obama with her foreign policy platform. She acknowledged they do have “differences” but stressed they are all working toward a common goal.
“I have made clear that I have differences, as I think any two people do. I was very proud to serve as President Obama’s secretary of state. I think we made a good team. We largely agreed on what needed to be done to repair our alliances, to get our country in a position to deal with the wars that had been inherited and to take on some of the new challenges we faced,” Clinton said. “But even when I was still there, which is publicly known, I thought we needed to do more earlier to try to identify indigenous Syrian fighters, so-called ‘moderates’ … that we could have done more to help them in their fight against Assad. But, you know, this is an evolving and fast-moving situation. I think we’re all, you know, working to, you know, make sure that what we do actually will produce the results we seek.”
(Cover tile photo: Seth Wenig/AP)