By Oliver Knox
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.
“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