Democratic Debate 11/14/2015

Image courtesy of CBS News

Democrats Debate ISIS, Iraq, Syria and Wall Street

| published November 16, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

The three top Democrats running for their party’s nomination met to discuss issues Saturday evening, and the subjects of war and foreign policy became one of several flashpoints between the front-runner and her two closest competitors. Saturday’s debate between the Democratic candidates for President was also highlighted by sharp disagreements on campaign financing and Wall Street influence in Washington.

The debate, which was hosted by CBS News, concentrated more of its time on foreign policy and military matters than originally planned—an intentional shift by CBS in the wide wake of ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris which have left 129 people dead and more than 350 wounded.

Participating in the debate: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Clinton made waves early in the debate by distancing herself from the Middle East policies of the current administration and her former boss, President Barack Obama. Referring to Obama’s comments days earlier in an interview that ISIS was being “contained,” Clinton told the audience and viewers that ISIS “cannot be contained…it must be defeated.” Clinton stressed that proactive military force may be required to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Clinton however stopped short of saying the U.S. should go to outright war.

“I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of responsibility,” Clinton said, adding “I really put that on Assad and the Iraqis and on those in the region at large.”

Clinton’s comments came in sharp contrast to the President’s comment only days ago in an interview with ABC News, at which time Obama said that U.S. and coalition military operations—in conjunction with U.S. policy—had been largely successful in “containing” and crippling ISIS. The events which unfolded in Paris, many foreign policy experts would argue, have invalidated the President’s assessment. Clinton sought to uncouple her position from that of the White House, which is now conceding that military action may be required.

Sanders and O’Malley seized on Clinton’s comments as evidence of her more aggressive views on foreign policy and her potential willingness to take the United States into war. Sanders and O’Malley reminded viewers and members of the audience that Clinton had voted in favor of the Congressional resolution which took the U.S. into Iraq in 2003.

Sanders and O’Malley each stressed that U.S. policy in Iraq, and likely in Afghanistan, failed to take into account what would happen in the aftermath of regime change and the collapse of dictatorship.

“I would argue,” Sanders said, “that the disastrous invasion of Iraq—something that I strongly opposed—has unraveled the region completely, and had led to the rise of al Qaeda and to the rise if ISIS.” But Sanders agreed with the other candidates that the “United States cannot do it alone.” Sanders said that the Middle Eastern nations and Muslim nations must be a part of any international attempt to push back ISIS.

In a debate which was originally meant to cover more topics on the economy, jobs and the role of the federal government in the financial system, the issue of ISIS and the Middle East was bound to arise. But debate organizers at CBS and the DNC decided that the Friday and Saturday attacks by ISIS militants in Paris had effectively brought foreign policy to the forefront in a way that could not be ignored. In the weeks prior to the attacks in Paris, ISIS or ISIS-linked groups had launched a series of terror attacks around the world, including the bombing of a Russian Metrojet airliner two weeks ago, car bombs and suicide bombers in Baghdad and Beirut, and ISIS-related violence and terror attacks in Afghanistan and Turkey.

The long series of deadly attacks prompted the White House to acknowledge this weekend that some form of direct military action may be now required to contain and defeat the Islamic State, which now has a footprint in more than a dozen countries. Although the candidates were in general agreement that ISIS had become the preeminent foreign policy challenge for the next President, there disagreed widely on what action should be taken.

Sanders, who has frequently said that his support for the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 was predicated on the fact that the Taliban had provided a safe haven for al Qaeda—the 9/11 attackers—the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, included very little intelligence actually linking Saddam Hussein to terror cells, nor to the much-advertised weapons of mass destruction. Sanders indicated that Clinton be held accountable for her vote in favor of the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“I don’t think any sensible person would disagree,” Sanders said, “that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.”

Sanders’ linkage of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003—the initial phase of an operation to topple Saddam Hussein and introduce U.S.-style Democracy to the country—and the current lawlessness and chaos of the region, is problematic for Clinton. Clinton voted for the Senate resolution authorizing then-President George W. Bush to use military force to enter Iraq—a fact that O’Malley and Sanders have repeatedly used to remind Democratic voters that Clinton is perhaps far more hawkish than her fellow progressives.

On the other hand, many Republicans—and some Democrats—suggest that the decision by President Obama to withdraw U.S. forces earlier than originally scheduled created a dangerous power vacuum and an unstable environment for radicalism and jihadist groups. Republicans and conservatives also blame Obama’s overly-cautious foreign policy for the chaos and lawlessness which dominated much of Syria in the years since the start of the Arab Spring.

Clinton has said her vote in favor of sending U.S. forces into Iraq was a mistake, but she also stresses the historical context of the kind of terrorism being waged by al Qaeda and other groups, even before 9/11. Clinton has in the past paid a political price for her early hawkishness on Iraq; she lost to Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses in 2008—as well as in other progressive-leaning states—in large part because of her support for the Iraq invasion. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hopes to replicate that voter dissatisfaction with Clinton.

Sanders also seeks to paint Clinton as a tool of Wall Street, big banks, major entertainment corporations, and telecommunications giants.

“Over her political career,” Sanders said, “Wall Street has been a major—the major donor—to Hillary Clinton. Now maybe they’re dumb…but I don’t think so.”

Sanders hopes to dislodge more progressive support from Clinton by reminding voters of her high dollar speaking fees, her close relationship with major Wall Street firms (including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Stanley), her various connections into and through major Hollywood firms and Silicon Valley companies. Sanders also wants the U.S. to return to abiding by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which mandated a division between traditional and commercial banks, and those which engage in heavy portions of investment. Sanders implied that Clinton’s cozy relationships with Wall Street and the big investment firms compromises her independence from the very firms which she must regulate as President, especially in an economy deeply dependent on banks “too big to fail.”

Clinton dismissed Sanders’ assertion that she would be politically beholden to Wall Street, or any other large sector of the economy. She also suggested that reinstating Glass-Steagall would be only one of many steps required to rein-in Wall Street. And though all three Democrats agreed that campaign finance reform should be a top priority, it was clear that Sanders and O’Malley were each painting a target on Clinton’s back for her close relationship with large companies, and for the huge speaking fees she earns at events and fundraisers.

The candidates also discussed the issue of Syrian refugees. Last week the White House announced it will push for an increase from the 2,000 war refugee number established in 2014, to a new higher figure of 10,000 from war-torn Syria. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks this weekend, several Republican candidates said that Obama should reconsider asking that number to be increased. Sanders said he would not insist that there is a “magic number” for the refugee issue, but suggested that the U.S. should certainly be a part of the solution by allowing more Syrians to enter the country legally.

Republican governors have pushed back this week on the issue of Syrian immigration out of concern that such an open door policy might lead to attacks similar to what took place in Paris.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Democratic Forum: Who Among You is the Most Progressive and Wise?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 10, 2015.

The Paris Attacks: Do They Change the ISIS Narrative?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 14, 2015.