Hillary Clinton fails to capitalize on her resume at Democratic debate

Clinton: ISIS cannot be contained, it must be defeated
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Story highlights

  • The debate's early exchanges suggested that Hillary Clinton hadn't figured out how to harness her record as an advantage rather than a liability
  • At times she seemed caught between defending a record that has been more hawkish than the current President and appealing to a Democratic grassroots

Washington (CNN)Hillary Clinton's four years as secretary of state were supposed to give her an advantage going into a debate Saturday night that began with addressing the terror attacks in Paris one day earlier.

But instead, the Democratic front-runner found herself on the defensive, taking blows from competitors with considerably fewer national security credentials and giving Republicans potential lines of attack should they face her next year.
The debate's early exchanges suggested that she hadn't figured out how to harness her record as an advantage rather than a liability -- a resume that exposes her to attacks on President Barack Obama's perceived policy weaknesses during her time working for him in his first term. And in fact, she seemed more in control of the debate when it turned to domestic issues like banking policy and the economy than on her anticipated strong suit of foreign affairs.
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    Clinton started out strong in a debate that took on a suddenly somber tone after the ISIS-claimed rampage through the streets of Paris on Friday that killed more than 120 people and marked an alarming new phase in the group's expanding terror campaign.
    She made an implicit case that her experience uniquely prepared her to serve as president in a testing new age -- recalling the famous 3 a.m. call that she used in a campaign ad to try to puncture the inexperienced Barack Obama in their 2008 primary clash.
    Clinton expressed confidence in her opening statement Saturday that her national security experience would be a boon, declaring that, "This election is not only about electing a president. It's also about choosing our next commander-in-chief."
    And she sought to press an advantage over her closest competitor, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- who mentioned the fiscal woes facing many Americans in his initial remarks -- by saying, "all of the other issues we want to deal with depend upon us being secure and strong."
    She also broke with Obama to argue that ISIS "cannot be contained. It must be defeated." The President had used that description for ISIS the day earlier before the Paris attacks occurred.
    But early on in the debate, Sanders turned the tables on her, suggesting that the Iraq war, which she voted to authorize in the Senate, had created chaos in the Middle East that led to the rise of ISIS.
    "I don't think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now. I think that was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the more than history of the United States," Sanders said.
    Clinton had no effective response for the jab, which has been repeated for eight years, and she replied with a meandering answer that mentioned previous attacks on U.S. interests in Beirut, Tanzania, Kenya and in the United States on September 11, 2001 in an apparent attempt to prove that terrorism was not solely the result of events in Iraq.
    "I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake," she admitted. "But I think if we're ever going to really tackle the problems posed by Jihadi extreme terrorism, we need to understand it and realize that it has antecedents to what happened in Iraq and we have to continue to be vigilant about it."
    She also labored to answer a question about whether the current administration had underestimated ISIS.
    She blamed others for the current morass in the Middle East: She called out then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for destroying an Iraqi army equipped and trained by the U.S. that folded amid the ISIS advance after American troops withdrew on a timetable sketched out by President George W. Bush. And she stressed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be called to account for the bloody meltdown in his war-torn country.
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    Left out from her analysis was the criticism of many Republicans and some foreign policy experts that the Obama administration did not push hard enough to reach an agreement with Maliki that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain.
    At times she seemed caught between defending a record that has been more hawkish than the current President and appealing to a Democratic grassroots uncomfortable with those positions and resistant to any more U.S. wars abroad.
    In speaking about taking on ISIS, Clinton declared that, "it cannot be an American fight." It was a call for a renewed effort to engage U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East in an anti-ISIS coalition that is in sync with the multilateralist inclinations of the left of the party, but could come across as less than assertive when the GOP accuse her of being part of a weak response to the deadly group spearheaded by Obama.
    Clinton was also challenged on the U.S.-led operation that triggered the overthrow of Libya's longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, which she championed but which later led to chaos in a country that is now a haven of extremism.
    She argued that Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any other leader in the region and that the U.S. had acted to avert a looming massacre of opposition fighters. But she also made the case that the subsequent splintering of Libya had more to do with the sectarian forces ripping apart the Middle East than her own policy.
    Republicans, however, aren't likely to see her as having settled the issue and are certain to seize upon Clinton's role in the Libya operation if they meet her in a presidential debate.
    At the end of the night, however, the former top U.S. diplomat was able to remind the audience that she alone of her competitors had faced the life-or-death decisions that a commander in chief must make. After the moderator asked the candidates to recall a time when they had been tested by crisis to demonstrate they were fit to face tough situations as president, Clinton described considering whether to recommend that the U.S. launch the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, which she eventually did.
    No one else on the stage Saturday night -- or at the Republican debate earlier in the week -- could claim to have weighed such a choice.