In New York on Thursday, Clinton called for a "new phase" in a more intense U.S. and allied campaign to smash ISIS
Her emphasis on escalating the U.S. role seemed to contrast with President Barack Obama, who has said that the U.S. strategy has "contained" ISIS in Syria
This is what a President Hillary Clinton would look like.
At least, that was the impression the former secretary of state seemed determined to convey with a robust, comprehensive presentation on how she would meet the rising challenge from ISIS as fear of terrorism spikes following the Paris attacks.
In New York on Thursday, the Democratic front-runner called for a “new phase” in a more intense U.S. and allied campaign to smash ISIS.
“After a major 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,” she said. “Therefore we must choose resolve. And we must lead a world to meet this threat.”
Her sharp rhetoric, and the multi-pronged military strategy she laid out to thwart ISIS, suggested that, in political terms at least, Clinton senses a leadership vacuum in Washington over Syria.
Her emphasis on escalating the U.S. role seemed to contrast with President Barack Obama, who has said that the U.S. strategy has “contained” ISIS in Syria and Iraq and described the Paris attacks as a “setback” that should not detract from wider U.S. successes against the group.
And her lengthy attention to the global terror group suggests that she reads the issue as both key to the broader presidential campaign and her argument for victory in a general election that could turn on whether voters most value her experience as secretary of state or saddle her with blame for the current administration’s struggles to shape a restive world.
Challenges left and right
To Clinton’s left, meanwhile, her main Democratic rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is laying an economic – rather than national security – bet and gave a major speech on inequality hours after Clinton’s ISIS address. To her right, a potential GOP foe, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, called for a stronger U.S. strategy against ISIS on Wednesday, and said Clinton shared Obama’s “diminished” view of the U.S. role in the world as he promised a huge build-up of military might to tackle terrorism.
Delivering an animated, policy-heavy address, Clinton seemed more at ease than during a mixed debate showing in Iowa on Saturday or while deploying her sometimes uneven campaigning skills on the stump.
And she seemed to raise the bar for candidates on foreign policy: Her remarks were more specific, for instance, than Bush’s, who was more sparing on the details of how his own Syria strategy would work.
On one level, Clinton’s address at the Council on Foreign Relations was her entry into the demolition derby of 2016 candidates fighting to prove they’re tougher and rougher than Obama on national security.
With the President thousands of miles away on an around-the-world trip – and under attack over a defensive press conference in the wake of the ISIS rampages that killed more than 120 people in France last week – Clinton had the national security stage to herself.
Liberated for a time from questions about her private email server, her honesty, her culpability in the Benghazi attack and a challenge on the left from Sanders, Clinton flexed her wonkish muscles across a map of the Middle East Thursday in a way that showcased her taste for detailed policy analysis.
A Clinton aide said the former secretary of state spent months thinking deeply about her counter-terrorism strategy and had consulted dozens of experts, and then informed her staff on Monday that she wanted to lay out the plan this week in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Clinton told aides that she wanted to use the speech in part to integrate U.S. strategy on Iran with counter-terrorism policy and also wanted to raise the question of why U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia had not been more involved in the anti-ISIS campaign.
And at a moment of national consternation, Clinton seemed be trying to turn her hawkish instincts – often out of step with her party’s grass roots – into a political asset.
She went further than Obama in calling for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect refugees and civilians from airstrikes by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. The administration has already rejected such a step and many Democrats – including Sanders – believe it would suck America into another Middle East quagmire.
Clinton also spoke of the need for a “second Sunni awakening” in Iraq to squeeze the ISIS in the country, warning that if the government in Baghdad did not arm Sunni tribes and Kurds, a U.S.-led coalition would.
Clinton was also not shy in doling out tough love to U.S. friends and acid to enemies in another possible preview of her possible administration.
A rebuke of allies
She rebuked Saudi Arabia for not stopping its citizens funding extremist groups and chided Europe for not sharing intelligence on extremists. She warned Silicon Valley, a rich source of Democratic campaign funds, that preventing the government from accessing encrypted technologies used by terrorists to communicate could lead to another attack.
There were tough words about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his allies Iran and Russia, which Clinton said must “face the fact that continuing to prop up a vicious dictator will not bring stability.”
Sanders, for his part, also sought to adapt his dovish reputation to the new national security mood in the wake of the Paris attacks, noting that unlike Clinton, he had opposed the war in Iraq, he was not against military action in every case and had backed the conflict in Afghanistan.
“No, I am not a pacifist. I think that war should be the last resort,” he said, briefly addressing national security in remarks billed as defining his democratic socialist leanings.
He called for a stepped up campaign against “barbaric” ISIS but put the emphasis on regional nations like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to do much more to counter the group, warning that they should not expect Washington to do their work for them.
Still, Clinton’s appearance also reflected the contradictions of her presidential bid. She did, after all, serve in an administration that is now being accused of ignoring the building threat of ISIS, of allowing Syria to implode with the loss of more than 250,000 lives and of engineering a retreat from the world that let extremism prosper.
“Across the world, the Obama-Clinton foreign policy lies in tatters,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee said in a statement that hinted at a major general election vulnerability for the former top U.S. diplomat.
“Hillary Clinton has demonstrated she is the wrong person to take on and defeat the growing threats facing the United States.”
And despite her lead in the polls, Clinton has not won the Democratic nomination yet, and accordingly framed her differences with Obama carefully as she courts dovish Democrats.
“Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East,” Clinton said.
“That is just not the smart move to make here,” Clinton said, adding that the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan was that local people must secure their own neighborhoods.
Clinton also lashed out at GOP candidates who want to bar entry to Syrian refugees into the United States in case their number includes extremists.
“That is just not who we are. We are better than that,” Clinton said, echoing sentiments that Obama has repeatedly stressed on his trip through Asia.
Though the President seemed to have Clinton’s support on the issue, that wasn’t the case for the rest of his party. Despite his strong rhetorical calls to support Syrian refugees and the White House’s dispatch of top administration envoys to Capitol Hill on Thursday, 47 Democrats joined Republicans on a bill that would suspend the program allowing them into the country – a majority that could override Obama’s promised veto.
Obama’s clash with lawmakers was a reminder that on the refugee issue, and on the wider fight against ISIS, he is in the hot seat now, while Clinton is still in the position of staking out policies that it’s possible she might not be able to deliver on if she wins power.
For instance, while Clinton called for a U.S. effort to support Arab armies on the ground to rout ISIS, she did not explain exactly how that would happen.
And while she called for more Special Operations forces to be sent to Syria and more freedom for U.S. troops backing Iraqi forces, there’s no guarantee her plan would be any more successful than Obama’s.
“Secretary Clinton is breaking from President Obama but not in the right way,” Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator, told MSNBC.
“The only way you can protect America from another 9/11 is to destroy the caliphate, go in on the ground as part of a regional army,” he said. “We can’t outsource this.”
Michael Desch, an expert in international security at Notre Dame University, said that Clinton’s speech was polished and showed her to be “head and shoulders” above Republican candidates on framing an anti-ISIS strategy.
But he said Clinton was “quite sanguine about our ability to micromanage political change in Syria and Iraq (in a way that) seems to fly in the face of our unsuccessful efforts to do that previously in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”
Sanders, for his part, tried to change the terms of the debate on the topic, to keep Clinton on the defensive among a base that he has succeeded in appealing to on the basis of economic issues.
Speaking before a warm crowd at Georgetown University and citing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose legacy includes steering America through World War II, Sanders declared, “Real freedom must include economic security.”