The Democratic presidential candidates pledged to lead the United States in the fight to crush the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist group, with each suggesting that the Obama administration has come up short.
The candidates in the debate broadcast Saturday night by CBS eagerly embraced increasing U.S. engagement and called for the absolute defeat of the terrorist group in the wake of its massive terrorist attack in Paris the previous night.
Implicit in the pledges were critiques of Obama administration policy in the face of the rise of ISIS, which critics have said has been, at least until recent weeks, feckless and deferential to other powers fighting the group.
“We have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network,” said the campaign front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“It cannot be contained, it must be defeated,” she said. “There is no question in my mind that if we summon our resources, both our leadership resources and all of the tools at our disposal, not just military force which should be used as a last resort, but our diplomacy, our development aid, law enforcement, sharing of intelligence in a much more– open and cooperative way– that we can bring people together.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who trails Clinton although the strength of his campaign has surprised her, agreed that the United States must defeat ISIS, but also launched a broadside against moderate Muslims, saying they must step up in the fight against the group.
“We have to understand that the Muslim nations in the region, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, all of these nations, they’re going to just have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground,” Sanders said at the event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, the first caucus state in the primaries season. “They are going to have to take on ISIS. This is a war for the soul of Islam.”
The hawkish posture embraced by Sanders, who is Jewish, was unusual in a race in which he has mostly targeted Clinton from the left, most pronouncedly on income gap and banking reforms.
Clinton chided him for including Jordan in the list, saying it was “very unfair” to include the kingdom – one of only two Arab states with a peace treaty with Israel – because it has suffered for the lead it has taken against extremist Islamist groups.
Sanders and the third candidate on the stage, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, took shots at Clinton for her involvement in policies, both under the Obama administration and during the presidency of President George W. Bush, which led to the unraveling of the Middle East. Clinton was Obama’s secretary of state in his first term and as the U.S. senator from New York, voted for the 2003 Iraq War.
“It was not just the invasion of Iraq which Secretary Clinton voted for and has since said was a big mistake, and indeed it was,” O’Malley said. “But it was also the cascading effects that followed that. It was also the disbanding of– many elements of the Iraqi army that are now showing up as part of ISIS. It was– country after country without making the investment in human intelligence to understand who the new leaders were and the new forces were that are coming up.”
Clinton, who has acknowledged that her Iraq War vote was a mistake, said that factors in place before the Iraq War as well as decisions taken afterwards also contributed to the crisis.