Democratic Debate: Terrorism, Foreign Policy Take Center Stage After Paris Attack

Candidates quizzed on battling terrorism

The Democratic candidates took the stage Saturday night for a debate very different from the one planned by CBS News before the bloody terrorist attacks on Paris that killed 129 people and wounded at least 352 others.

The two-hour debate in Des Moines, Iowa, focused at first on terrorism and foreign relations over domestic topics, though there were also questions about healthcare, guns and the economy.

The three Democrats immediately tried to draw differences among themselves on how to confront terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. 

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it must be defeated not contained. 

“But it cannot be an American fight,” she said.

The United States must provide leadership and support the countries that bring the fight to ISIS, whose rise she blamed on leaders such as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He failed to maintain stability after the United States withdrew its troops from Iraq, she said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that the invasion of Iraq, which he opposed, had led to the unraveling of the region. The United States should lead a coalition that includes Muslim countries to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups and he mentioned Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.

"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," he said. "I think that was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States." 

Clinton has said that her 2002 vote was a mistake. She told Sanders he was unfair to single out Jordan, but said Turkey and the Gulf countries needed to decide where they stood.

And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley disagreed with Clinton saying the battle was America’s fight, though not solely America’s fight. The United States was best when it was standing up to evil in the world, he said. The failing of the last 10 to 15 years was a failure of intelligence on the ground, he said.

Syria, Libya and Afghanistan were "a mess," he said. The United States has not done enough to build stable democracies after the fall of dictators, he said. 

Since the candidates’ first meeting, Vice President Joe Biden decided not to run in the Democratic presidential primary and Clinton increased her lead over Sanders by a margin two to one among primary voters in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Nov. 3. O’Malley got only 3 percent support.

Saturday night's debate opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks. It was moderated by John Dickerson, anchor for the CBS News program, “Face the Nation,” Nancy Cordes, the CBS News congressional correspondent, Kevin Cooney, an anchor for KCCI-TV in Des Moines, and Kathie Obradovich, a political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

The questioners, according to CBS News, wanted to highlight differences among the three Democrats on foreign policy and fighting extremist groups such as the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility not just for the attacks on Paris, but also the bombing of a Shi’ite neighborhood in Beirut one day earlier that killed 43 and injured more than 200. The Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai said it brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt.

When the questions turned to domestic issues, the candidates debated Wall Street’s influence through campaign donations, healthcare and minimum wage.

Sanders accused Clinton of being too close to Wall Street as he promised to break up the country’s largest banks.

“Who are we kidding?” he asked. “The business model of Wall Street is fraud, that’s what it is.”

Sanders wants to raise taxes to make public college tuition free, but he did not say by how much. He did say that the increase would not be as high as under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, at 90 percent.

“I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” he said.

Clinton defended her ties to Wall Street by saying that as a senator from New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was her job to help rebuild downtown Manhattan. 

O’Malley said the president should protect Main Street from the excesses of Wall Street.  On immigration, he attacked Republican Donald Trump, whom he called an “immigrant-bashing carnival barker.” Net immigration from Mexico last year was zero, he said.

As the former secretary of state, Clinton has the edge over the other two in terms of foreign policy experience. The Associated Press noted that at a New Hampshire town hall last week she said that she did not currently support seeking a declaration of war against the Islamic State and she deflected a question about it during the debate.

"It is difficult finding intelligence that is actionable in a lot of these places, but we have to keep trying," she said.

She has called for a no-fly zone over northern Syria.

All three candidates have opposed the United States combatting the rise of Islamic militants through a larger ground war in the Middle East.

Saturday night all three also declined to use the phrase "radical Islam." Clinton said the United States was not at war with Islam, Sanders said he did not think the term used was important and O'Malley said it was unnecessarily offensive to Muslims in the United States, who were the first line of defense in the fight against terrorism.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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