The Cable

Clinton Promises a More Hawkish Approach to Islamic State Than Obama

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton outlined her plans to defeat the Islamic State in a Thursday speech that both defended the Obama administration's current strategy against the militant group -- and proposed a range of hawkish military actions the president has long refused.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton delivers a national security address at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, November 19, 2015 on her strategy for defeating the Islamic State group in the wake of the Paris attacks.   AFP PHOTO / DON EMMERT        (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton delivers a national security address at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, November 19, 2015 on her strategy for defeating the Islamic State group in the wake of the Paris attacks. AFP PHOTO / DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton outlined her plans to defeat the Islamic State in a Thursday speech that both defended the Obama administration’s current strategy against the militant group — and proposed a range of hawkish military actions the president has long refused.

In her remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Clinton reiterated her support for a no-fly zone in Syria and called for creating humanitarian corridors in the war-torn country to shelter displaced Syrians who would otherwise seek refuge in Europe. She also signaled an openness to sending more U.S. special forces to Syria than the 50 troops President Barack Obama has already authorized, and advocated for intensifying America’s air campaign against ISIS.

“We should immediately deploy the special operations force President Obama has already authorized, and be prepared to deploy more as more Syrians get into the fight,” Clinton said. “We should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units.”

She also criticized U.S. allies in the Middle East for not doing enough to defeat the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

“Our efforts will only succeed if the Arabs and Turks step up in a much bigger way. This is their fight and they need to act like it,” she said. “So far, however, Turkey has been more focused on the Kurds than on countering ISIS.”

The Obama administration has long rejected the establishment of a no-fly zone, calling it a dangerous and expensive operation that could easily put the U.S. on a slippery slope toward a wider military engagement.

Clinton said she supported a limited no-fly zone that would not encompass the entire country, but help create “safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.” Such a plan would require the U.S. to patrol Syrian skies and shoot down Syrian or Russian fighter jets if they crossed into the established zone. The U.S. has been working with Turkey to carve out so-called “safe zones” for displaced Syrians, but the two sides have yet to agree on an implementation plan.

It wasn’t the first time Clinton has distanced herself from the president in an effort to bolster her national security credentials. During the Democratic debate last Saturday, responding to Republican candidates who criticized her former boss for saying the Islamic State was “contained,” Clinton used her opening lines to mimic GOP arguments against Obama’s Islamic State strategy.

“It cannot be contained, it must be defeated,” she said.

Still, Clinton was careful not to strike too sharp of a contrast with the president, who remains broadly popular among Democratic voters and whom she served under as secretary of state for four years. “Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East,” she said.

“If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them,” she added.

She also defended the Obama administration’s long-standing efforts at countering violent extremism, which have been criticized by Republicans for not explicitly calling out “radical Islamic terrorism.” She said such criticism gives the extremists “more standing than they deserve — it actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side.”

Clinton also waded into the intensifying debate over the president’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. The House is expected to suspend the proposal on Thursday, but Obama has vowed to veto the opposition. Trying to find a middle path, Clinton said she opposed Republican efforts to stop the program, but said the U.S. needed to be “vigilant” in its “screening and vetting” of refugees.

An aide said the speech sought to seize on the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Nigeria to outline Clinton’s strategy against the Islamic State.

The attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and injured hundreds more, shocked the West and suggested the extremist group had a broader reach than the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence officials previously believed.

Clinton’s speech comes as her Republican rivals propose a series of increasingly hawkish measures to defeat the Islamic State and deal with the second-order effects of the 4 ½-year civil war in Syria.

Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to send 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria; Donald Trump wants to bomb oil fields in the Middle East; Sen. Ted Cruz proposed only letting in Christian refugees to the United States; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently advocated for a vast military buildup, including 40,000 new Army troops, new submarines and aircraft and about 4,000 more Marines.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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