- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Hillary Clinton and her staffers are hitting Bernie Sanders hard and often, with Clinton hammering his views on foreign policy from the stump while aides work the phones to portray Sanders as a foreign policy neophyte with dovish views that would render him unelectable regardless of which Republican wins the GOP nomination
The campaign was in full effect Thursday, as two of Clinton’s top aides jumped on comments Sanders made during Sunday’s NBC News debate suggesting that the United States “move as aggressively as we can” to normalize relations with Iran.
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary said on a call with reporters Thursday that Sanders’ comments on Iran are little more than a “caricature that Republicans like to put forward” about how Democrats view the world. “I can safely predict that Republicans would love to have a debate with someone who thinks we should move quickly to warmer relations with a major sponsor of terrorism like Iran,” Fallon said.
The approach recalls similar attacks Clinton launched against then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007, calling him “naive” for offering to meet without precondition with the leaders of Cuba, North Korea and Iran.
Today, Clinton is taking a very different approach — praising Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and trying to claim credit for helping to bring it about.
Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s senior policy adviser, said on the same call that Clinton “helped launch the diplomacy which resulted in the landmark nuclear agreement” that was signed in July 2015. He then took direct aim at Sanders, arguing that “this proposal to more aggressively normalize relations and to move to warm relations with Iran not only breaks with President Obama’s policy, it breaks with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that’s been working for the United States.”
Sanders and his aides have brushed aside the attacks, believing that Democratic primary voters will view Clinton — who supported the Iraq war, the Afghan surge, and the U.S. military intervention into Syria — as far too hawkish.
A statement released by the Sanders campaign on Tuesday said the senator acknowledges that “former Secretary of State Clinton has more experience than Sen. Sanders,” on foreign policy matters, “but his judgement on major foreign policy issues is far superior,” pointing to his vote against the invasion of Iraq.
The exchanges highlight the Clinton camp’s growing fears about Sanders, who is currently beating her in both Iowa and New Hampshire. On Tuesday, a CNN/WMUR poll found that the Vermont Independent had a wide lead over the presumptive Democratic nominee in New Hampshire, with 60 percent of likely voters backing him and just 33 percent supporting Clinton. And on Thursday, a CNN/WMUR poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers found that Sanders held an eight point lead, 51 percent to 43 percent.
In response, Clinton is increasingly trying to shift the focus of the Democratic campaign to foreign policy and national security, areas where she and her aides believe she holds an advantage with voters. That, in turn, has meant attacking Sanders for his views on both Iran and the broader Middle East.
Sanders has previously suggested that Saudi Arabia and Iran could work together to battle the Islamic State, leading the Clinton camp to release a statement Tuesday signed by 10 former senior U.S. diplomats and national security officials deriding the idea. “While we support de-escalation of Sunni-Shia tensions,” the statement read, “his argument that Iran and Saudi Arabia — two intense adversaries — should join together in a military coalition is just puzzling.”
The campaign also dropped a two-and-a-half-minute video Thursday starring Sullivan, who notes that Iran “seeks the destruction of Israel.” He adds, “Secretary Clinton supports diplomacy with Iran. But normal relations with Iran right now? President Obama doesn’t support that idea, Secretary Clinton doesn’t support that idea, and it’s not at all clear why Sen. Sanders is suggesting it.”
During a campaign stop in Iowa Thursday, Clinton herself criticized Sanders’ suggestion that Iran could deploy troops to Syria to help fight the Islamic State. “That is like asking the arsonist to be the firefighter,” she quipped. “Sometimes it can sound like he hasn’t really thought it through.”
Photo Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images