Candidates Attack Clinton’s Hawkish Foreign Policy in First Debate

Hillary’s liberal rivals seized on her Iraq War vote and support for a no-fly zone in Syria, but are "sick and tired" of hearing about her emails related to the Benghazi inquiry.


Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was forced to defend her hawkish record on foreign policy Tuesday during her party’s first presidential debate, as rivals sought to exploit weaknesses in an area that should serve as one of the former secretary of state’s greatest strengths.

From her support for a no-fly zone over Syria to her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the other four candidates who participated in the CNN forum tried to paint Clinton as a political opportunist who is too quick to resort to military force. She was thrown a lifeline, however, from top challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders, who downplayed the Benghazi scandal that has dogged Clinton for more than three years.

The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said in one of the most memorable lines of the two-hour debate.

“Me, too,” agreed Clinton, who will appear in front of a congressional hearing later this fall to discuss whether classified information — including about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya —  was passed through a personal email server at her home.

Sanders was less generous when it came to Clinton’s 2002 vote as a senator to invade Iraq. “I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq,” he said. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also piled on, suggesting Clinton was “railroaded in a war fever and by polls” in supporting the invasion.

Stylistically, Clinton delivered a confident performance at a time when influential party donors had worried about Sanders’s surprising rise in early voting state polls. In nearly every national poll, Clinton beats Sanders by double digits, but lags behind him by 41 to 32 percentage points among likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire, an important early voting state and one that neighbors his home turf of Vermont.

On Tuesday, Clinton parried stinging accusations and defended her record as an advocate for progressive causes even though her views have, at times, changed. “I have been very consistent,” she said. “Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings, including those of us who run for office, I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world.”

On foreign policy, Clinton faced tough questions about her support for a no-fly zone in Syria, which would require the U.S. military to bomb Syrian air defense systems and potentially shoot down Syrian aircraft. President Barack Obama has resisted a no-fly zone, which he believes would pull the United States deeper into the nearly five-year war. The issue has taken on heightened importance since Russia began bombing rebel groups in Syria earlier this month to bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.  

“You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret,” O’Malley said.

“Diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution,” Clinton responded coolly. “It’s about how you balance the risks.”

For the most part during the debate in Las Vegas, Clinton tried to focus on domestic issues like healthcare, gun control, and big-money interests. But she stood her ground on foreign policy and at one point used her former perch at the State Department to burnish her credentials. “[Obama] valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues,” said Clinton, who left the State Department in 2013.

In another tense standoff, CNN host Anderson Cooper prompted Clinton to defend her role in advocating for the U.S. military intervention in Libya, which resulted in the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.

Clinton called America’s efforts to oust Qaddafi with the help of allies in Europe and the Middle East an exercise of “smart power at its best.”

“We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words,” she added. “And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Qaddafi.’”

Still, there was little account for the current state of Libya, which has descended into chaos amid infighting from various militias and groups. In the absence of a strong central government, the Islamic State and other extremist groups have gained a toehold in the country.

The wide-ranging debate also featured a lightning round of questions in which the candidates were asked to name the single greatest security threat facing the United States. Clinton cited the proliferation of loose nuclear materials, which she said is in high demand among terrorists, “and that’s why we have to stay vigilant, but also united around the world to prevent that.”

Meanwhile, O’Malley pegged Iran, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia chose China, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee pointed to the general “chaos in the Middle East.”

In a major liberal applause line, Sanders chose global warming. “The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable,” he said. “That is a major crisis.”

The mood and tenor of the five-person debate offered a stark contrast to two previous GOP debates, the latest of which featured 10 candidates and harsh barbs between those vying for the Republican nomination. While contentious at times, the tenor of the Democratic back-and-forth was generally respectful, with many comments aimed at the Republican Party.

But some of the most pressing international issues of the day largely fell to the wayside, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal struck by Obama last week that covers 12 Pacific nations comprising 40 percent of the world’s economy.

Obama fought long and hard for the TPP, bucking his own party and teaming up with Republicans to win the fast track authority that could allow him to push it through before the end of his term. He insists it’s necessary to keep the United States competitive in the 21st-century economy.

However, it’s unpopular with some Democrats, who argue it would kill American jobs in favor of foreign ones and would favor foreign products over those made in the United States. Tea Party Republicans oppose the deal for the same reasons.

As secretary of state, Clinton was a vocal supporter of the deal. As a candidate, however, she has changed her tune, a move she was pressed to defend Tuesday by saying the deal got worse since she left her post in the Obama administration.

“I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards,” Clinton said. “And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘This will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not,” she added.

The five Democrats shared broad agreement on a range of domestic policy priorities, from raising the minimum wage to reducing the cost of childcare to increased spending for education. But they sharply differed on whether to consider National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero: Clinton and O’Malley fell squarely into the traitor camp, while Chafee just as strongly declared Snowden a hero. Webb said it’s a decision best — and ultimately — left to the courts.

And Sanders sounded torn, praising Snowden and yet agreeing that he broke the law in revealing classified programs about government eavesdropping on Americans.

I think there should be a penalty to that,” Sanders said. “But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration.”

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola