Bernie Sanders Pins The Rise Of ISIS On 'Disastrous' Invasion Of Iraq

"These invasions have unintended consequences."

At Saturday's Democratic debate, the Paris attacks were a front-and-center concern, with most of the opening questions from moderator John Dickerson probing the candidates on their plans to defeat ISIS, and on whether a lack of foresight led to its rise in the first place.

For former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the questions came with the added sting of her having to answer for the Obama administration's specific responses to ISIS' emerging threat, and whether it's been adequate to the task.

But it was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) who opened a discussion of the past -- perhaps one familiar to Clinton on stages like this one: the Iraq War, and its role in allowing ISIS and other terrorists to take root in the region. Sanders cut to the chase rather aggressively.

"Let me have one area of disagreement with the secretary," asked Sanders. "I think she said something like the bulk of the responsibility [for ISIS] is not ours. Well, in fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of al Qaeda and to ISIS."

"Now, in fact, what we have got to do -- and I think there is widespread agreement here -- is the United States cannot do it alone," he continued. "What we need to do is lead an international coalition which includes very significantly the Muslim nations in that region who are going to have to fight and defend their way of life."

Bernie Sanders makes a point during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Bernie Sanders makes a point during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

It was an interesting proposition: to solve the original sin of the Iraq War, the United States was going to have to undertake a coalition-led intervention in the same region.

Dickerson was quick to reopen the old wound: "When you say the disastrous vote on Iraq, let's just be clear about what you're saying. You're saying Secretary Clinton, who was then Sen. Clinton, voted for the Iraq War. Are you making a direct link between her vote for that war and what's happening now for ISIS?"

Sanders replied: "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. I think that was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States."

Clinton was primed to respond: "I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. But I think if we're ever going to really tackle the problems posed by jihadi extremist terrorism, we need to understand it and realize that it has antecedents to what happened in Iraq and we have to continue to be vigilant about it."

Sanders parried, interjecting what he considered to be the lesson that needed to be learned. "If you look at history, John," Sanders said, "you will find that regime change, whether it was in the early '50s in Iran, whether it was toppling Salvador Allende in Chile, whether it was overthrowing the government of Guatemala way back when, these invasions, these toppling of governments, regime changes have unintended consequences."

"I would say that on this issue, I'm a little bit more conservative than the secretary," Sanders said, "and I am not a great fan of regime change."

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was also involved in the exchange. "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," he 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's not just about getting rid of a single dictator," said O'Malley, "it is about understanding the secondary and third consequences that fall next."

See the latest updates on the debate here.

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