Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has laid out her plan “to defeat and destroy” the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, distancing herself from President Barack Obama’s comment last week that the group had been “contained” by urging the U.S. to do more to stop the group.
In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City on Thursday, Clinton fulfilled a promise she made at Saturday's Democratic primary debate to describe what she thought the United States needed to do, alongside its allies, to eradicate terrorism.
The United States should help launch more airstrikes in the region, give U.S. military advisors there more flexibility, and deploy the special operations forces Obama has authorized with the option of deploying more, Clinton said. Most notably, she stressed that the U.S. needed to lean on its Arab and Turkish coalition partners to share the burden of fighting the Islamic State militants.
“Local people and nations have to secure their own communities,” she said. “We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. … Our increased support should go hand in hand with increased support from Arab partners.”
Just a day earlier, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential hopeful, said the administration should send more ground troops to engage in the conflict. Clinton was careful not to explicitly agree with this position. She said she did not believe that the U.S. should “again have 100,000 troops in combat in the Middle East,” distinguishing the fight against the Islamic State group from the simultaneous wars the U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Clinton said she believed more Iraqi Sunnis needed to join the fight against ISIS, but acknowledged that wouldn’t happen “if they don’t feel like they have a stake in their country.” She argued that the U.S. needed to “lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening” by putting pressure on the Iraqi government to reconcile with the country’s various factions, embrace arming Sunnis and Kurds and “get its political house in order.”
She added that the U.S. and its allies should arm Sunnis and Kurds directly if the Iraqis refused to. Such a move would be a big step away from what the Obama administration has been doing in Iraq. Currently, weapons sent to fight extremists in Iraq are routed through the central government in Baghdad, rather than being sent directly to the country's more U.S.-friendly Kurdistan region.
Congressional proposals allowing the administration to directly ship weapons to the Kurds have, so far, failed.
Clinton reiterated her support for a no-fly zone in Syria -- a position the Obama administration opposes -- “to stop [Syrian President Bashar] Assad from slaughtering civilians and opposition from the air.” She said the U.S. needed “to move simultaneously to a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for new leadership,” forcing Assad out of power.
For this to happen, Clinton said, Russia and Iran would “have to face the fact that continuing to prop up Assad” will not bring stability. She said Russian President Vladimir Putin “is making things worse” by supporting Assad’s government.
But, she added, the effort would 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 that Turkey has been more focused on fighting Kurds than fighting Islamic State militants and that the Saudis are devoting more energy to fighting insurgent forces in Yemen out of fear of the Iranians. The U.S. needed to reassure its Arab partners that it understands their concerns about Iran, she said.
In her speech, Clinton called on Congress to pass an updated war authorization -- the Obama administration is still relying on a vote from 2001 to justify taking military action -- to “send a message to friend and foe alike” that the U.S. is committed to fighting the Islamic State group.
She also advocated for better intelligence sharing between the U.S. and its allies to interrupt the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, and said the U.S. should press Turkey to secure its borders so would-be fighters can’t reach the battlefield. The U.S. also needs to do a better job of persuading Arab countries like Saudi Arabia to stop financing extremist networks and make other countries “police their own banks” to cut off ISIS's revenue sources, Clinton said. She did not say how the U.S. could accomplish this goal.
Clinton chastised Republicans for their fixation on characterizing terrorist groups in a way that broadly indicts other Muslims. "The obsession in some quarters with a 'clash of civilizations' or repeating the specific words 'Radical Islamic Terrorism' is not just a distraction, it gives these criminals, these murderers, more standing than they deserve and it actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side," she said.
“Let’s be clear, Islam is not our adversary,” Clinton added. “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.”
Clinton's speech came as the House of Representatives inched forward with legislation aimed at "pausing" the admittance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. by adding requirements to an already lengthy screening process, putting pressure on intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security officials to act with caution.
Though Clinton said she supported scrutinizing safeguards in the country’s visa program to ensure terrorists couldn’t enter the country -- Democrats in the Senate have opted for such a proposal -- she said the U.S. shouldn't allow terrorists “to intimidate us into abandoning our values.”
More than half of the nation’s governors -- all Republicans except for one Democrat, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan -- have called on the federal government to stop admitting Syrian refugees. Recent polling has demonstrated that a majority of Americans oppose admitting refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.
“Remember, many of these Syrian refugees are fleeing the same terrorists who threaten us,” she said.
Clinton’s speech appeared to be an attempt to reinforce Democratic voters' perception that she would be better at handling an international crisis than her chief rival for the party’s nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders is set to deliver his own foreign policy speech later on Thursday.
Jessica Schulberg contributed reporting.
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