Hillary Clinton Leaves Her Controversial ISIS-Fighting Strategy Out Of Monday's Debate

The Democratic presidential nominee wants a no-fly zone in Syria.
Hillary Clinton joins President Barack Obama on stage after his speech to the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2016. She has differed with him on Syria policy.
Hillary Clinton joins President Barack Obama on stage after his speech to the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2016. She has differed with him on Syria policy.
Bill Clark/Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― Hillary Clinton used Monday night’s presidential debate to detail parts of her plan for beating ISIS: intensify air strikes against the group; take out its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi; and disrupt its online propaganda efforts.

But Clinton didn’t mention her most controversial idea for intervening in Syria: initiating and enforcing a no-fly zone.

Clinton says a no-fly zone, or area in which the U.S. would shoot down non-U.S. planes, would ensure humanitarian aid reaches civilians, pressure Russia and Iran to bring about a political resolution of the war in Syria, and speed the destruction of ISIS. But President Barack Obama has soundly rejected the idea, and critics warn it would cost billions of dollars, pull the U.S. further into the conflict, put American pilots at risk of being captured, tortured and killed, and create the potential for clashes with Russia that could lead to escalation or even war.

“The last thing you want is to provoke a conflict with the Russians,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

Clinton has been relatively quiet about the no-fly zone idea, even though she still backs it. “I’ve always believed that if that were on the table and it was clear that we were going to pursue it that would give us leverage which we don’t have right now,” Clinton said at a Labor Day press conference.

Her reticence, however, points to the knowledge that, “You are not going to win votes in a close election by flaunting or advertising the fact that you want to engage militarily in the Middle East,” according to Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Denver, who supports the policy in principle.

Clinton’s position on the Middle East aligns her with some strange bedfellows ― like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are top critics of Obama’s foreign policy.

The Obama administration has generally focused its actions in Syria on combating the threat of the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda and other jihadist factions operating in the country. Obama officially maintains that the U.S. is seeking President Bashar Assad’s ouster, but through inaction, the U.S. is effectively allowing the Syrian government to retake the country from the rebel groups that oppose it.

“Obama has figured Syria is not in America’s main interest and he’ll let Russia have it,” said Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.

As secretary of state, Clinton was one of many Obama administration officials to argue that the costs of allowing Assad to massacre his people en masse were essentially greater than those of intervening against him. Early in Syria’s war, she advocated the direct arming of Syrian rebel groups, but Obama vetoed it, according to her most recent memoir. (The U.S. has armed and trained select rebel contingents, and encouraged allies to do the same. But it has stopped short of the kind of support that would meaningfully change the war’s outcome.)

Proponents of fighting Assad, ISIS and Al Qaeda, at the same time, believe the decision not to side with “moderate” or pro-Western rebels sooner, gave Assad carte blanche to commit atrocities in moderate rebel-held areas. This, in turn, allowed jihadist groups to fill the anti-Assad void, further strengthening their power in the country.

“The intent of his area bombing is to depopulate the country of moderate civilians supportive of moderate rebels,” said Chris Harmer, a foreign policy analyst and retired career naval officer. “He has been able to successfully destroy the foundation of support for the moderate insurgency.”

Boosting the shrinking contingent of acceptable Syrian rebels or thwarting Assad through other means is still better than continuing on the current course, these critics ― including Clinton ― argue.

““Recent events – especially the massive bombardment of Aleppo – strengthen Hillary Clinton’s argument that a new policy is required.”

- Nader Hashemi, University of Denver

The deadly Sept. 19 airstrike on an aid convoy headed to Aleppo only strengthened Obama critics’ conviction that diplomacy alone is failing to protect Syria’s besieged civilian populations. The U.S. believes the airstrike, which occurred just days after the start of a U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire, was the work of Syrian or Russian planes and helicopters.

“The attack on the aid convoy and the breakdown of diplomacy highlights the futility of Obama’s foreign policy toward Syria,” the University of Denver’s Hashemi said. “Recent events – especially the massive bombardment of Aleppo – strengthen Hillary Clinton’s argument that a new policy is required.”

It is easy, however, to overstate the foreign policy differences between Obama and Clinton. They both, after all, prefer diplomacy and working through international institutions over use of force. Clinton is strongly supportive of Obama’s two largest foreign policy accomplishments: establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and negotiating an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

There’s no foolproof way to predict how Clinton will govern in office. But both supporters and skeptics of Clinton’s ideas believe her posture toward Syria speaks to a broader philosophical difference with Obama about the role of the U.S. in the world. Clinton reportedly advocated for intervention in Libya despite Obama’s misgivings, for example. She now defends the decision to intervene, even as Obama has suggested he regrets it.

Hashemi considers Clinton’s different approach a positive attribute.

“Broadly speaking, she is, in contrast to Obama, more willing to use military force to advance American foreign policy goals,” Hashemi said. “Obama’s foreign policy was deeply shaped and influenced by the Iraq War and the determination that not getting involved in a country militarily is, in and of itself, of strategic value for the United States.”

“Obama has figured Syria is not in America’s main interest and he’ll let Russia have it.”

- Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma

It is not entirely clear how Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, compares to Clinton on foreign policy in general, and Syria in particular. That is because like many other topics, Trump is vague, and wildly inconsistent, about his plans.

In June, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a top Trump adviser, came out in support of creating “safety zones” in the air and on the ground in Syria, which would presumably go further than just a no-fly zone. Trump also voiced support for safe corridors for Syrian civilians in February, but specified that the Gulf states would need to pay for them.

On other occasions, however, Trump has suggested he would break with the current U.S. policy of calling for Assad to leave power.

The real estate mogul has claimed that the U.S. has “bigger problems than Assad” and suggested the rebel groups fighting the dictator “may be worse.”

This message, though delivered by a flawed messenger, resonates with analysts like Landis who think the U.S. never had a clear strategic interest in Assad’s removal.

“Trump has made some correct assessments about the Middle East,” Landis said. (Landis will nonetheless vote for Clinton. “I would never trust [Trump] to do anything responsible with what is a reasonable plan,” he said.)

Korb, of the Center for American Progress, downplays Obama and Clinton’s difference, calling the former secretary of state’s approach “Obama plus” for her apparent willingness to intervene somewhat more frequently in the Middle East.

If asked to choose, however, he clearly identifies more with Obama’s wariness to deploy military power for uncertain political goals. During the Democratic primary in February, Korb was even one of the few experts to pen a positive op-ed about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy views and record.

But he is confident in Clinton’s judgment and believes that if she were president, she would not implement a no-fly zone in Syria.

“Given her experience,” he said, “I don’t think she would do anything that didn’t make sense.”

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