Hillary Clinton Put On The Defensive Over Middle East Policy

Her fellow candidates hit hard during the debate, questioning her record.

WASHINGTON -- Prompted by the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night, the Democratic candidates for president squabbled during their debate on Saturday, with disagreements rising over the root causes of that terrorist threat.

Both Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and former Governor Martin O’Malley (D-Md.) took turns going after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but from different vantage points.

Sanders attacked Clinton for her vote to authorize the war in Iraq, which he called the worst foreign policy blunder of his lifetime.

"I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS," Sanders said. "I don't think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we're seeing right now."

O’Malley, meanwhile, made a larger critique: that interventionism had failed the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. "We are not good at anticipating threats and building up stable democracies," he said. But he also appeared to contradict himself, arguing that Clinton’s current prescription for how to fix the mess that is the Middle East -- leaning heavily on the governments in the region -- was shortsighted.

“I would disagree with Secretary Clinton respectfully on this score. This actually is America’s fight. It is not solely America’s fight. America is best when we are working closely with our allies. America is best when it is fighting evil,” he said.

“The great failing of the past 15 years has been the failing of our human intelligence on the ground," he continued. "Also our role in the world is to confront evil when it rises. We took out a safe haven in Afghanistan, but this is a larger safe haven.”

Addressing the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of 129 people and critically injured 99 others, Clinton spent a lot of Saturday’s debate on the defensive. She distanced herself from her vote for the Iraq War authorization and defended the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya. She defended the Gulf states from criticism from Sanders (who argued they weren’t doing their fair share) and she deflected blame that she and the Obama administration underestimated the threat posed by ISIS, saying that the real responsibility was with others in the region.

“Yes, this has developed; I think there are many other reasons why it has, in additionally what happened in the region,” she said. “But I don’t think the United States has the bulk of the responsibility. I put that on [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and the Iraqis.”

Perhaps ironically, the candidates all seemed to agree in broad terms on what needed to be done to address ISIS now: more aggressive U.S. posturing and, more significantly, geopolitical pressure on regional actors to tamp down the threat. As Sanders summarized, Middle East countries need to "get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground."

“This is a war for the soul of Islam,” he added.

See the latest updates on the debate here.

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