Democratic Debate: Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton on “Historic Context” of Terrorism

With three candidates in the running for President of the United States in the Democratic Party, former US Secretary of State and former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democratic debate was held on CBS-TV last night.

Just one day before the scheduled debate, major terror attacks occurred in France, killing well over 100 people. The debate, which was supposed be on economics, starts out instead with a moment of silence and a period of discussion about the attacks and the political circumstances surrounding them.

Host John Dickerson probes Bernie Sanders after the fresh terror attacks to backtrack on his climate change priority.

JOHN DICKERSON:  In the previous date you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?

BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism…

Sanders then moves on to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

BERNIE SANDERS: 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, cause the United States cannot do it alone — what we need to do is lead an international coalition which includes, very significantly, the Muslim nations in that region are gonna have to fight and defend their way of life…

John Dickerson then prods Bernie Sanders to make a personal “direct link” between Hillary Clinton’s vote in the Senate for the 2003 Iraq invasion. He responds:

BERNIE SANDERS: 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 plunders in the modern history of United States.

Given an open opportunity to respond, Hillary Clinton broadens the discussion beyond the Iraq war, and cites terror attacks going back years earlier.

HILLARY CLINTON: I think it’s important we put this in a historic context. United States has unfortunately been victimized by terrorism going back decades. In the 1980’s it was in Beirut, Lebanon under President Reagan’s administration and 258 Americans, marines, embassy personnel and others were murdered.

We also had attacks on two of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya when my husband was president. Again, Americans murdered. And then of course 9/11 happened which happened before there was an invasion of Iraq. I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. But I think if we’re ever gonna really tackle the problems posed by jihadi extreme 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.

Baited again to criticize Hillary Clinton and her work when she was Secretary of State, Bernie Sanders responds by broadening the topic further:

BERNIE SANDERS: I think we have a disagreement. And the disagreement is that not only did I vote against the war in Iraq, if you look at history, John, you will find that regime change, whether it was in the early 50’s in Iran, whether it was toppling Salvador Allende in Chile, whether it was overthrowing the government 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 in that I am not a great fan of regime change.

Martin O’Malley squeezes in to suggest where things should go from here.

MARTIN O’MALLEY: 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.

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 was country after country without making the investment in human intelligence to understand who the new leaders were and the new forces were that are coming up.

We need to be much more far thinking in this new twenty-first century era of nation state failures and conflict. It’s not just about getting rid of a single dictator. It is about understanding the secondary and third consequences that fall next.

Bernie Sanders then suggests that other countries, Muslim nations, become more involved in fighting for the “soul of Islam.” Hillary Clinton finds the inclusion of Jordan in Bernie’s list to be “very unfair” because it has “put a lot on the line to the United States … [and took] in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and has been therefore subjected to threats and attacks — by extremists themselves.” Sanders and Clinton both agree that the situation is complicated.

Beyond the urgent need to discuss terror and the middle east, most of the debate was strikingly similar to the prior Democratic debate. Here is the entire debate. Start eight minutes in to see the above exchanges.