War Stories

Hillary Clinton Missed Her Chance to Explain How She Would Defeat ISIS

It’s the foreign policy question of our time, and she took a pass.

Hillary Clinton at the Democratic presidential primary debate on Nov. 14, 2015 in Iowa.


One day after terrorists attacked Paris, it was no surprise that CBS News switched plans for Saturday’s Democratic debate and devoted its first half-hour to national security. It was a surprise that the candidates were so vague on the subject.

Let’s be clear: Hillary Clinton proved herself to be the only grown-up on the stage (and, needless to say, more grown-up than any candidate in the Republican debates to date).

Sen. Bernie Sanders was incoherent. In his opening statement, he said, “Leading the world, this country will rid the planet of this barbaric organization called ISIS.” Later, though, he said, “the Muslim nations in the region … are going to have to lead.” Either way, it was unclear what he meant by leading.

When John Dickerson, the debate’s moderator and a Slate political columnist, asked Sanders if he still believed that the greatest national-security threat was climate change, he replied, “Absolutely,” adding, in an absolutely baffling remark, “Climate change is directly related to the rise of terrorism.”

Finally, Sanders called for “major reform in the military,” noting that less than 10 percent of the defense budget goes to fighting international terrorism, while we’re “spending hundreds of billions of dollars” to maintain 5,000 nuclear warheads. Instead, he said, we should spend more on “intelligence and increased manpower.”

A few things. First, in the context of a $700 billion military budget, counter-terrorism—which mainly involves small-scale operations—doesn’t require much more than 10 percent. Second, maintaining the nuclear arsenal costs about $20 billion a year—not hundreds of billions, unless calculated over decades. Does he think we shouldn’t maintain the arsenal? Maybe we don’t need as many as 5,000 warheads, but maintenance wouldn’t cost much less if the number were cut to 1,000. Third, military manpower costs more than maintaining the nuclear arsenal, so how much of an increase does he want, and for what purposes? Sanders never said.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley was dealt his nightmare question early on: Is the world too dangerous for a governor with no foreign-policy experience? He went on about “American values,” but never answered the question—which he should have anticipated.

Yet left with such a wide, open field, Clinton didn’t dash toward the finish line without tripping. In her opening, she said, “I will be laying out in detail what we and allies need to do, to do a better job of coordinating efforts.” It would have been better, if she’d laid a plan out in detail then and there.

The question of the evening—of our time—is how to defeat ISIS, but Clinton, the candidate with the deepest résumé on foreign policy, never said what she would do beyond what President Obama is already doing. She seems to have made a calculation, in this and previous debates, not to draw big distinctions between herself and Obama (who remains very popular among the active Democrats who vote in primaries), but it would have been interesting to hear her articulate a single distinctive detail about her plan, and she didn’t do that.

Her strategy in dealing with foreign-policy issues is to stress that she has the experience that the nation needs in a future commander in chief, and she carried that off well. She reminded Sanders that the United States faces more challenges than just terrorism—for instance, in the South China Sea and with Russia. She talked about the insight she gleaned from being in the Situation Room during the secret raid on Osama bin Laden’s lair. She talked about the “complexities” of Middle Eastern politics in a way that no other candidate even attempts (though it would have been better had she explained maybe one complex aspect with clarity).

She too had a problem with “leadership,” at one point saying, of the Middle East wars, “It can’t be an American fight,” then saying, “American leadership is essential.” Questions for a future debate: What do you mean by “leadership”? What would you do, as the American leader that our current president is not doing?

She had a good answer when Dickerson asked whether she’d identify the enemy as “radical Islam,” as many Republicans do. “We’re at war with jihadism,” she answered. “We have to reach out to Muslim countries, they have to be part of our coalition.” It’s not helpful “if they shortcut [‘radical Islam’] to say we are against Islam.” Then she said, “Historically, it’s important to try to understand your adversary, to understand what they are thinking, how they will act and react.” Would anyone disagree with this? It’s remarkable that so few American politicians say anything of the sort, and it’s very much to her credit and credibility that she did.