How’s this for some tightrope walking? While laying out her plan for how the U.S. should fight ISIS on Thursday, Hillary Clinton managed to say she sided with President Obama, while at the same time offering a plan that appears more in line with that of her Republican rivals.
Most notably, Clinton pushed for the creation of a partial no-fly zone over Syria—a position shared by most of the GOP field but opposed by the White House. The Democratic front-runner also called for increased airstrikes, and faster—and possibly greater—deployment of special operations troops to aid local forces fighting ISIS on the ground. But despite suggesting that Obama needs to do more, and do it faster, Hillary nonetheless maintained that she wasn’t proposing wholesale changes to Obama’s current strategy.
“It is in many ways an intensification and acceleration of [the president’s] strategy,” Clinton said when asked during a Q-and-A session that followed her remarks. She then continued: “What we have done with airstrikes has made a difference but now it needs to make a greater difference and we need more of a coalition flying those missions with us. What we have done with the president saying there would be special forces sent is right in line with what I think—but they need to get there and we need to take stock of whether we need more.” More! Faster! Better! But not different—definitely not different.
Despite her stay-the-course frame, though, Clinton’s general strategy is closer to what many of the Republican presidential candidates are offering. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out over the weekend, the vast majority of the schemes to fight ISIS put forth from the leading contenders in the GOP field amount to: more airstrikes, more aide to the Kurds, more special ops advisors, and a stronger coalition of partners. Sound familiar? Heck, run Donald Trump’s ISIS bluster through a policy translator, and “bomb the shit out of them” would become “increased airstrikes” and “tremendous safe zones” turns into Hillary’s “limited no-fly zones.”
Some of this can be explained by the fact that, for all their posturing, the GOP plans aren’t even all that different from Obama’s current strategy, particularly since the president himself has suggested he plans to ramp things up a notch. The biggest difference between the president’s plan and these supposedly super-sized versions being offered by the 2016 field is the no-fly zone—an effort touted by everyone from Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the right, and Clinton on the left. But while such a proposal is hardly minor, it’s worth remembering that it has little direct relevance to the fight against ISIS since the group doesn’t have planes. (The immediate goal of no-fly zone would be to protect civilians from bombing by the Assad regime and its allies, in theory slowing the flood of refugees leaving Syria.)
I’m not suggesting that a President Clinton or a (heaven help us) President Trump would fight ISIS in the same way. The chasm between where Republicans and Democrats are at on the question of accepting Syrian refugees should make clear that there are two competing policy directions here. But when it comes to fighting terrorism abroad, there isn’t nearly the gulf in actual proposals that you might expect based on the rhetoric.
The rhetoric, though, matters. And in the war of words happening in Washington, Hillary was careful to align herself with Obama. “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, alluding to GOP complaints that the president refuses to use such language to describe ISIS. “Our priority should be how to fight the enemy.”
Later, when asked, she even defended Obama’s past description of ISIS as a “JV squad”—a phrase Republicans won’t let him forget—by saying that ISIS today is much different than it was when the president made the comments. “There’s been an evolution in their threat, and we need to meet it,” she said. On that point, everyone seems to agree.