A saying attributed to U.S. military personnel during World War II — that there are no atheists in foxholes — seemed to be a point that CBS moderator John Dickerson sought to drive home at the start of the Democratic debate Saturday night, which was held less than 24 hours after the deadly attacks in Paris.
Dickerson asked the candidates and audience in Des Moines, Iowa, to join in a moment of silence. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley all obliged, the television camera gliding across the rather odd tableau of the three in almost identical poses, heads bowed, hands loosely clasped in front of their groins, as if lining up in a soccer match to guard against a penalty kick.
Then, after an awkwardly early commercial break, the candidates returned to their lecterns and their talking points on national security, reframed to address the violence of the night before.
Sanders clearly did not find this to be comfortable territory, devoting only a dozen words in his opening statement to the battle against what he called “barbarous ISIS” — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — before abruptly turning to his campaign’s defining theme. “I’m running for president because, as I go around this nation, I talk to a lot of people, and what I hear is people’s concern that the economy we have is a rigged economy,” he said.
Clinton, up next, appeared intent on demonstrating a familiarity with the security issues at hand — and eager to frame them in stark, religious terms.
“Our prayers are with the people of France tonight, but that is not enough,” she said in her opening. “We need to have a resolve that will bring the world together to root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS, a barbaric, ruthless, violent jihadist terrorist group.”
ISIL has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, though the investigation is ongoing.
Third up, O’Malley also offered his prayers but avoided direct references to the attackers or their origins, instead calling the Paris attacks “the new face of conflict and warfare in the 21st century.”
Less contrast among the candidates was evident when they considered the future during the 35-minute portion of the debate devoted to foreign policy and national security issues in acknowledgment of the events in France.
Sanders, Clinton and O’Malley appeared to concur that the U.S. needs to enlist a broad coalition in any fight against violence with origins in the Middle East, that nations in the region need to get more involved and that the U.S. should adjust its military priorities to allocate more resources to human intelligence gathering.
The contrasts came when looking backward. Dickerson gave Sanders an opportunity to criticize Clinton’s vote in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Sanders did, although obliquely, noting that he opposed it from the start and calling the war “disastrous.”
“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,” Sanders said. “That was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States.”
Clinton’s response was confusing. She tried to put Iraq in “historic context,” invoking the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake,” she said. “But I think if we’re ever going to 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.”
It was one of four references she made to “jihadi” or “jihadist” terrorism in the space of less than half an hour.
Sanders’ pronunciation of “Muslim” (MOOSE-lim) spawned a few face-palms on Twitter as he tried to argue for more involvement in the battle against ISIL from countries such as Saudi Arabia, and his reference to “a war for the soul of Islam” perhaps raised a few eyebrows. But Clinton’s rhetorical linking of “jihad” with extremism and terrorism raises bigger policy questions.
She referred to the “Shia-Sunni split” while explaining the problems of the Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood being “installed” in Egypt (an odd choice to describe an elected government) before being “ousted.”
Clinton’s religious lens loomed even larger as she sought during the debate to put some daylight between herself and Barack Obama’s administration. She called ISIL “the leading threat of an international terror network,” adding that it “cannot be contained — it must be defeated.” This seemed to be a dig at Obama, who, in an interview recorded a day before the Paris attacks, said that ISIL had been “contained.”
While the Obama administration has notably stopped referring to these battles as a “war on terror,” the language used by the former secretary of state for that administration made these conflicts sound very much like a war. This — together with her dramatic, religion-inflected phrasing — suggests that differences between Clinton and her two 2016 rivals could prove more than linguistic.
Though Clinton likely took this religious perspective before the massacres in Paris, if her views are a winner this election cycle, it could demonstrate there are no atheists in campaigns either.