In the aftermath of last week's Paris attacks, Democratic Presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called for an “intensification and acceleration” of President Obama’s approach to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which claimed responsibility. She also blasted Republicans who have tried to portray Muslim refugees as a national security threat and made it clear that the fight against ISIL had nothing to do with Islam.
While largely supporting the president's plan against ISIL, Clinton argued for both more airstrikes and the increased use of U.S. special forces and advisers on the ground in supporting the local forces fighting the group in Syria and Iraq.
Speaking Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Clinton said, “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS,” using another acronym for ISIL. “We are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate —and we have to win.”
But while calling for a more robust approach to fighting ISIL, she also denounced efforts in some political quarters to scapegoat Muslims for ISIL’s crimes and to politicize the issue of accepting refugees fleeing from Syria and elsewhere.
While the Paris attacks have made fighting ISIL a more urgent priority, Clinton said the U.S. “cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations.”
“This should go without saying, but Muslim Americans are working every day on the front lines of the fight against radicalization,” she said, adding that “the obsession in some quarters with 'a clash of civilizations' … give these criminals, these murderers, more standing than they deserve.”
Clinton was referring to comments this week by several Republican presidential hopefuls and governors that a federal plan to bring a small number of Syrian refugees to the U.S. should be curtailed. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush also each said that the U.S. should accept the refugees only if they are Christians.
In her speech, Clinton appeared careful not to be overly critical of President' Obama's approach to fighting ISIL. She said she agreed with the approach of the administration in which she served for four years as secretary of state. Like Obama, she resisted in her speech any calls to introduce U.S. ground forces in Syria or Iraq. She called instead for a no-fly zone in northern Syria and for diplomatic pressure toward ending Syria's four-year-old civil war.
Clinton aired some disagreements she had with the administration while she was secretary of state. She suggested that U.S. policy should have moved earlier in the Syrian conflict to arm so-called Syrian moderates in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, before ISIL was able to solidify and expand its power.
Clinton castigated Iran and Russia for supporting Assad's government, whose brutality in Syria she believes was part of the reason for ISIL’s rise. Still, she appeared to inch closer to the positions of Tehran and Russia, when she said, "We need people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS." This echoed France's newly strengthened rhetoric in calling for a global anti-ISIL coalition in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, which some analysts see as sign that even countries opposed to Assad and his foreign backers were nonetheless ceding some ground toward their positions on resolving the Syrian conflict.
Clinton also had strong words for U.S. allies in the Gulf — Saudi Arabia and Qatar — whom she called on to prevent their citizens from funding groups like ISIL. Though ISIL raises millions of dollars a year from its control of some oil fields and facilities in Syria and Iraq, analysts believe the group receives large contributions from wealthy Gulf donors. Clinton also acknowledged that several of the Gulf allies involved in the U.S led coalition against ISIL had effectively halted their participation, noting the divergent priorities of the nations that comprise the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition.
Thursday's speech made clear that Clinton — who was seen as a relatively hawkish voice within the Obama administration — intends to continue to align the Democratic Party with a muscular foreign policy, a stance that has been a hallmark of her political career.
As a Democratic senator of New York, Clinton voted in 2003 in favor of the Iraq invasion. The violent insurgency that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein proved to be part of the maelstrom in which Al-Qaeda in Iraq — ISIL’s predecessor — was born. Later, as secretary of state, Clinton pushed for the U.S.-led coalition of airstrikes in Libya that aided that country's opposition forces in overthrowing longtime strongman Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The fall of Qaddafi has been followed by a factional power struggle, with ISIL expanding into the country through an affiliate.
These two decisions by Clinton — particularly her vote on the Iraq invasion — have solidified the view of her as a liberal interventionist and led to stinging criticisms from progressive voters and politicians, in particular for the instability that followed the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
In the 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination, Obama seized on Clinton’s Iraq War decision to highlight his opposition to the conflict, a move that resonated with voters.
President Obama, despite making withdrawal from Iraq a major foreign policy priority, last month responded to ISIL’s rapid rise across Syria and Iraq by agreeing to increase support for Iraqi Kurds and to the use of American advisers on the ground.
Clinton said Thursday that those efforts should continue. She argued that if the Iraqi government is not up to the task of fighting ISIL in its country, then the U.S. should directly arm Kurdish and Sunni factions who are fighting ISIL.
Clinton said it was now time for a “new phase” in the fight against ISIL and that a U.S.-led air campaign in Syria and Iraq against the group will "have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory."