It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside,” French President Francois Hollande said.
‘Paris Is on Fire’
By Jacob Silverman
The sun rose Friday with chatter about Bernie Sanders plans to attack Hillary Clinton. It set with reports of a real attack by ISIL on Paris that instantly upended the priorities of the Democratic field.
The terrorist assault on the City of Light, which claimed at least 120 lives at a rock concert, soccer match and two restaurants, forces Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to confront volatile, uncomfortable foreign policy questions – and the encroachment of homeland security threats on a party shaped by opposition to the Iraq War and laser-focused on social and economic issues.
The debate’s sponsors have already informed the campaigns they will have to address the attacks at the start, and all three candidates expect a greater emphasis on foreign policy questions throughout. These are not easy subjects for Democrats, in part because they force the field –- especially Clinton — to address some of President Obama’s most glaring shortcomings: Democrats have downplayed an issue that has bedeviled their president who only hours before the killings claimed ISIL had been geographically “contained.”
When French President Francois Hollande – a socialist whose campaign strategy was inspired by Obama’s 2008 efforts – declared he would wage “pitiless” war against ISIL he posed an implicit challenge not just to his own people — but to liberals in this country who have rejected the idea of waging a “War on Terror” for a decade.
“[W]e can’t just wash our hands of the Middle East, as some would like us to, … not all of the region’s problems stay in the region: ISIS, for example, has ambitions beyond their self-declared caliphate, and they increasingly have the capability to kill innocent civilians abroad,” a senior Obama defense official said, reflecting Obama’s incremental move toward a more interventionist stance in the region.
When POLITICO asked one Democratic campaign official how the attacks –- the most deadly in a Western city since the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people -– would impact the debate, the answer was aggrieved and dismissive: “Are you kidding? We’re still in shock.” Another Democratic operative, allied with one of the candidates, said, “It was too close to events for anyone to talk politics about this.”
But the attacks have been a focus of final debate prep. And those answers, in themselves, illustrated the sobering — and perhaps muting — effect the tragedy will have on what had been expected to be a lively debate at Drake University that offered Clinton’s challengers, especially Sanders, a chance to reverse her recent resurgence.
Instead, it puts the focus back squarely on the former secretary of state a few weeks after Clinton’s much-lauded marathon Benghazi testimony while underscoring her role as not only the most hawkish candidate on the stage but the only one with direct involvement in formulating an Obama ISIL containment policy stretched to the breaking point now.
Clinton has made no secret that she advocated a more muscular foreign policy than Obama, but she has been reluctant to air those grievances publicly outside a few opaque comments.
Whether Clinton, who pressed Obama to use air power in 2011 during the chaotic aftermath of the Libyan revolution, will draw a contrast with her onetime boss and rival has emerged as the most interesting question in a debate that had been seen as a showdown with Sanders.
“I expect Clinton tonight to call for much more robust action against ISIL – she obviously has no problem changing positions for political gain and distance from Obama’s … approach makes policy and political sense for her,” says Randy Scheunemann, a former adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign – and a longtime critic of Obama’s policies in the region.
Clinton’s campaign wouldn’t comment –- on or off the record — about her intentions tonight (Pro-Clinton operatives, not authorized to speak for the campaign, believed the attacks would contrast her commander-in-chief qualifications with Sanders’ lack of foreign policy credentials). In the tea-leaf parsing of Democratic campaign statements after the attacks, Clinton’s was the only one that alluded to military action. “We must stand side-by-side every step of the way with France and our allies around the world to wage and win the struggle against terrorism and violent extremism,” she said.
Clinton – whose support of the 2003 Iraq invasion was a major, and possibly decisive factor in her loss to Obama seven years ago – has always projected foreign policy strength, as exemplified by her famous ‘3 a.m.” against Obama in 2008. But she’s treading a tightrope, running in a primary where the overwhelming majority opposes anything but the lightest intervention – and only last week flatly rejected the idea that the country needed to wage a new “war” on the Islamic State.
“If you have a declaration of war, you’d better have a budget that backs it up,” Clinton said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Nov. 11 – an assertion that might have been outrun by Friday’s events.
Of the three Democrats who will take the stage tomorrow night, Sanders stands to look weakest – if Democratic voters begin viewing ISIL as a central campaign issue. Sanders was on a plane when word of the attack hit and didn’t learn the details until he landed in Iowa. Sanders campaign officials say they expect the topic to be raised at the start but said they planned no major course corrections – and would continue to talk about American workers, with a few swipes at Clinton’s late-to-the-party rejections of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Keystone pipeline deal.
Foreign policy has always been something of an afterthought for the Vermont senator, when compared to his income inequality crusade, and he stumbled on foreign policy questions in the first debate, unable to answer the question, “under what circumstances would a President Sanders actually use force?” until pressed multiple times. “I do not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action,” he said. He rarely addresses foreign policy on the trail in his speeches. Clinton schooled him: When he said he doesn’t support ground troops in Syria, she interrupted him, “Nobody does, Senator Sanders.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is struggling at about 5 percent in the polls, has been more focused on foreign policy – but in a way that seems peripheral to the immediate threats augured by the Paris attacks.