The three candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination had different ideas at Saturday night’s Iowa debate about what to call terrorists — but they wanted to leave “Islamist” out of any descriptor.
The CBS event began with a moment of silence for those killed in the Paris attacks, and the previously scheduled domestic policy debate began with national security policy.
All Americans “are shocked and disgusted by what we saw in Paris yesterday,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) opened the debate. “Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbaric organization called ISIS.”
Hillary Clinton vowed 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.”
“We must able to work collaboratively with others,” said former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “We must anticipate these threats before they happen. This is the new sort of challenge, the new sort of threat that does, in fact, require new thinking, fresh approaches and new leadership.”
Moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton if the legacy of the administration of which she was a part will be that it “underestimated the threat from ISIS.”
“I think that we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained, it must be defeated,” Clinton replied. “…But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.”
O’Malley shot back that “this actually is America’s fight — it cannot solely be America’s fight.”
Pressed on the administration’s role in letting ISIS get out of control, Clinton blamed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for “decimating” the Iraqi army they left “that had been trained and that was prepared to defend Iraq.”
“And then, with the revolution against Assad — and I did early on say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be extremist groups filling the vacuum,” she continued. “So, yes, this has developed. I think that there are many other reasons why it has in addition to what happened in the region, but I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility. I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself.”
Clinton argued that “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.”
Later she picked slightly different phraseology for the threat: “Turkey and the Gulf nations have got to make up their minds. Are they going to stand with us against this kind of jihadi radicalism or not?”
Dickerson noted to Clinton that Marco Rubio said “the attack in Paris showed that we are at war with radical Islam.”
“Do you agree with that characterization, radical Islam?” the Face the Nation host asked.
“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists who have –” Clinton began to reply.
“Just to interrupt. He didn’t say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam. Is that a phrase you don’t –” Dickerson interjected.
“I think that you can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists, but I think it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that Senator Sanders was just making that I agree with, that we’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries,” Clinton said. “We’ve got to have them be part of our coalition. If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam, that was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, we are not at war with Islam or Muslims.”
“We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression. And, yes, we are at war with those people. But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”
Given the chance to add his own two cents, Sanders said, “I don’t think the term is what’s important.”
“What is important to understand is we have organizations, whether it is ISIS or al-Qaeda, who do believe we should go back several thousand years. We should make women third-class citizens, that we should allow children to be sexually assaulted, that they are a danger to modern society,” the Vermont senator added.
O’Malley replied: “I believe calling it what it is, is to say radical jihadis. That’s calling it what it is… let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that all of our Muslim American neighbors in this country are somehow our enemies here. They are our first line of defense.”
Asked if climate change was still a bigger threat than ISIS, Sanders responded: “Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism.”
And about Syrian refugees, Sanders said the United States “has the moral responsibility with Europe, with Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia” to help them. “Now, what the magic number is, I don’t know, because we don’t know the extent of the problem,” he said. “But I certainly think that the United States should take its full responsibility in helping those people.”
Asked if his goal of 65,000 refugees should be adjusted based on the Paris attacks, O’Malley said that “accommodating 65,000 refugees in our country today, people of 320 million, is akin to making room for 6.5 more people in a baseball stadium with 32,000.”
“There are other ways to lead and to be a moral leader in this world, rather than at the opposite end of a drone strike,” the governor added.
Clinton also advocated taking in 65,000 refugees, “but only if we have as careful a screening and vetting process as we can imagine, whatever resources it takes because I do not want us to, in any way, inadvertently allow people who wish us harm to come into our country.”