Democratic presidential front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke with President Barack Obama on Thursday, laying out her case for a wide-ranging assault on ISIS and calling on Congress to pass an updated Authorization of Military Force.
"Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS," Clinton said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in a speech detailing her views of how to fight the group in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. "It is time to begin a new phase ... to smash the would-be caliphate," she said.
Clinton called for an expanded air war, an "intelligence surge," and new efforts to draw support from Iraqis and other allies on the ground in the Middle East.
"It is in many ways an intensification, an acceleration of the strategy" supported by Obama, Clinton told journalist Fareed Zakaria in a question-and-answer session following her speech. "I have made clear that I have differences as I think any two people do," she added, noting that while she was in the administration, she made clear that the U.S. needed to do more to identify and support moderate Syrian fighters against President Bashar al-Assad.
Clinton did not call for more U.S. troops on the ground in her speech, nor did she rule it out entirely, instead saying that she opposes a massive flow of U.S. forces. "Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should have 100,000 troops," she said. If there were another major terror attack against the west, the drumbeat for U.S. ground forces would "certainly grow," she later told Zakaria, "but I think it would be a mistake."
Tactical Shifts Against ISIS
Though she believes U.S. involvement on the ground should for the time being be limited to the special forces that Obama has ordered sent to the region, the U.S. must lead at a much broader level. "This is a time for American leadership," she said, after urging Republicans to find a way to work with the Obama administration. "No other country can rally the world to defeat ISIS and win the generational struggle against radical jihadism. Only the United States can mobilize common action on a global scale, and that's exactly what we need. The entire world must be part of this fight, but we must lead it."
To start, there should be a "broader target set" for a more "more effective coalition air campaign" in the Middle East, she said. "Airstrikes have to be combined with ground forces," and those forces should be drawn from the region. "Local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them ... but we cannot substitute for them."
Later, she added that the right approach to take for now is "to keep the pressure on the people on the ground and get them to change their priorities and work together."
In Iraq, that includes "bringing Sunnis into this new fight" and laying the foundation for a second Sunni Awakening like the one that was successful in Iraq in 2007, Clinton said. The Iraqi government should "finally stand up a national guard" and "accept–even embrace–arming Sunni and Kurdish forces" but Baghdad won't do that, "the coalition should do that directly."
A similar approach should be taken in Syria, she suggested: "We should retool and ramp up our efforts to equip viable Syrian opposition efforts."
Refugees and the U.S.
Clinton also outlined her vision for dismantling the growing terrorist infrastructure built by those engaged in "radical jihadism" around the world and was insistent that the U.S. needs to take in refugees.
“We cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values,” she said. "Slamming the door on every Syrian refugee, that is just not who we are." What the U.S. should be doing, though, is "taking a close look at the safeguards and visa programs" that guide the refugee intake process.
Clinton wasn't shy about jabbing Republicans, especially those running for president, for choosing to play into Americans' fears or getting bogged down in what she views as counterproductive semantic battles. "Let's be clear," she said, "Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism."
"The obsession in some quarters with a clash of civilization"—Florida Senator Marco Rubio has used the term, coined by Samuel Huntington, this week–"or repeating the specific words 'radical Islamic terrorism' isn't just a distraction, it gives these criminals, these murderers more standing than they deserve," she added. "It actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side."
Criticizing Trump and Cruz
Asked by Zakaria about Republican front-runner Donald Trump's recent claim that the Middle East would be more stable if the West did not push to remove the leaders of Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, Clinton was dismissive and defensive.
"Well, he has a very short-term view of history, because it is not at all clear what the final outcome will be in the places that you named," she said.
She also spoke out against calls from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Texas Senator Ted Cruz that the refugee flow onto U.S. soil be limited to Christians. "I just don't think we should have religious tests about who we bring as refugees into our country," she said.
When it comes to how Clinton believes Republicans should approach the growing threat that she calls radical jihadism, she pointed to her own work with George W. Bush's administration and other Republican leaders following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"When New York was attacked on 9/11, we had a Republican president, a Republican governor and a Republican mayor, and I worked with all of them," she said. "We pulled together and put partisanship aside to rebuild our city and protect our country."