Debate: Clinton slams Iran, Putin & supports Syrian Rebels; Sanders rejects Intervention

Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Foreign policy came up a bit in the Democratic Party debate.

One form it took was a series of clashes over Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the Bush Iraq War. Lincoln Chafee, then a Republican senator, opposed that vote and was the only Republican senator to do so. He said he had done his homework and had concluded that there was no real evidence that the Saddam Hussein regime had unconventional weapons. He slammed Sec. Clinton for poor judgment in that vote. Bernie Sanders had also opposed the Iraq War, but did not seem as eager to make it an issue of character and judgment as Chafee.

Sec. Clinton did not have much to say in her defense, having already admitted years ago that it had been a mistake. My guess is that public passions on Iraq have died down since the issue fed into her defeat in 2008, and that it wouldn’t be the issue that sunk her with the Democratic primary voters this time around.

Sec. Clinton when asked what enemies she was proud to have made, mentioned among them “Iran.” Since she supported the nuclear deal, it is not clear why she brought this up, except to please the Israel lobbies and her billionaire Israeli-American backer, Haim Saban. She once threatened Iran with being nuked (not a strong argument to that country for nonproliferation), and seems to have a “thing” about that country or at least to want her constituents to think she does.

Then Russia in Syria came up. Sec. Clinton said that she’d had some success dealing with Dmitry Medvedov, Russia’s current prime minister, when he was president. She then added,

There’s no doubt that when Putin came back in and said he was going to be President, that did change the relationship. We have to stand up to his bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important — and I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict.

And, to — provide safe zones so that people are not going to have to be flooding out of Syria at the rate they are. And, I think it’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position, which is what I’m advocating.

There really is no substance in this set of remarks. It is not clear what it would mean to “stand up to” Putin’s “bullying.” President Obama has already made it clear that he isn’t going to try to interfere in Russia’s Syria intervention. So aside from rebuking Mr. Putin, it is not clear what else Sec. Clinton is proposing.

The second point is to “engage in talks” with Moscow to insist that it be “part of the solution” in Syria. Again, these phrases have no real practical meaning.

Then she said that safe zones should be provided for internally displaced Syrians. But as many military analysts have pointed out, these “safe zones” would attract rebels who would use them as bases from which to attack the regime, inviting regime attacks. They would only remain safe zones if some military force guarded their perimeters. But which military force would undertake that task? She admitted that no one is talking about putting US troops in Syria.

So there can’t actually be any safe zones.

She wants to take “more of a leadership position” but aside from posturing made no indication of what that would be. I don’t think Vladimir Putin responds to rebukes.

In the past, she wanted to arm the Syrian rebels, which the CIA is now doing via the Saudis, though some of those arms are clearly going to Salafi allies of al-Qaeda in Syria. It is not clear if she still stands behind this policy or is aware of the importance of al-Qaeda in western Syria or has any idea of what to do about it.

She came back later to say:

“You know, I — I agree completely. We don’t want American troops on the ground in Syria. I never said that. What I said was we had to put together a coalition — in fact, something that I worked on before I left the State Department — to do, and yes, that it should include Arabs, people in the region.

Because what I worry about is what will happen with ISIS gaining more territory, having more reach, and, frankly, posing a threat to our friends and neighbors in the region and far beyond.”

The 2011-2012 coalition on the ground, the Free Syrian Army, to which Sec. Clinton refers here, has long since collapsed, and a Pentagon attempt to revive it just crashed and burned. So I’m not sure why Sen. Clinton thinks this is still a policy option. Many FSA units joined Daesh/ ISIL. Others have been defeated by the Army of Conquest, a hard line Salafi group spearheaded by al-Qaeda in Syria.

If Sec. Clinton wants to ally with allies of al-Qaeda, we should know that.

Then the Syria question went to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said this:

SANDERS: Well, let’s understand that when we talk about Syria, you’re talking about a quagmire in a quagmire. You’re talking about groups of people trying to overthrow Assad, other groups of people fighting ISIS. You’re talking about people who are fighting ISIS using their guns to overthrow Assad, and vice versa.

I’m the former chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, and in that capacity I learned a very powerful lesson about the cost of war, and I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country. We should be putting together a coalition of Arab countries who should be leading the effort. We should be supportive, but I do not support American ground troops in Syria.

COOPER: On this issue of foreign policy, I want to go to…

CLINTON: …Well, nobody does. Nobody does, Senator Sanders. ”

Actually Lindsey Graham and John McCain do seem to want to.

Sen. Sanders is correct that Syria is extremely complex. As far as I can understand from his response, his policy toward Syria would be completely hands off.

But if he is saying that he is just against US troops in Syria, then Sec. Clinton is correct that this position is shared among all the Democratic candidates. In any case, Sanders did not actually lay out a policy toward Syria, just denounced the straw man of US troops going in there, which is not a serious proposal. Even Putin doesn’t want to send in infantry battalions (he is putting in a few marines to guard a military airport).

Later Sanders came back to slam the idea of a US-backed ‘no fly zone’ in Syria.

SANDERS: Let me just respond to something the secretary said. First of all, she is talking about, as I understand it, a no-fly zone in Syria, which I think is a very dangerous situation. Could lead to real problems.

He seemed to dismiss Bashar al-Assad as a real threat to the US of any sort, implying that there was no reason to attempt regime change. Then he spoke of President Obama’s dilemma:

“SANDERS: I think the president is trying very hard to thread a tough needle here, and that is to support those people who are against Assad, against ISIS, without getting us on the ground there, and that’s the direction I believe we should have (inaudible).”

So Sanders, like Clinton, seems to support Obama’s support for the so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria.

But as far as I can see, what I would call moderates– people who believe in a rule of law, rights for religious minorities and women, and democratic elections, no longer hold any significant territory in Syria. The two big rebel blocs are Daesh/ ISIL and the Army of Conquest, which is spearheaded by al-Qaeda and comprises hard line Salafis. I am disappointed with Obama’s pretense that there is a big group of ‘moderates’ with which the US can effectively ally, and would be sorry to see Clinton and Sanders adopt this frankly dishonest discourse.

One problem with Sanders’ apparent isolationism on this issue is that polling shows that the US public is deeply alarmed by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). So it isn’t clear that a policy of not doing anything about the latter is politically viable. President Obama’s response to this quagmire waiting to happen is some fairly pro forma bombing raids that have a containment effect but little more. Sanders had supported those bombing raids as far as Iraq goes; not sure what he thinks of bombing Raqqa.

So the long and the short of it is that neither of the two leading candidates in the polls made any concrete or practical proposals for policy toward Syria. I think that is fine. I myself don’t see a lot of policy options in Syria. It is just that I think they owe it to voters to be more clear if that is what they are saying.

I was also disappointed that no reporter brought up the central conundrum for the US in Syria today, which is whether to support a coalition of which al-Qaeda forms a central part against the al-Assad regime. As far as I can tell, that is what President Obama is doing behind the scenes, via Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Sec. Clinton seems to have said she approves of Obama’s policies, so maybe she is all right with this approach. I’m not sure Sanders understands that this is what is going on; he also seemed sympathetic to the current Obama approach.

But because the CNN reporters framed Syria mainly with regard to Russia, or in some vague way, and did not go into such details as al-Qaeda being an major part of the rebel opposition, we didn’t get to hear where the candidates stand on it.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

VOA News: “Clinton, Sanders Clash Over Syria, Gun Control in First Debate”

34 Responses

  1. Sec. Clinton is not as good as she sounds because she has a (elephant) leash on her neck.

  2. Syria’s policy is currently a quagmire of competing state interests and securing a common realignment – if achievable – will require time. Whilst pellucidity would appear ideal; paradoxical statecraft nuances does not make good political posturing.

  3. Assad must go, Daesh must be destroyed, any entity with an al-Qaeda association is unacceptable, Russia cannot be permitted a leadership role in the area, and endless no-boots-on-rhe-ground-bombing is core of our strategy to get what we want. Actually should add: arming the ally-of-the-month, and secretly hoping the Kurds will clean the whole place up (with Turkey’s benign blessing).

    Since non bombing diplomacy is not an option, our present policy is “burn baby burn” and hope an altruistic democratic phoenix will rise from the ashes.

    • Those are certainly all laudable goals and probably all unachievable given the current situation. Obama, Clinton, and Sanders are vague and not consistent because of politics. The larger public has no understanding of the situation and the problems within Syria and want to see all the things you mention come true. I think those with knowledge and a realistic appraisal know they cannot come true. To say that would lose them political support. It would also invite vicious attacks from the Republican about not being strong, failing to lead, appeasing, etc. I can’t blame these politicians for being politicians in this case. Too many Americans believe in American exceptionalism and over estimate our ability to change the world the way we want.

  4. “… which is whether to support a coalition of which al-Qaeda forms a central part against the al-Assad regime … that is what President Obama is doing behind the scenes, via Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”

    How did you come to this conclusion?

  5. Few people know or care much about the intricacies of this business, what they really want is someone who looks and sounds like they can cope confidently, and will keep US amour propre from too much damage. Apparently Russia may shortly launch a major offensive South of Aleppo with ‘thousands of Iranian forces on the ground’. Under such circumstances Obama can hardly afford to defne too clear a policy and is much better off with one that can be adjusted post eventum to accommodate developments either way.

  6. Sanders needs to make sure that HRC has ownership of Libya and Honduras – among other of her evil fiascos.

    • Sanders isn’t going to play hardball with Hillary. His suggestion to forget about Hillary’s emails proved that. Several people who have been skeptical of Sanders believe he will fold and turn his supporters over to Hillary. Whether that is some scheme they have concocted or just the way the balls bounces is obscure at this point. Similarly, it remains to be seen if Sanders’ more enthusiastic supporters who like his anti-Wall Street rhetoric will switch to Hillary who will clearly be as pro-Wall Street as Obama and Slick Willie proved to be.

      • He’ll do just that, but not as part of any devious conspiracy, but merely because A) he doesn’t have the votes and B), Hillary is far superior to any likely GOP alternative.

  7. No one brought up drones in Yemen or the Arab Israeli conflict either. Sanders rejects interventionism, that’s all fine and well…. Why hasn’t he spoken out for Palestinian rights? His silence speaks volumes. I actually found Lincoln Chafee to be incredibly refreshing, even if weak. At least he brought up the droning of the wedding convoy and his ethical approach.

  8. … and I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.

    Despite promoting and supporting that “worst foreign policy blunder” which was, surely, a war crime and a crime against humanity Clinton is now running for president and many others are in high positions of power and influence. If Iraq had won that war and applied the same principles to the US and UK that the Allies applied to the Nazis at Nuremberg they would, at least, all be in prison. Psychiatrists, presumably, have a term for this state of affairs that should be considered bizarre but is accepted as normal.

  9. We have to admit this the most relaxed Hillary Clinton has ever been in a debate. I believe her when she said that she tried Marijuana in the past and didn’t like it, but she must have been high on something to have Iran her number one enemy. What was she doing in the bathroom all that long?
    But when she said she would create a safe zone in Syria, I almost got high myself to fog her foreign polices from my head. She also wants to create a “coalition that includes Arabs and people from the region”. Did she mean recreate the coalition that already exists and that she worked on before she left the state department? I don’t know.
    As for Bernie Sanders’ views on Syria, is he really saying he would continue with the Obama approach that Obama himself kind of dismissed?

  10. At this particular interval in the U.S. Presidential campaign it matters NOT what any Democratic or Republican candidate may proclaim or espouse with regards to foreign policy.

    Due to the destabilization of South Asia and the Middle East by the earlier asinine TWO BUSH – THREE WARS Doctrine and recent justifiable EU-US economic sanctions imposed on Russia and Iran – EVERYTHING IS CHANGING.

    Hopefully, our best strategists within NATO and the U.S. are coming to grips with the unpredictable Mr. Putin and what Russia will do in the future?

    Will Mr. Putin be forced from power or at least diminished in authority by saner minds in Russia or will there be a return to a “Cold War” regressing our world back to the 1950s?

    Although this is a valid concern, it is doubtful Russia will ramp up tensions any further. Since the ball is definitely in their court at this present time, diplomacy could break out at any moment. Signs of this eventuality are already being seen.

    • If foreign policy is not important now, what are you doing here reading and commenting on it and on Russia and Iran?

    • 1 – The comment to which you overreacted was not directed at you in any way.
      2 – Endeavor to not be so sensitive?
      3 – cheers

  11. Somebody has to defeat al-Qaida and ISIS. The west won’t do it, the Saudis and their allies certainly won’t do it. Only Russia and its allies show any willingness to do it. Washington’s choice is simple: accept Assad II, working for inclusion of what’s left of the FSA; support al-Qaida (as it’s effectively doing), which apart from the Kurds is pretty much what the non-IS “opposition” now amounts to; or openly back ISIS itself, with its shiny fleet of State Dept HiLuxes. Insistence on regime change leaves only the second and third options, of which arming al-Qaida is the only viable choice. No wonder US politicians can’t be open about their plans.

    Very disappointed to hear Sanders waffling on about “a coalition of Arab countries” leading the effort. These are likely to be the very countries that supported al-Qaida and IS in the first place. There is a coalition leading the effort: Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The west should be supporting them while working with Moscow to ensure a more inclusive postwar order (which the US presently refuses to do).

    • The Soviet Union was a much more dangerous adversary than either Putin’s Russia or ISIS, or even a combination of the two. George Kennan’s approach worked before, it can work again Foreign policy needs to be approached from a long view of decades, not years. We are still feeling the effects of bad peacemaking from Versailles in 1918. There is no need to have to rush to defeat ISIS, just to contain it.

  12. Clinton’s totally unnecessary swipe at Iran is very worrisome. Certainly she is a long-time, reflexive supporter of Israel and we cannot hope for her to ever show much reflection on that. But kicking Iran just to validate her embrace of Israel not only plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners but reinforces those in Israel convinced they can abuse and repress Palestinians with impunity. And once again we are seeing a situation develop where a series of Israeli measures constricting Palestinian movement and activities fosters a wave of reaction by individual Palestinians. American media focus on the latter, acting as enablers for further repression. To the extent Clinton offers Israel political cover she exacerbates the situation there, makes further discussion with the Iranians more complicated, and constrains, American options in Syria.

    • Other than the Kurds, Iran is the only government creating positive change in the Middle East at the moment.

      Clinton’s swipe at Iran disqualifies her from the Presidency.

  13. Hillary & Bernie are out of their Minds talking about an Arab coalition to fight ISIS. The coalition basically supports ISIS (Saudi Arabia, Qatar & Turkey)

    Looks like leasing D candidates are taking $$$ from this coalition.

  14. The underlying issue here is energy. Until the US leads the world to renewable energy these conflicts with and within petro-nations will continue. In the short to medium term the only interest the US has is to defend itself against international terrorist organizations I.e. ISIL and al- Qaida. Bombing terrorists and arming the Kurds are the only clear options.

  15. Putin is acting at the invitation of the legitimate government of Syria. The USG is supporting jihadist rebels to overthrow him..because? Because the Saudis and the Israelis want this? Whatever the reason there is no basis in international law for our actions in Syria.

  16. Clinton is unqualified to be President. Her failure to understand the geopolitical situation would be funny if she weren’t *Secretary of State*.

    Sanders is correct. As usual.

    • I have noted before about how there are many politicians and office holders who have a lot of knowledge of disparate facts, but understand little to nothing. I think John McCain is a wonderful example of that. I think in Clinton’s case it is more of an ideological mind set than lack of understanding. Her more hawkish policies trouble me considerably, but I don’t think she is nearly as bad as the Republicans seeking the nomination.

  17. Specifically, Sanders is correct that the US needs to stop military interventions worldwide. Isolationism is correct policy and isolationism has been correct policy since the Cold War ended.

    The crazy imperialists in the military-industrial complex have done incalculable damage to US national security with all these invasions.

    • The pedant in me requires a response. Isolation is good vis a vis US policy in the Middle East, but is not necessarily a good policy everywhere. I imagine this is what you meant, but it should be explicitly stated I think. We certainly have vital interests in places like North America, Western Europe, Japan and Korea. We don’t have any vital interests in Africa or even South America, it seems to me. I include the Middle East because its only strategic value derives from the vast reserves of oil found there. Since we are becoming more and more self=-sufficient for energy, that removes the need for US involvement in that area, IMO. It is more a problem for China, Western Europe and other areas that buy mostly from that region. Let them deal with it.

  18. Allies with Al Quaeda? CRAZY Juan. Political suicide that will elect a Trump. So Juan what are your “policy options” regarding Syria that you didn’t mention. And is Russia doing the right thing bombing but then with troops on the ground Kurds and the Syrian Army?

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  20. Why won’t anyone ask about that bloated waste producer the Pentagon budget and the fact that we have troops everywhere on this damn planet?

  21. If Sanders came out for peace he could win the election. If Hillary wins the primary I think Trump will probably be our next president. I read a lot of comments on the web and people don’t trust or like Hillary.
    Seems to me that people on both sides are tired of war mongers and Sanders might even pull some Republicans if he makes the right noises about wars, spies, jobs and banksters.

    • Rabbit – to quote “I think Trump will probably be our next president. I read a lot of comments on the web and people don’t trust or like Hillary.”

      Donald Trump has to gain the Republican nomination, first. He is merely a bellicose media distraction to divert attention away from the worst array of GOP Presidential candidates in our history and nothing more.

      Most hardworking voters don’t have the time to waste making comments “on the web.” So, what you read is absolutely NOT representative of anything.

      Don’t be a victim of peer group pressure or workplace bullying. Do some actual research on all of the candidates? The information is out there but it is difficult time-consuming work to compile and understand.

      Differentiating between fact and opinion is a task in itself.

      Good luck.

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