The terrorist attacks in Paris reframed the 2016 presidential contest Saturday, forcing a debate about to how to wield American power against the fast-growing Islamic State network and crystallizing what it means to be commander in chief.
For Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the worst terrorist attack in Europe in a decade was an opportunity to showcase her résumé and easy command of the lexicon and players involving terrorism and national security. She also proved adept at filibustering questions she preferred not to answer.
“This election is not only about electing a president. It’s also about choosing our next commander in chief,” Clinton said at the outset of a Democratic debate dominated by questions about U.S. leadership and willingness to take on what has become the world’s foremost terrorist network.
The three Democratic candidates broadly agreed on a moral responsibility for U.S. leadership to confront the al-Qaida offshoot, which French President François Hollande blamed for the coordinated attacks that killed more than 125 people in the French capital on Friday night.
While the top candidates of both political parties say the United States must play a prominent role in confronting the Islamic State, they differ by degree in their support for what would be a new war in all but name.
Republican candidates were quick to cast the attacks as the consequence of failed U.S. leadership in the world — an indictment of the Obama administration and, by extension, its first-term secretary of state, Clinton.
“Boots on the ground” would be appropriate, Republican candidate Ben Carson said after the attacks.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump — who previously said he would “bomb the [expletive] out of” oil fields seized by the Islamic State — said at a Saturday rally in Texas that the United States should also close its borders to Syrian refugees because they pose a security risk.
For the Democrats, the overnight horror recast their prime-time debate here as a likely examination of the candidates’ national-security records and approaches.
Clinton appeared to have the most to gain, given her foreign policy experience, but also the most at risk as the Obama administration’s record comes under fire.
She skirted the opening question from CBS moderator John Dickerson, who wanted to know whether the Obama administration bears responsibility for underestimating the Islamic State terrorist network early on.
She also maneuvered around the charged term, “radical Islam,” which some Republicans want U.S. leaders to use to describe the enemy. She referred to jihadism but was careful not to link it directly to religion.
“I don’t think we are at war with Islam,” she said, only with violent extremists. “Yes, we are at war with those people, but I don’t want to be painting with too broad a brush.”
All three candidates issued statements condemning the coordinated attacks, and none has said they want heavy U.S. military engagement. But Clinton has said she wants to establish a safe zone for civilians in Syria and has expressed support for wider U.S. military engagement, without offering specifics.
Clinton has the most extensive national security credentials, as a former secretary of state and as a senator from New York during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, has served in office longer than Clinton but has little direct national security experience, while former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has none on a national level.
Sanders pledged Saturday to rid the world of “this barbarous organization” but said little about how. None of the three laid out a plan to more aggressively wield military power.
Clinton is hoping voters see her as ready for the job as commander in chief on Day 1, no learning curve required. Sanders wants voters to recall that he took a rare and unpopular stand against the Iraq war when Clinton voted for it. It is that war that many analysts blame for rocking the despotic equilibrium of the Middle East and leading indirectly to the rise of the Islamic State.
The same clarifying effect may be near on the Republican side, where the race has so far been largely defined as a contest between insiders and outsiders. Trump and Carson, vying for the Republican front-runner mantle, have never held office and neither has a national security background.
Mid-field candidates Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have some national-security expertise, and both have put forward fairly detailed policy proposals. Lower-polling candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also have considerable credentials and gravitas, and may benefit if the Paris attacks compel voters to take a second look.
Republican candidates reacted in Twitter messages and in person, with Trump summing up the growing partisan divide over how to confront Islamic State terrorists and who is to blame for the group’s success. “We need much tougher, much smarter leadership - and we need it NOW!” Trump said on Twitter.
Trump and other Republicans pointed at what they called President Obama’s failure to understand and counter Islamic State militants. It has seized large parts of Iraqi and Syrian territory, beheaded Americans and others, and vowed a wider war against Western thought.
“President Obama said ‘ISIL continues to shrink’ in an interview just hours before the horrible attack in Paris. He is just so bad! CHANGE,” Trump tweeted.
Obama had said in an ABC interview taped before the attacks that the United States had “contained” the Islamic State from expanding its land grab in Iraq and Syria. The group is also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
“What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command and control structures,” Obama said.
The United States began a bombing campaign against the group last year and has increased the intensity of it this fall, just as Russia began its own parallel bombing operation. Obama has also approved a small number of special operations forces to help rebel fighters in Syria.
The actions followed years of a mostly hands-off U.S. approach to the Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 when Clinton was still Obama’s first-term secretary of state. She has spoken at length about her difference of opinion with Obama over whether to arm and train Syrian rebels much earlier, an argument she lost.
Several candidates, including Trump, said the United States should either refuse to take more Syrian refugees or take measures to tighten U.S. border controls.
“We need to consult closely with our NATO allies who may be targeted for additional attacks,” Cruz said. “We need to immediately declare a halt to any plans to bring refugees that may have been infiltrated by ISIS to the United States. We need to redouble our efforts to prevent ISIS agents from penetrating our nation by other means.”
“This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization,” Bush said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Rubio said the United States “must increase our efforts at home and abroad to improve our defenses, destroy terrorist networks, and deprive them of the space from which to operate.”