The final two Democratic presidential candidates both vowed Thursday not to send combat troops into Iraq and Syria if they become commander-in-chief, but they also hinted that the U.S. deployments in Afghanistan could continue well into the future.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also both promised to stand up against Republican plans to “privatize” the Department of Veterans Affairs, fixing the existing system instead of backing voucher systems they say could undermine veterans’ care.
The candidates agreed on a host of foreign policy and national security issues at the party’s fifth national debate, the first since their virtual tie at the Iowa caucuses.
But the New Hampshire event was still contentious, with the rivals picking apart small difference in their plans.
On the fight against the Islamic State group, Clinton reiterated her support for employing increased airstrikes and special forces missions. But she said large deployments of combat troops to the Middle East are “off the table,” and that success depends on building foreign allies’ security forces.
“Given the threat that ISIS poses to the region and beyond, as we have sadly seen in our own country, it is important to keep the Iraqi army on a path where they can actually take back territory,” she said. “Work with the Sunni tribes in Anbar province and elsewhere so that … they're doing the fighting. We're doing the support and enabling.”
Sanders generally echoed those ideas but emphasized the need for better intelligence in the region and warned against all escalation of force overseas. “We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East,” he said.
He also questioned Clinton’s past support as a senator for the Iraq War, saying it calls into question her broader judgement on foreign policy issues.
“I fully, fully concede that Secretary Clinton, who was Secretary of State for four years, has more experience in foreign affairs,” he said. “But experience is not the only point, judgment is.”
Clinton retorted: “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS," she said. "We have to look at the threats that we face right now.”
Neither candidate would offer a timeline for full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Last fall, President Barack Obama backed away from plans to drop to fewer than 1,000 troops in country by the start of 2017 because of continued instability there.
Current plans call for a force of 5,500 troops to remain when the next president takes office, but the number could be as high as the 9,800 in country today.
“You can't simply withdraw tomorrow,” Sanders said. “I wish we could, but it would allow the Taliban or someone else to reclaim that country.”
Clinton said she backed Obama’s moves thus far in that conflict.
“I would have to make an evaluation based on the circumstances at the time I took office as to how much help [Afghan forces] continue to need,” she said. “We've got this arc of instability from North Africa to South Asia, and we have to pay close attention to it.”
On veterans affairs, both candidates attacked their Republican rivals, saying they've exploited veterans and made them political pawns in a larger fight to privatize government programs. Several have promised to expand outside care options or offer a voucher system that could replace VA hospitals.
“I am going do everything I can to build on the reforms that Senator Sanders and others in Congress have passed to try to fix what's wrong with VA,” Clinton said. “But we will never let it be privatized, and that is a promise.”
Sanders referenced his past work as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and on comprehensive VA reform legislation passed in 2014 as evidence his presidency would be better for veterans.
“Republicans talk a good game about veterans, but when it came to putting money on the line to protect our veterans, frankly, they were not there,” he said. “We've got to strengthen the VA. We do not privatize the VA.”
Sanders also took another shot at the Republicans in his closing statements.
“On our worst day, we’re still 100 times better than any of the Republican candidates,” he said, eliciting a laugh and handshake from Clinton.
The GOP field will have their eighth national debate Saturday, three days before the New Hampshire primary.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.