Facing questions about how to deal with the Islamic State group, the Democrats' two presidential candidates on Thursday mostly debated the previous Iraq war instead.
Held in Milwaukee, the party's sixth national debate highlighted several foreign policy issues on which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders generally agree. It also revealed key philosophical differences in how each would achieve security as commander-in-chief.
Both candidates pledged to work more closely with U.S. allies in the Middle East to defeat ISIS forces and to ramp up homeland security efforts to reduce the threat of attacks within the homeland.
But as he's done during previous debates, Sanders, an Independent U.S. senator from Vermont, called attention to Clinton’s 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq war, calling it an indicator of her poor judgement — on par with their hawkish Republican rivals. Clinton, who served as secretary of state in President Obama's fist administration, was a U.S. senator from New York between 2001 and 2009.
“I voted against the war in Iraq because I listened very carefully to what President [George W.] Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney had to say, and I didn't believe them,” Sanders said.
“An area … where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change. The truth is that a powerful nation like the United States, certainly working with our allies, we can overthrow dictators all over the world. But the point about foreign policy is not just to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictator, it's to understand what happens the day after.”
Clinton, who served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, pushed back on those comments, saying that Sanders' statements were inconsistent with his other votes, including one authorizing force against Iraq in 1998 and military operations in Libya in 2011.
“I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016,” she said, repeating her rebuttal from previous campaign events.
“When people go to vote in primaries or caucuses, they are voting not only for the president, they are voting for the commander-in-chief. And it's important that people really look hard at what the threats and dangers we face are, and who is best prepared for dealing with them.”
Clinton argued she fills that role better than Sanders because of her past work negotiating with foreign allies and foes, calling Sanders national security credentials thin.
“We have to continue to work with the Iraqi army so that they are better prepared to advance on some of the other strongholds inside Iraq, like Mosul, when they are able to do so,” she said. “We have to cut off the flow of foreign funding and foreign fighters. And we have to take on ISIS online.”
Sanders said national security is a top priority for any president, but he also promised to “do everything I can to make certain that the United States and our brave men and women in the military do not get bogged down in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.”
When asked to name one area of government he’d like to reduce, Sanders promised as president to “take a look at the waste and inefficiencies in the Department of Defense.” Most of the Republican presidential candidates have said the opposite, calling the department dangerously underfunded.
“I have the feeling you're going to find a lot of cost overruns there and a lot of waste and duplicative activities,” he said.
Thursday’s debate was the last for the Democrats for nearly a month. By the time the two take the stage for the next scheduled event in March, 16 states will hold party primary events.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.