Campaign 2016

National Security Highlights from the Fifth Democratic Debate

By Elina Saxena
Friday, February 5, 2016, 2:24 PM

On Thursday night, the Democratic presidential candidates took to the stage in New Hampshire for their fifth debate in anticipation of Tuesday’s primary. The debate was moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and NBC’s Chuck Todd and featured former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders in their first one-on-one showdown.

When asked whether she supported President Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in the fight against the Islamic State, Clinton said she agreed with the president’s decision, but opposed sending combat troops into Iraq or Syria. She described the importance of bolstering local Arab and Kurdish fighters with U.S. special forces and trainers on the ground. Sanders once again reminded voters that he did not vote for the war in Iraq in 2002 and went on to add that Muslim forces backed by an international coalition must ultimately defeat ISIS. He declared that the “great task is to make certain that our young men and women in the military do not get sucked into never-ending, perpetual warfare within the quagmire of Syria and Iraq.”

The candidates briefly touched on the question of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan. Sanders agreed that American forces needed to remain in the country, but did not elaborate. Clinton spoke of the cooperation of the Afghan government and the efforts of the Afghan military in fighting the Taliban. Addressing the growing instability in the country, Clinton said that “we’ve got this arc of instability from North Africa to South Asia, and we have to pay close attention to it;” in response, she suggested that “we have to build coalitions” to fight terrorism.

Coalitions were a popular theme of the night: when questioned on his foreign policy experience, Sanders said that the United States “cannot be the policeman of the world” and argued that the country needs to work in a coalition with other major powers. Clinton expressed concerns as to whether Sanders had the necessary foreign policy experience, to which Sanders responded that judgment, in addition to experience, is important.

Turning to Iran, Clinton praised the recent nuclear agreement but argued that Iran is “destabilizing governments in the region.” When asked why she opposed normalizing relations in Iran, she said that the United States needs to “figure out how to deal with Iran as the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” Advocating communication with U.S. adversaries, Sanders also supported the nuclear agreement and added that he did not support normalizing relations either, at least not immediately. Clinton highlighted Saunder's recent support for immediate normalization, contrasting that sentiment with the importance of extracting concessions from adversaries. She responded to Sanders by saying that “you don’t just rush in, open the door, and say, ‘Here I am. Let’s talk and make a deal.’ That’s not the way it works.”

On the topic of veterans, Clinton staunchly opposed the privatization of the V.A. Sanders elaborated upon his experience as chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and also firmly opposed privatizing the V.A.

Highlighted below are quotes organized by topic that might be particularly relevant to Lawfare readers. Topics include: troop levels in the fight against ISIS; troops in Afghanistan; Bernie Sanders on foreign policy; prioritization of threats posed by North Korea, Russia, and Iran; and veterans. TIME provided the full transcript of the debate.

Troop increases in the fight against ISIS

MADDOW: Welcome back — welcome back to the Democratic candidates’ debate. We’re going to be talking about America in the world, both in terms of some trade issues, but also national security.

And Secretary Clinton, we’re going to start with you. There are more than 4,000 American troops back in Iraq right now as part of the fight against ISIS. It has been 15 straight years of wars and multiple deployments for America’s military families, who have borne such a disproportionate burden.

Is President Obama right to keep escalating the number of U.S. troops that’s fighting ISIS right now?

CLINTON: Well, I think what the president understands, and what he’s trying to do, is that we have to support the Arab and Kurdish fighters on the ground who are actually doing the fighting.

I agree with the president. I’ve said myself, we will not send American combat troops back to either Syria or Iraq — that is off the table.

But we do have special forces, we do have trainers, we do have the military personnel who are helping with the airstrikes that the United States is leading so that we can try to take out ISIS infrastructure, take out their leadership.

And I think that, 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, to work with the Sunni tribes in Anbar province and elsewhere so that their fighters can be also deployed, to work with the Kurds to provide them the support, but they’re doing the fighting. We’re doing the support and enabling.

And I also think we’ve got to do more to stop foreign fighters, foreign funding and take ISIS on online, as well as doing everything necessary to keep us safe at home.

So as I look at what the president is doing, it adds up to me. We just have to keep — try to get more support for those people on the ground in Syria and Iraq who have to actually physically take the territory back.

MADDOW: To be clear, to the specific question, if that strategic goal that you’re describing requires considerably more of Americans — an ever-increasing number of Americans in Iraq and maybe in Syria, are you OK with the numbers increasing?

CLINTON: No. I mean, of course that’s a theoretical question, and we don’t know what it would be for, and we don’t know how many numbers there are. I am against American combat troops being in Syria and Iraq.

I support special forces. I support trainers. I support the air campaign. And I think we’re making some progress. I want to continue to intensify that, and that’s exactly what the president is doing.

MADDOW: Thank you, Madam Secretary.

TODD: Go ahead, Senator Sanders — 30 seconds, your response.

SANDERS: OK. Let me agree with much of what the secretary said, but where we have a different background on this issue is we differ on the war in Iraq, which created barbaric organizations like ISIS.

Not only did I vote against that war, I helped lead the opposition, and if you go to my website,, you will see the statement that I made in 2002. And it gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared would happen the day after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, in fact, did happen.


CLINTON: If I could… respectfully add — look, we did differ. A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS. We have to look at the threats that we face right now and we have to be prepared to take them on and defeat them.


SANDERS: Well, I think our great task is to make certain that our young men and women in the military do not get sucked into never- ending, perpetual warfare within the quagmire of Syria and Iraq. And I will do my very best to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

I agree with the secretary that I think what has to happen — and let me just mention what King Abdullah of Jordan said. I think he hit the nail on the head.

SANDERS: And what he said is essentially the war against ISIS is a war for the soul of Islam. And it must be Muslim troops on the ground that will destroy ISIS, with the support of a coalition of major powers — U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Russia.

So our job is to provide them the military equipment that they need; the air support they need; special forces when appropriate. But at the end of the day for a dozen different reasons, not the least of which is that ISIS would like American combat troops on the ground so they could reach out to the Muslim world and say, “Look, we’re taking on those terrible Americans.”

The combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops with our support. We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.

Troops in Afghanistan

TODD: Obviously you’ve been emphasizing this difference on the Iraq war, but one place where you do agree, and one place where you voted to authorize the use of force, was in favor of the war in Afghanistan.

Right now, it is possible President Obama is going to be leaving the next president, perhaps President Sanders, at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. How long will those troops be in Afghanistan under President Sanders?


TODD: How long are these troops going to be there? If President Obama leaves you 10,000 troops, how long do you think they’re going to be there?

SANDERS: Well, you can’t simply withdraw tomorrow. Wish we could, and allow, you know, the Taliban or anybody else to reclaim that country. But what we must do, and what we have seen in recent months, is some progress in Iraq, where finally the Iraqi army, which has not been a particularly effective fighting force, retook Ramadi. ISIS has lost I think 40 percent of the territory that it held in the last year.

Hopefully, and you know, one can’t predict the future, that maybe our training and their fighting capabilities are improving and we are going to make some progress in destroying ISIS.

TODD: Secretary Clinton, 30 seconds: How long are these troops going to be in Afghanistan? We have more American troops in Afghanistan than what we were talking about with Iraq.

CLINTON: Oh, absolutely. The president decided to leave more troops than he had originally planned in Afghanistan. We have a very cooperative government there, with Ashraf Ghani and his top — his top partner, Abdullah. And they are doing their very best. And the Afghan army is actually fighting. The Afghan army is taking heavy losses defending Afghan territory.

And I would have to make an evaluation based on the circumstances at the time I took office as to how much help they continue to need. Because it’s not just the Taliban. We now are seeing outposts of, you know, fighters claiming to be affiliated with ISIS.

So, we’ve got this arc of instability from North Africa to South Asia, and we have to pay close attention to it. And we have to build coalitions, something that I did to take on the Iranian nuclear program, and what I will do as president to make sure that we defeat these terrorist networks.

Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy doctrine

TODD: You know, Senator Sanders, nobody knows who your foreign policy advisers are. You haven’t given a major foreign policy speech. And it doesn’t sound like all the time that foreign policy is a priority, other than when you’re asked about it, and you say you’re going to crush ISIS, as you said last night and earlier.

You have not proactively laid out a foreign policy doctrine yet. Why?

SANDERS: Well, that’s not quite accurate. I did give a speech at Georgetown where I talked about democratic socialism and foreign policy. Maybe I shouldn’t have combined the two in the same speech, because the foreign policy part of it didn’t get much attention. So, let me take this opportunity to give you a very short speech here on the issue.

I think, while it is true that the secretary and I voted differently on the war in Iraq, what is important is that we learn the lesson of the war in Iraq. And that lesson is intrinsic to my foreign policy if elected president, is the United States cannot do it alone. We cannot be the policeman of the world. We are now spending more I believe than the next eight countries on defense. We have got to work in strong coalition with the major powers of the world and with those Muslim countries that are prepared to stand up and take on terrorism.

So I would say that the key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be no, we cannot continue to do it alone; we need to work in coalition.

CLINTON: A group of national security experts, military intelligence experts, issued a very concerning statement about Senator Sanders’s views on foreign policy and national security, pointing out some of the comments he has made on these issues, such as inviting Iranian troops into Syria to try to resolve the conflict there; putting them right at the doorstep of Israel. Asking Saudi Arabia and Iran to work together, when they can’t stand each other and are engaged in a proxy battle right at this moment.

CLINTON: So I do think questions have been raised and questions have to be answered because when New Hampshire voters go on Tuesday to cast your vote, you are voting both for a president and a commander in chief. And there is no way to predict what comes in the door of that White House from day to day that can pose a threat to the United States or one of our friends and allies, and I think this is a big part of the job interview that we are all conducting with the voters here.

TODD: All right, Senator, 30 seconds.

SANDERS: (OFF-MIKE) I fully, fully concede that Secretary Clinton, who was secretary of State for four years, has more experience — that is not arguable — in foreign affairs. But experience is not the only point, judgment is. And once again, back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way and one of us didn’t.

In terms of Iran and in terms of Saudi Arabia, of course they hate each other. That’s no great secret. But John Kerry, who is I think doing a very good job, has tried to at least get these people in the room together because both of them are being threatened by ISIS.

CLINTON: Well, let me just add that, you know, I’ve said this before and I’m very proud of it, that when it comes to judgment, having run a hard race against Senator Obama at the time, he turned to me to be secretary of State. And when it comes to the biggest counterterrorism issues that we faced in this administration, namely whether or not to go after bin Laden, I was at that table, I was exercising my judgment to advise the president on what to do, on that, on Iran, on Russia on China, on a whole raft of issues.

Because I know from my own experience that you’ve got to be ready on day one. There is just too much unpredictable threat and danger in the world today, you know, to try to just say wait, I’ll get to that when I can. That is just not an acceptable approach.


MADDOW: Secretary Clinton, at the — at the last Democratic debate in Charleston — I want to get specific here — Senator Sanders called for moving as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran. Your campaign has criticized him for saying that. Now that he’s standing next to you here on this stage, can you explain why the U.S. shouldn’t try to normalize relations in Iran in your view?

CLINTON: Absolutely. You know, I did put together the coalition to impose sanctions. I actually started the negotiations that led to the nuclear agreement, sending some much my closest aides to begin the conversations with the Iranians.

I’m very pleased we got that nuclear agreement. It puts a lid on the nuclear weapons program. We have to enforce it, there have to be consequences attached to it. But that is not our only problem with Iran. We have to figure out how to deal with Iran as the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

They are destabilizing governments in the region. They continue to support Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon against Israel. A lot of work that we have do is going to be incredibly hard. I’m prepared to do that work, but I believe, just as I did with imposing the sanctions, you have to get action for action.

If we were to normalize relations right now, we would remove one of the biggest pieces of leverage we have to try to influence and change Iranian behavior. The president doesn’t think we should. I certainly don’t think we should. I believe we have to take this step by step to try to reign in Iranian aggression, their support for terrorism and the other bad behavior that can come back and haunt us.

SANDERS: Who said That think we should normalize relations with Iran tomorrow? I never said that. I think we should move forward as quickly as we can.

And you’re right. They are a sponsor of terrorism around the world and we have to address that. But you know, a number of years ago, people were saying normal relationship with Cuba, what a bad and silly idea. They’re Communists, they are our enemy. Well guess what? Change has come.

So please don’t suggest that I think we normalize relations with Tehran tomorrow. We don’t. But I would like to see us move forward, and hopefully some day that will happen. And I would say if I might, Madam Secretary — and you can correct me if I’m wrong. When you ran against Senator Obama you thought him naive because he thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies. I think those are exactly the people you have to talk to and you have to negotiate with.

CLINTON: Well Senator, let me just correct the record if I can. You know — let me correct the record. […] As I — as I certainly recall, the question was to meet with without conditions. And you’re right, I was against that. I was against it then I would be against it now. […] Part of diplomacy, the hard work of diplomacy is trying to extract whatever concessions you can get, and giving something the other side wants. Of course you’ve got to try to make peace with, and work with those who are your adversaries, but you don’t just rush in, open the door, and say, “Here I am. Let’s talk and make a deal.” That’s not the way it works.

SANDERS: I think President Obama had the right idea, and the bottom line is that of course there have to be conditions. But, of course it doesn’t do us any good to not talk with our adversaries…

CLINTON: … Well, we set conditions on Iran. We worked hard to get them established, and to be enforced, and then we talked. That’s exactly the right…

CLINTON: … And, that’s what I did with the President, so he and I are on the very same page.

SANDERS: Just to set the record straight, I very strongly supported the agreement which makes certain that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

Prioritizing threats to the United States: North Korea, Russia, Iran

TODD: Alright, as Commander in Chief, Senator Sanders, you’ve got to prioritize potential threats to the United States. Three countries, North Korea, Iran, Russia. How would you rank them in order of their threat to America’s security right now…


TODD: … We already had that. I’m talking about these three countries. How would you orient our national security, our national defense posture.

SANDERS: Clearly North Korea is a very strange situation because it is such an isolated country run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one, who seems to be somewhat paranoid. And, who had nuclear weapons.

And, our goal there, in my view, is to work and lean strongly on China to put as much pressure. China is one of the few major countries in the world that has significant support for North Korea, and I think we got to do everything we can to put pressure on China. I worry very much about an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs.

I think, clearly, we got to work closely with China to resolve the serious problems we have, and I worry about Putin and his military adventurism in the Crimea and the Ukraine.

TODD: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter this week picked one of those three, and he has said Russia is, basically, the most important national security threat. Sort of reorienting the defense and the challenges to that. Do you agree with his decisions…

SANDERS: … No, I don’t. I worry very, very much about an isolated country. That’s what makes me nervous. Russia lives in the world. China lives in the world. North Korea is a very, very strange country because it is so isolated, and I do feel that a nation with nuclear weapons, they have got to be dealt with. Dealt with effectively.

TODD: Secretary Clinton, what do you think of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. He’s basically putting Russia above Iran, above North Korea, as sort of the chief national security challenge right now.

CLINTON: I haven’t talked to Secretary Carter, but here’s what I would think he’s planning. We do have the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, that’s an enforcement consequence, action for action, follow on. We have a plan, we will watch them, we will be vigilant.

We do have to worry about North Korea. They continue to develop their nuclear weapons capability, and they’re working very hard on their ballistic missile capability.

And, I know that some of those plans could very well lead to a missile that might reach Hawaii, if not the West Coast. We do have to try to get the countries in the region to work with us to do everything we can to confine, and constrain them.

But, what Secretary Carter is looking at is the constant pressure that Russia’s putting on our European allies. The way that Russia is trying to move the boundaries of the post-World War II Europe. The way that he is trying to set European countries against one another, seizing territory, holding it in Crimea. Beginning to explore whether they could make some inroads in the Baltics.

We know that they are deeply engaged in supporting Assad because they want to have a place in the Middle East. They have a naval base, they have an air base in Syria. They want to hang on to that. I think what Secretary Carter is seeing, and I’m glad he is, is that we got to get NATO back working for the common defense. We’ve got to do more to support our partners in NATO, and we have to send a very clear message to Putin that this kind of belligerence, that this kind of testing of boundaries will have to be responded to. The best way to do that is to put more armor in, put more money from the Europeans in so they’re actually contributing more to their own defense.

Veterans and the VA

MADDOW: Secretary Clinton, I want to ask you about a national security issue that is closer to home. There are thousands of veterans, over 100,000 veterans living in the state of New Hampshire.

If either one of you is nominated as the Democratic Party’s nominee, you will likely face a Republican opponent in the general election who wants to privatize or even abolish big parts of the V.A. It’s a newly popular idea in conservative politics.

How will you win the argument on that issue given the problems that have been exposed at the V.A. in the last few years? What’s your argument that the V.A. should still exist and should not be privatized?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, I’m absolutely against privatizing the V.A. And 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 the V.A.

There are a lot of issues about wait times and services that have to be fixed because our veterans deserve nothing but the best.

But you’re absolutely right, you know, Rachel, this is another part of the Koch brothers agenda. They’ve actually formed an organization to try to begin to convince Americans we should no longer have guaranteed health care, specialized care for our veterans.

I will fight that as hard as I can. I think there’s where we can enlist the veterans service organizations, the veterans of America, because, yes, let’s fix the V.A., but we will never let it be privatized, and that is a promise.

MADDOW: Senator Sanders, you, as a congressional leader on veterans issues and the Veterans Committee, you’ve worked in a very bipartisan way with Senator John McCain and others on veterans issues. Is the right contour of the fight, the way she’s talking about this issue?

SANDERS: Let me agree. You know, as the secretary knows, I chaired — I had the privilege and the honor of chairing the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. And it is interesting to me, you know, Republicans give a lot of speeches about how much they love veterans. I work with the American Legion, the VFW, the DAV, the Vietnam Vets, and virtually every veterans organization to put together the most comprehensive piece of the veterans legislation in the modern history of America. That’s what I did.

And I brought it to the floor of the Senate. Every Democrat voted for it, I got two Republicans. We ended up with 56 votes and I couldn’t get the 60 votes that I needed. That is pathetic.

This was legislation supported by all of the veterans organizations, addressing many of the serious problems that veterans face in health care and in how we deliver benefits to them.

So Republicans talk a good game about veterans, but when it came to put money on the line to protect our veterans, frankly, they were not there.

What I did next, Rachel, is I had to retreat a little bit, I had to compromise. I did work with John McCain. I did work with Jeff Miller over in the House. And we put together not the bill that I wanted, but probably the most comprehensive V.A. health care bill in the modern history of this country.

Secretary Clinton is absolutely right, there are people, Koch brothers among others, who have a group called Concerned Veterans of America, funded by the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers, by the way, want to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, every governmental program passed since the 1930s. Yes, there are people out there who want to privatize it.

The last point that I’d make. I had a hearing. I had all of the veterans groups in front of me. And I said to them, tell me when a veteran gets in to the V.A., understanding there are waiting lines and real problems, when a veteran gets into the system, is the quality of care good?

Without exception, what they said, good, excellent, very good. We’ve got to strengthen the V.A. We do not privatize the V.A.