DES MOINES — Hillary Clinton’s strongest qualification for the presidency may be her four years as the nation’s top diplomat. But recent events also show how her tenure as secretary of state can be a vulnerability at a time when the electorate’s attention is focused on international threats.
The coordinated attacks in Paris fully injected the Islamic State into the 2016 presidential campaign, putting a new focus on decisions made by the Obama administration when Clinton, as secretary of state, was at the table.
In Saturday’s debate, Clinton tried to show off her knowledge while also creating some distance between her views and President Obama’s policies, which so far have failed to curb the threats. That left her speaking in generalities.
“There is no question in my mind that if we summon our resources, both our leadership resources and all of the tools at our disposal — not just military force which should be used as a last resort, but our diplomacy, our development aid, law enforcement, sharing of intelligence in a much more open and cooperative way — that we can bring people together,” Clinton said.
“This is an incredibly complicated region of the world,” she said, but refrained from the bold stances that some Republican candidates are taking.
When asked whether she shares some of the blame for missing and underestimating the rise and power of the group, Clinton did not offer a direct answer.
That is one question she is going to need to answer, said Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections and campaigns.
“You are going to have to talk about ISIS, with the mess that has happened in France and in Libya. She can’t be detached from it. And she can’t abandon the president. That won’t be helpful to her at all.”
Walter graded Clinton’s answers on ISIS as shaky and said Clinton’s responses reminded her of how Governor Jeb Bush of Florida has stumbled while answering questions about how his brother, former president George W. Bush, prosecuted the war in Iraq.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist with ties to the Clinton campaign, agrees that Clinton has to stand firmly behind the foreign policy decisions Obama has made.
“If she were to continue to distance herself from the administration, that would be a major mistake,” Manley said. “She’s bragged, as she should have, about how close she was in setting the administration[’s] foreign policy. You can’t have it both ways; you’re either a major architect or you’re on the outs.”
Republicans have long been eager to make the election a mandate on Obama’s foreign policy, and lay out solutions of their own.
Jeb Bush said Sunday that “we should declare war” on the Islamic State. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he added: “We have the capabilities of doing this, we just haven’t shown the will.”
Republican front-runner Donald Trump said he would “bomb the [expletive]” out of the Islamic State.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said that the United States is now involved in a “civilizational conflict with radical Islam.”
Republicans were pleased Saturday to have a preview of how Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, handles the topic.
“It’s pretty clear after this debate is that she has a glass jaw,” said Brian Baker, a Republican strategist who runs the GOP super PAC Ending Spending.
“I look forward to somebody debating Secretary Clinton who is not lobbying for a job in her Cabinet,” he added, suggesting that the Democrats who shared a stage with her went easy.
Her two Democratic competitors, for example, remained mute when Clinton touted the decision to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But any Republican candidate will quickly connect her policies there to the deaths of four Americans during the September 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya.
Bernie Sanders has all but blamed the rise of the Islamic State on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, noting that Clinton voted to authorize force when she was a senator. Clinton has repeatedly said she regretted that vote.
National polls show that Democrats are far more skeptical than Republicans of US military involvement to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Fifty-seven percent of Democratic respondents said they feared the United States would “go too far” in responding militarily to a threat from the Islamic State, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last month.
Only 30 percent of Republicans stated a concern about overcommitting the military to the crisis.
And Obama remains popular with Democrats, another reason that there is little immediate benefit for Clinton to draw distinctions between herself and the president.
During Saturday’s debate she noted that she had pressed the administration to arm moderate rebels at the start of the Syrian civil war, a move that some believe could have swiftly ended the conflict and prevented the current vacuum.
The Obama administration, so far, is giving her little guidance. It hasn’t articulated any new ideas about how strategy will change in reaction to the Paris attacks.
“There’s going to have to be an intensification of our efforts,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said on “Meet the Press” Sunday.
That’s leaving a rhetorical vacuum on the left as France, America’s oldest ally and a fellow member of the NATO alliance, on Sunday began retaliatory attacks on an Islamic State stronghold in Syria.Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.