Some half way through the third Democratic debate in New Hampshire on Saturday, Hillary Clinton frankly told America that Bernie Sanders' plan for ISIS and the Middle East would 'threaten Israel.'
When moderators at the ABC debate posed a question about foreign affairs, the candidates got raw and real, fast.
Sanders immediately tore into Clinton on an issue on which they clearly differ: boots on the ground to topple foreign dictators.
On Syria, Sanders argued that the United States should focus less on President Bashar Assad and instead focus solely on finishing ISIS. "I worry," Sanders said, as transcribed by Vox, "that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change:
Yes, we could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that destabilized the entire region. Yes, we could get rid of Qaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS.
So I think yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy, but before you do that you've got to think about what happens the day after. And in my view what we need to do is put together broad coalitions to understand that we're not going to have a political vacuum filled by terrorists, that in fact we are going to move steadily and maybe slowly toward democratic societies. In terms of Assad, [he's] a terrible dictator, but I think in Syria the primary focus now must be destroying ISIS and working over the years to get rid of Assad. That's the secondary issue.
Sanders noted he had voted against the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq and said he did not believe in unilateral American military action. Clinton, as a U.S. senator from New York, had voted to authorize the war in a vote she has since disavowed.
Clinton fired back against the former kibbutznik:
"That is exactly what I just said and what I just described."
She then noted that she thinks ignoring Assad would actually hurt the fight against ISIS:
We will not get the support on the ground in Syria to dislodge ISIS if the fighters there who are not associated with ISIS but whose principal goal of getting rid of Assad don't believe there is a political, diplomatic channel that is ongoing. We now have that we have the U.N. Security Council adopting a resolution that lays out a transition path. It's very important we operate on both at the same time. And let me just say a word about coalition building because I've heard senator Sanders say this. I know how hard it is to build coalitions. I think it would be a grave mistake to ask for any more Iranian troops inside Syria. That is like asking the arsonist to come and pour more gas on the fire. The Iranians getting more of a presence in Syria, linking with Hezbollah, their proxy in Lebanon, would threaten Israel and would make it more difficult for us to move on a path to have a transition that at some point would deal with Assad's future.
The two candidates, and a third, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, also debated how protect Americans from lone wolf attacks like the December 2 killings of 14 people in a shooting spree in San Bernardino, California, minimum wage, and health care.
Earlier in the debate, Sanders apologized to front-runner Clinton for a breach of Clinton voter files by a Sanders staffer that intensified tensions between the two camps.
"Yes, I apologize," Sanders said when asked about the controversy, but he renewed his criticism of the Democratic National Committee for freezing access to his own voter files until the issue was resolved late on Friday.
Clinton, whose campaign said Sanders made a number of breaches into Clinton computer files, accepted the apology and said it was time to move on.
"I very much appreciate that comment, Bernie," she said. "Now that I think we've resolved your data, we've agreed on an independent inquiry, we should move on. I don't think the American people are all that interested in this."
The rising tensions between Clinton and Sanders, who have largely refrained from attacking each other, occurred at a crucial moment for Sanders, who is trying to erase the front-runner's lead in the November 2016 Democratic White House race just six weeks before Iowa holds the first nominating contest.
On Friday, Sanders filed a lawsuit to force the DNC to restore access to his voter files, which it had blocked after the Sanders campaign improperly accessed files generated by the Clinton campaign. The DNC and Sanders reached a late-night deal restoring access for Sanders.
Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver accused the DNC of working to protect Clinton, pointing to the party's limited debates at low-viewership periods such as Saturday nights as an example. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook accused the Sanders campaign of stealing parts of its "strategic road map" for voter turnout in the primary battle.
The Sanders campaign said access to the files was restored early on Saturday. While the dispute may not mean much to voters, the bitterness could linger between the two campaigns.
The debate is the party's first since the attacks in San Bernardino, and Sanders also is eager to explore his differences with the former secretary of state on issues such as her support for a no-fly zone in Syria and her 2011 advocacy of regime change in Libya, his campaign said.
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