The fight against ISIS took center stage at the first section of the second Democratic debate, as Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley discussed U.S. involvement in the Middle East, after first observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks.
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Sanders called the current conflict a "war for the soul of Islam," adding that countries in the Middle East will need to get "deeply involved" and lead the effort, and mentions Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Jordan by name.
Clinton called the comment "unfair" to some counties, in particular Jordan, which she said has "put a lot on the line" for the United States, in addition to taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. But Clinton said she agrees that Turkey and the Gulf nations should decide if they will stand with the United States against "this kind of jihadi radicalism."
Clinton came under fire for her time as secretary of state in the Obama administration and for her 2002 vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq. Calling the invasion the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States," Sanders said: "I don't think any sensible person" would have supported the use-of-force resolution.
The invasion, Sanders said, unraveled the Middle East and led to the rise of extremists.
Clinton, who has frequently said the vote was a mistake, said it should be placed in the historical context of years of terrorism before the invasion.
"If we're ever going to really tackle the problems posed by Jihadi extremists, we need to understand it and realize that it has antecedents to what happened in Iraq," she said.
Clinton defended the Obama administration's initial approach to the rise of Islamic State, including her actions as secretary of state. She rejected the notion that she underestimated the militants, and she blames their rise on leaders in the Middle East and names former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of not doing enough to maintain stability in Iraq once the U.S. turned over control of the nation.
She added that she did advocate that the U.S. do more to "train and equip moderates" in Syria, which has since fallen into civil war.
The exchange came early in the second debate for Democrats seeking their party's nomination for the November 2016 presidential election, with the focus shifted to foreign policy and ways to combat terrorism after the Paris attacks.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, has far more foreign policy experience than either of her rivals - Sanders a U.S. senator from Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. But she was forced on the defensive early about her years of leading President Barack Obama's foreign policy team.
The foreign policy focus was a dramatic shift in emphasis in a Democratic presidential race that so far has been dominated by domestic economic issues such as income inequality, college affordability and family leave.
With the political clock ticking to the first nominating contest in Iowa on Feb. 1, Clinton has opened a commanding lead over Sanders, her prime challenger, in national and Iowa polls. O'Malley trails well behind, in single digits in most polls.