Hillary Clinton made her first major speech of the year in Silicon Valley on Tuesday, dominating the day’s news cycle. Her remarks gave tantalizing hints as to what major themes would form the centerpiece of her campaign. Clinton gave an impressive performance that connected with the crowd, clearly laying out her support of women in the workplace and proposals like paid medical leave. However, as I was watching her Q&A with Re/code’s Kara Swisher, something else jumped out to me: her long and unfocused answer on ISIS.
Several articles written on the event characterized her comments mostly as ruling out ground troops and getting cooperation from local soldiers to fight ISIS. But if you listened to the entirety of her answer, Clinton didn’t sound like she had a succinct answer on the terrorist organization yet.
When asked about what should be done with ISIS, Clinton launched into an overly-long history lesson of how the terrorist group came to be. Her sentences ran on and on, but the only real solutions she gave were vague “work[ing] with our allies” and retraining the Iraqi army lines. To really understand what I’m talking about here, you have to read or watch Clinton’s response. I transcribed the full answer below:
ISIS is the manifestation of a movement that is incredibly fueled by a, an obsession to control territory to reestablish, as they say, a caliphate, that would be governed by people with a very retrograde view of everything about women, everything I care about, due process, rights or anything. We know that. So why are they, why did they get a foothold? Well, first of all they are the successor to what was called Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a Al Qaeda affiliate that was based in the Sunni regions within Iraq and was fighting the Shiite forces in Iraq during the American involvement in Iraq.
They were so brutal at that time that it provided the opportunity for a lot of the Sunni tribal sheiks and community leaders to band against them. To come together to try to drive them out of Anbar province and out of the Sunni dominated regions and they were successful in doing so because they finally decided that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” didn’t work because these people were so brutal, so beyond the pale. So they effectively squashed them and then the United States turned over Iraq to the elected leadership of then-Prime Minister Maliki and he proceeded to alienate all of the Sunni leaders and citizenry, purged the army of Sunni officers, generally behaved in a sectarian, exclusive way, and so these shoots that had been suppressed began to pop through the surface.
Meanwhile, next door in Syria you have all kinds of extremist groups taking advantage of the vacuum in there and one of them morphed into ISIS and was able to recruit former officers in the Saddam Hussein army as well as foreign fighters, as well as very hardened combat-experienced Jihadists and were able to gather up a lot of resources by breaking into banks and stealing everything in them, by stealing oil and selling it on the black market, etc. And they did something up until now no other extremist group has done as effectively and that is use social media.
So all of a sudden it wasn’t just “oh my gosh those people are killing each other over there again,” it was “oh my gosh they’re threatening us,” they’re recruiting kids from United States, Canada, Europe, elsewhere. They are threatening to expand their territorial grasp. They are really a metastasizing danger, so therefore we have to work with our partners in the region to try to diminish and eventually eradicate the threat because it does affect us.
At this point, the moderator cuts in and asks, “OK, but how? Do you think enough is being done?” To which Clinton replied with:
Well, I think it’s, you know, very, it’s a very, a very hard challenge because you can’t very well put American or Western troops in to fight this organism. You have to use not only air force but also army soldiers from the region and particularly from Iraq. And so what Americans are doing now is helping retrain the Iraqi army after it was really decimated by Maliki, trying to get leadership back within the Sunni regions, trying to integrate them so the Sunnis feel like they have a stake in the future, supporting the Kurds because the Kurdish Peshmerga are right now certainly the best fighting force. It’s like three, four, five dimensional chess. So yes, I think a lot of the right moves are being made but this is a really complicated and long-term problem because remember, we’ve got Al Qaeda in Yemen, we’ve got Boko Haram in North Africa, we’ve got terrorist groups from the Sinai through Libya and south into Mali. This is a long-term struggle.
So as you can see, after a full five minutes of talking about ISIS, Clinton didn’t really say that much. Conservatives will read her remarks and find something else missing. Republicans are obsessed with branding ISIS as “radical Islam” to such an extent you question their real motive behind it. Clinton seemed to have an awkward time at the beginning of her response in explaining ISIS, describing them as a group that wants to “control territory.” All in all, your actual plan to defeat ISIS is still a lot more important than what you call them, but Fox News and Republicans have been beating this drum hard and will gladly jump on any indecisiveness.
Clinton may not need to yell “radical Islam” the way Republicans do, or have a 20-point plan to defeat the amorphous terrorist group this early in the presidential season. But she needs a better answer on ISIS than what she gave Tuesday.