Charlie Neibergall/AP

Democrats on Islamic State Fight: We'll Do What Obama Is Doing, but More

The phrase “leading from behind” has been rejected, but the practice seems as popular as ever.

“Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS,” Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced from his podium at the Democratic debate on Saturday. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the sentiment sounds more emphatically ambitious and efficient than the plan that President Barack Obama announcedlast year, in the wake of another shocking ISIS attack—the filmed beheadings of the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff—to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

But the actual plans the three Democratic presidential candidates advocated at the debate, to the extent they went into detail, sound a lot like the one Obama announced, and has been pursuing, for more than a year, to unsatisfying effect—one involving air strikes, international alliances, reliance on local forces, and a limited ground presence for American troops.

Hillary Clinton in particular seemed to implicitly endorse what came to be known derisively in 2011 as “leading from behind” —the approach the Obama administration embraced to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, which involved depending a great deal on European and Arab allies, and as part of which, per Clinton, “we didn’t put a single boot on the ground, and Qaddafi was deposed.” Clinton, who was secretary of state under Obama at the time, said of ISIS that “it cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” How? Here’s how she elaborated, according to a preliminary transcript of the debate:

I think what the president has consistently said—which I agree with—is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS. That is why we have troops in Iraq that are helping to train and build back up the Iraqi military, why we have special operators in Syria working with the Kurds and Arabs, so that we can be supportive.

But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.

The idea, in other words, was that America should coordinate, not own, the war on ISIS. This principle was stated, albeit less explicitly, by the other candidates onstage, who issued less critiques of the current U.S. strategy than descriptions of it, with slightly different emphasis each time. Here’s Sanders:

Now, in fact, what we have got to do—and I think there is widespread agreement here—is the United States cannot do it alone. What we need to do is lead an international coalition which includes very significantly the Muslim nations in that region who are going to have to fight and defend their way of life. ...

Here’s something that I believe we have to do as we put together an international coalition, and that is we have to understand that the Muslim nations in the region—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan—all of these nations, they’re going to have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground. They are going to have to take on ISIS. This is a war for the soul of Islam. And those countries who are opposed to Islam, they are going to have to get deeply involved in a way that is not the case today. We should be supportive of that effort. So should the U.K., so should France. But those Muslim countries are going to have to lead the effort. They are not doing it now.

And Martin O’Malley:

This actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight.

America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies. America is best when we are actually standing up to evil in this world. And ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world.

ISIS has brought down a Russian airliner. ISIS has now attacked a Western democracy in—in France. And we do have a role in this. Not solely ours, but we must work collaboratively with other nations.

The great failing of these last 10 or 15 years …  has been our failing of human intelligence on the ground. Our role in the world is not to roam the globe looking for new dictators to topple. Our role in the world is to make ourselves a beacon of hope. Make ourselves stronger at home, but also our role in the world, yes, is also to confront evil when it rises. We took out the safe haven in Afghanistan, but now there is, undoubtedly, a larger safe haven and we must rise to this occasion in collaboration and with alliances to confront it, and invest in the future much better human intelligence so we know what the next steps are.

For comparison’s sake, the current American-led effort against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Operation Inherent Resolve, involves 65 countries by the State Department’s count, 12 of which have participated in air strikes. These countries include Muslim nations, though it’s fair to say they’re not “leading” the current effort. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Jordan are already “getting their hands dirty,” to borrow Sanders’s phrase. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan have participated in airstrikes against ISIS, and Turkey has provided access to its air bases for American bombers; meanwhile Iran, albeit presumably not in direct coordination with the United States, is providing paramilitary ground forces to combat ISIS. Jordan and Turkey’s hands are also occupied with the refugee crisis spawned by the joint depredations of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—as Clinton pointed out, Jordan “has put a lot on the line for the United States,” taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, while Turkey has taken in millions from Syria alone. O’Malley’s point about human intelligence, too, is an aspect of the current strategy: Though Obama vowed, in deploying troops to Iraq last year, that those troops would not “have a combat mission,” he said that they were “needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence, and equipment.” Since then, the deployments have continued, most recently with the dispatch of 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria, likewise intended to help with training and intelligence. There are roughly 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq at the moment.

Those of us listening to the debate and looking for new ideas in response to the bloodshed in Paris, and the prospect of ISIS shifting its focus from Iraq and Syria to attacks in other countries, didn’t hear them—and perhaps that’s less the candidates’ fault than a reflection of the genuine puzzle of how to deal with something like ISIS. For the Democrats the answer so far seems to be: Do what we’ve been doing, but better. The question is still: How?