The first Democratic presidential debate took place on October 13 and the biggest differences were over the nuclear deal with Iran, involvement in Syria and the NATO military intervention in Libya.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Clinton boasted of her record in implementing international sanctions on the Iranian regime, support for the raid on Bin Laden's compound and signing a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. She identified nuclear proliferation as the biggest threat to U.S. national security.
She said she would confront Russian President Putin but talk to Russia about creating safe zones inside Syria to stem the refugee crisis. Clinton confirmed later that she supports using the U.S. military to create a no-fly zone over Syria, but opposes sending U.S. troops into Syria.
Her rivals emphasized their consistent opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, contrasting it with Clinton's vote to give the Bush Administration authority to invade if necessary. She says that she opposed the use of that authority and that her vote was one of her biggest mistakes. When Chafee said that her mistake essentially disqualifies her as Commander-in-Chief, she responded that her vote was attacked by President Obama during the 2008 campaign and he still trusted her judgment as Secretary of State.
Clinton defended her support for the NATO-led military intervention in Libya to topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi, reminding the audience that he had sponsored terrorism against Americans. She boasted that no U.S. troops were deployed and the Libyans voted for a moderate government.
She also defended her vote for the Patriot Act and said that Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about NSA intelligence programs, is a criminal who should go to jail. She said that he could have become a whistleblower rather than steal classified information and go abroad.
Click here for our factsheet on Hillary Clinton's positions regarding Islamist extremism. She is currently the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and is leading with 43% in an average of national polls. She leads with 39% in Iowa, is in second place in New Hampshire with 30% and leads in South Carolina with 48%.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
Sanders boasted that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Gulf War, but supported U.S. military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. He identified climate change as the biggest national security threat.
He called the invasion of Iraq "the worst foreign policy blunder" in U.S. history and drew parallels to the situation in Syria, which he described as a "quagmire within a quagmire." He opposes having the U.S. military implement a no-fly zone over Syria or sending U.S. troops into the country.
Sanders said that Snowden is a criminal but his punishment should be limited because of his important revelations. He voted against the Patriot Act and would shut down the NSA's controversial bulk collection of phone records.
Click here for our factsheet on Bernie Sanders' positions regarding Islamist extremism. He is currently in second place for the Democratic nomination. He is 2nd nationally with 25% in an average of polls. He is in 2nd in Iowa with 27%; leads in New Hampshire with 39% and is in second place in South Carolina with 20%.
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb
Webb was the candidate that most emphasized national security and foreign policy. He boasted of his long record of national security experience, including being wounded in the Vietnam War and his son's service in Ramadi, Iraq, despite his opposition to the 2003 invasion.
Webb attributed Russia's intervention in Syria for the Assad regime to three strategic failures: The 2003 invasion of Iraq; the power vacuum created by the Arab Spring (specifically in Syria and Libya) and the nuclear deal with Iran, which he said paves the way for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. He said that the deal sends a signal to Israel and America’s Sunni partners like Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is accepting Iranian power.
He criticized Clinton for the military intervention in Libya, saying it made the 2012 attacks in Benghazi "inevitable" and increased regional instability. Webb said that the civil war in Libya posed no national security threat and the Obama Administration had plenty of time to get congressional authorization for military action and did not.
On intelligence-gathering, Webb said he supports reforming the NSA program so that personal data is destroyed after a period of time in order to protect civil liberties.
Webb said the greatest day-to-day threat is cyber attacks; the greatest military/operational threat is the instability in the Middle East and the greatest long-term strategic threat is from China, specifically its cyber warfare and aspirations to dominate the South China Sea.
Click here for our factsheet on Jim Webb's positions regarding Islamist extremism. Webb is currently polling in fourth place nationally with 1%. He's in 5th place in Iowa with 2%; 5th place in New Hampshire with 1% and 5th place in South Carolina with 1%.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley
O'Malley emphasized his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said the greatest national security threats are a nuclear-armed Iran, the spread of the Islamic State terrorist group and climate change.
He said he opposes U.S. military intervention in Syria to implement a no-fly zone, particularly because of the Russian air force in the sky. He had a minor gaffe when he predicted that "Assad's invasion of Syria" will fail.
He said that our failure to invest adequately in human intelligence (spies) is a "huge national security failure." He blasted Snowden for putting lives at risk and said well-meaning whistleblowers don't go to Russia to get protection from President Putin.
Click here for our factsheet on Martin O'Malley's positions regarding Islamist extremism. O'Malley is currently in 5th place in an average of national polls with less than 1%. He is in 4th in Iowa with 3%; in 4th place in New Hampshire with 2% and is in 4th place in South Carolina with 1%.
Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee
Chafee repeatedly brought attention to his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was the most opposed to military action abroad against Islamist extremism and the candidate who was most outspoken in supporting the nuclear deal with Iran.
He rejected Webb's assertion that the nuclear deal with Iran influenced Russia's decision to militarily intervene in Syria. Chafee said that Iran and the Shiite Allawite regime of Syria have long been allies of Russia.
Chafee said he'd be different than President Obama by ending U.S. involvement in wars overseas, criticizing U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, drone strikes and the program to train and arm Syrian rebels.
He defended his vote for the Patriot Act. He is the only candidate to defend Snowden's stealing and leaking of classified information. He said that Snowden should be welcomed home.
Chafee said that the instability in the Middle East is the greatest threat to national security.
Click here for our factsheet on Lincoln Chafee's positions regarding Islamist extremism. He is currently in 6th place in an average of national polls with less than 1%. He is in last place in Iowa with 1%; last place in New Hampshire with 1% and last in South Carolina with 1%.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.