Sanders: Clinton's Pursuit of 'Regime Change' in Libya Helped Rise of Isis
Bernie Sanders has accused Hillary Clinton of encouraging Islamic extremism in Libya, in a prelude to a Democratic debate on Saturday during which he is expected to go on the attack for the first time over the unintended consequences of the former secretary of state’s more interventionist foreign policy.
Speaking to the Guardian in an extensive pre-debate interview, the senator from Vermont criticised Clinton for carelessly fomenting regime change in Libya “without worrying” about the ensuing instability that has helped Islamic Stateforces take hold in the country.
“Regime change without worrying about what happens the day after you get rid of the dictator does not make a lot of sense,” Sanders said.
“I voted against the war in Iraq ... Secretary Clinton voted for that war. She was proud to have been involved in regime change in Libya, with [Muammar] Gaddafi, without worrying, I think, about what happened the day after and the kind of instability and the rise of Isis that we have seen in Libya.”
Many of his supporters have become frustrated at what they see as a reticence by Sanders to attack Clinton’s record directly, particularly after he appeared to be a reluctant participant in foreign policy discussions that dominated the second debate, held in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Since then, the 2016 presidential campaign has become overwhelmed with national security questions. Republicans have competed to sound toughest, Ted Cruz vowing that he would “carpet bomb” Isis jihadis. Clinton has delivered three hawkish speeches in a month on the need for more intervention in Iraq and Syria, the need to stand “taller and stronger” against terrorism and the need for Silicon Valley companies to police internet access to thwart jihadi recruiters.
Though initially reluctant to let foreign policy distract from what he considers a more important domestic agenda, the Sanders campaign increasingly sees his opponent’s hawkishness as an opportunity for him to turn Saturday’s debate in New Hampshire into a clash on the best way of achieving lasting national security.
“We have to be smart and not just tough,” he said. “And that means it’s not just destroying Isis, it’s making sure we do it in a way that leads to a better future and more stability in that region. And that means, absolutely in my view, that it cannot simply be as we did in Iraq ... It cannot simply be unilateral American action. What it means is a broad coalition, in which the troops on the ground are Muslim troops.”
He also turned on Republicans and hawks in the Democratic party for not heeding the lessons of recent US intervention in the Middle East.
“Sometimes in our country, especially among our Republican friends who suffer from amnesia, we forget what happened yesterday,” added Sanders. “I can remember like it was yesterday, when we had a ‘tough’ president. George W Bush, and his vice-president was even tougher. So tough! And they went into Iraq, man, and they got rid of Saddam Hussein, terrible guy. But they forgot to be thinking about what happens the day after you get rid of Saddam Hussein. What has happened in that region, as everybody knows, is there is massive instability, human tragedies beyond belief: in terms of people in that region, in terms of American soldiers, there is PTSD, traumatic brain injury, 6,700 dying.”
Sanders concedes that his vision of the US playing a supporting role in the fight agaisnt Isis rather than leading intervention is close to that of President Obama, but argues a tougher approach with Arab allies in the region is needed.
“The area that I would be a little bit different from Obama is I would put more pressure on Saudi Arabia, on Qatar, which happens to be per capita the wealthiest country on earth,” he said during Tuesday’s interview in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
He also blasted the impatience among many to provide glib reassurance to Americans in the face of complex and unpredictable domestic terror threats.
“Any idiot, especially one who is prepared to die, who has a gun, can start shooting up people,” added the Vermont senator. “Can I guarantee you, can you guarantee me that this will not happen? Nobody can.”
Though foreign policy has become a growing part of the senator’s campaign stump speech in recent days, he has largely avoided talking about gun control – an area where Clinton argues his record as a rural state senator is weak.
Sanders acknowledged this was an area of vulnerability but insisted his proposals for banning assault weapons and closing background check loopholes placed him the Democratic mainstream over the issue.
“I happen to believe that certain types of assault weapons, which are manufactured and designed for military purposes to kill people very quickly, should not be used in civilian society,” he said.
“There is a gun show loophole, which says you can circumvent the background check by going to a gun show and getting guns. We have to deal with that ... I believe we have to deal with what is called the strawman provision, which means that you can walk in and legally buy a gun and then sell it to him who is a criminal.”
Though less sweeping than many in the party would like, Sanders argues there is more practical chance of achieving political support for such measures.
“That is a broad consensus,” added Sanders. “That is what I believe, what I have voted for. It is not very different from what Hillary Clinton or anybody else believes. But politics being what it is, they saw that as a vulnerability of mine because I come from a state that doesn’t have any gun control but I think we’re handling it fine now.”
On other issues, Sanders said that Clinton has reluctantly moved closer to his position – arguing his campaign has achieved significant progress regardless of how it now fares in the party primary.“I think we have shifted the debate ... You are seeing Hillary Clinton and others beginning to move in our direction,” he said.
Sanders insists the differences between them remain “very significant”: “I was from day one in opposition to the Keystone pipeline. It took her a long time to come about. Trade policy is the same thing. So I think the differences between Secretary Clinton and myself are pretty profound. She has a Super Pac. I don’t have a Super Pac.”
He also draws new parallels with her husband’s record on Wall Street, where he wants to break up big banks and Clinton does not.
“I believe, during the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and the Republicans fought very hard to deregulate Wall Street, I led the opposition to that,” he said. “I did not think it was a good idea to allow investment banks, commercial banks and insurance companies to merge. My view today is that we have got to break up these huge institutions that have so much political and economic power.”
And the Vermont senator now seems increasingly willing to draw a public line between Clinton’s fundraising on Wall Street and her policies toward the economy as a whole.
“Ultimately the real issue is which candidate is prepared, frontally, to take on the billionaire class,” he said. “Can you receive huge amounts of campaign contributions from Wall Street and the wealthiest people in this country and say ‘Well, I’m going to really take them on’? The answer is no, you are not going to do that.”