distanced herself from Barack Obama’s strategy for defeating Islamic State extremists on Thursday in a sweeping foreign policy speech that called for greater use of American ground troops and an intensified air campaign.
Though ruling out deploying the tens of thousands of US troops seen in Iraq and , the former of secretary of state made clear she would take a notably more hawkish approach than the current administration if she is elected president.
“The United States has been conducting this fight for more than a year; it’s time to be begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts,” Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“We should have no illusions about how difficult the mission before us really is … but if we press forward on both sides of the border, in the air on the ground and as well as diplomatically, I do believe we can crush Isis’s enclave of terror,” she added.
The extensive but nuanced speech singled out coalition efforts against Isis in for particular implied criticism, urging that US troops be given “greater flexibility” to embed with Iraqi troops on the frontline and target airstrikes. She also said the US should arm Sunni tribes and Kurds in the country if the government in Baghdad refused to.
But Clinton called for further US special forces to be deployed to Syria too, reiterated her call for a no-fly zone and demanded an “intelligence surge” to allow the airstrikes against Isis to be stepped up. “We have a lot of work to do to really decimate Isil in Iraq and ,” she said, using an alternate name for Isis.
Clinton also used the speech to attack a number of key allies, including Turkey and the Gulf states for not doing enough to tackle fundamentalism.
She called on Silicon Valley to stop viewing the US government “as the enemy” and urged the tech industry to design encryption tools that can balance privacy and yet still allow for state surveillance.
Taking questions afterward, Clinton said her speech called for an “intensification and acceleration” of the Obama strategy, rather than a major change to it.
She also defended the , in the face of opposition from Republicans who want to bar new entrants to the US.
“We are in a conflict of ideas against an ideology of hate … but let me clear, Islam is not our adversary,” added Clinton.
“The obsession in some quarters with a clash of civilisation, or repeating the words Islamic terrorism, isn’t just a distraction, it plays into their hands by alienating people we need by our sides.”
In the question and answer session, Clinton made clear she would directly arm Kurds and Sunni tribes if Baghdad refused to do so, saying the war required “a second Sunni awakening” after the alliance of tribes that took on al-Qaida in Iraq in the mid-2000s.
She was also specific about a no-fly zone for northern Syria to cut off supply lines of resources and foreign fighters to Isis – at the same time insisting Turkey “finally locks down its border”.
Republican candidates have been robust in their attacks on Obama, and by extension Clinton, casting the administration’s record as weak and risky given his decision to enter into an agreement with Iran.
Among the proposals put forth by presidential candidates, frontrunner Donald Trump has suggested bombing oil fields in the Middle East, and Jeb Bush and Texas senator Ted Cruz have suggested only allowing Christian refugees into the United States from the Syrian conflict zone. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, the most hawkish of the candidates, has gone as far as to call for the deployment of 10,000 American troops to Iraq and Syria.
The Democratic candidates have been more restrained in their response in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt and explosions that killed 43 people in Beirut, all of which have been claimed by Isis.
During the , in which the candidates paused for a moment at the outset to remember the victims of the Paris attacks, Clinton sought to distinguish herself from Obama when she was asked about his comments hours before the Paris terrorist strike in which he said the group had been “contained”.
“It cannot be contained. It must be defeated,” on Saturday.
It was a theme she returned to in more detail in New York on Thursday, with a lengthy section on what she believed were the shortcomings of the current coalition approach against Isis.
“A key obstacle standing in the way is a shortage of good intelligence about Isis and its operations, so we need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East, and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services,” said Clinton.
“Our goal should be to achieve the kind of penetration we accomplished with al-Qaida in the past. This would help us identify and eliminate Isis’s command and control and its economic lifelines.”
Clinton leans on secretary of state experience
The speech drew heavily on Clinton’s involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts against al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, so is unlikely to alarm the White House hugely, but nonetheless the president deliberately sought to pre-empt some of Clinton’s suggestions – such as a no-fly zone in Syria – during remarks at the G20 this week, in which he said US experts had examined such options and decided they would be counterproductive.
Perhaps the toughest criticism was reserved for the combat in Iraq, where in the fight against Isis-controlled cities such as Ramadi is increasingly bogged down despite overwhelming numerical superiority by the coalition.
“We’ve been in a similar place before in Iraq,” said Clinton. “In the first Sunni awakening in 2007, we were able to provide sufficient support and assurances to the Sunni tribes to persuade them to join us in rooting out al-Qaida. Unfortunately, under Prime Minister Maliki’s rule, those tribes were betrayed and forgotten.
“So the task of bringing Sunnis off the sidelines into this new fight will be considerably more difficult,” she added. “But nonetheless, we need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation, and finally stand up a national guard.”
Clinton, who is fond of noting that she traveled to 112 countries during her four-year tenure as secretary of state, had hoped her near million miles of travel would give her an unassailable advantage on foreign policy – a record that includes pushing Obama to intervene earlier in Syria and take a harder line with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Her Democratic challengers cannot match her knowledge of foreign affairs, but during the second debate, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders attacked her for her 2002 vote in favour of invading Iraq and her policies in Libya, which left a vacuum for extremists to exploit. She pushed to topple the Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, to which Sanders responded during the debate: “I’m not a big fan of regime change.”
This was Clinton’s second major foreign policy speech, in a campaign that has been largely dominated by economic policies and supporting the middle class. In September, she offered a robust endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal at a in Washington DC.
Amy Bondurant, a Council of Foreign Relations member and a former ambassador, lauded Clinton’s vision as “brilliant”, saying her proposals demonstrated “strong US leadership” and sharpened the administration’s Isis fighting strategy.
“She took the current strategies and combined it with additional steps like suggesting a no-fly zone and recommending that we lead the air coalition,” Bondurant said after the speech. “These are strong new steps that she’s suggesting.”
After the speech, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio waited patiently for his turn to greet his former boss, whom he recently – some say belatedly – endorsed for president.
Amid the crush of reporters, Clinton and De Blasio, who was her campaign manager when she ran for the US Senate in 2000, embraced and exchanged a few private whispers.
At a press conference afterward, De Blasio said he thanked the former secretary of state for articulating an “exceptionally clear” vision of how she would fight Isis and work to prevent terrorism attacks abroad and at home.
De Blasio added: “I thought it was very important that she offered such an uncompromising statement on the refugee situation.”