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The Paris Attacks Are Already Starting to Shape the 2016 US Presidential Race

At the second Democratic primary debate, Hillary Clinton was forced to defend US actions in Libya and Iraq, while Bernie Sanders floundered on foreign policy.

by Liz Fields
Nov 15 2015, 5:55pm

Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP

The ripples from the terror attacks that left 132 people dead in Paris on Friday have already made their way across the pond. President Barack Obama condemned the assaults on America's "oldest ally" as an "attack on all of humanity," and presidential candidates from both political parties have now addressed the tragedy, which could have broad political implications in both the months ahead and after Obama leaves office in 2016.

In her opening statement at the second Democratic debate on Saturday night, Hillary Clinton referenced the attacks and emphasized that the stakes in next year's election are high. "This election is not only about choosing the next president," Clinton said. "It's also about choosing a next commander-in-chief."

Related: Manhunt Underway for Suspect Involved in Paris Attacks (Live Updates)

Last week, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that just 4 percent of Democratic primary voters would vote for a candidate based on foreign policy know-how and expertise on the Middle East, compared to 40 percent who said that economic issues would influence their decision. The fallout of the Paris attacks Friday has already begun to skew the importance of international conflict and security in the national consciousness. Early Saturday morning, CBS News announced the Democratic forum would shift its focus to address the Paris attacks, calling them "a tragic example of the kind of challenges American presidents face in today's world."

But while the network had specifically asked the candidates to respond to the attacks in their 90-second opening remarks, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders began by briefly condemning the attacks as "cowardly" before pivoting to his more familiar stump speech on economic inequality. The segue was notably clunky.

"This country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS," Sanders said, before declaring: "I'm running for president because as I go around this nation I talk to a lot of people, and what I hear is people's concern that the economy we have is a rigged economy."

Sanders then struggled through the rest of the 20 minutes of the debate allocated to addressing international terrorism and foreign policy. At one point, he was chastised by Clinton for demanding that Muslim countries — specifically Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Jordan — "get their hands dirty and boots on the ground" in the fight against IS, which he called the "war for the soul of Islam."

"I think that is very unfair to a few that you mentioned," Clinton said, adding that Jordan "has put a lot on the line for the United States, has also taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and has therefore been subjected to threats and attacks by extremists themselves."

Sanders, who is a stated pacifist and against expanding military operations abroad, blamed the current situation on the "disastrous invasion of Iraq, something I strongly opposed," but that which Clinton voted for as a former New York senator, has "unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS."

"These toppling of governments — regime changes — have unintended consequences," he added. "I would say on this issue I'm a little more conservative than the secretary, and I'm not a great fan of regime change."

Clinton twice admitted that the Iraq invasion was "a mistake," but suggested Sanders might not grasp of the complexities of the issue, saying that the US must recognize that terrorism has "antecedents to what happened in Iraq."

While she clearly demonstrated her expertise and experience throughout the segment, Clinton was forced to defend her direct involvement in foreign policy matters during her tenure as secretary of state, particularly the military intervention in Libya, which is now racked by a bloody civil conflict. She responded by saying the US and its European allies toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi, which led to "one of the most successful, fairest elections that any Arab country has ever had."

As for what happened next in Libya, Clinton placed blame on the "arc of instability from North Africa to Afghanistan" that has arisen as those countries deal with radicalism. It is "imperative we do more" to deal with such instability," she said, but did not elaborate.

Related: US Spy Agencies 'Scrubbing Intelligence' for Clues About Paris Attackers

On Saturday morning before the debate, Republican presidential hopeful and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum seized on the attack as an opportunity to criticize Obama and his administration, including Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state.

Santorum told a crowd at the Florida Republican Party's Sunshine Summit, that the emergence of IS was the direct result of the US government's poor foreign policy choices. "ISIS is creation of a political decision by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to abandon Iraq against all of our generals' recommendations, against all of the policy recommendations," he said.

'These toppling of governments — regime changes — have unintended consequences.'

At the same forum, Carly Fiorina echoed that sentiment, saying the US military withdrawal from Iraq allowed IS to flourish.

All three Democratic candidates — Clinton, Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley — agreed that America cannot enter conflicts alone, whether the fight is in Syria, Iraq, Libya, or elsewhere. They called for working with allies, but did not delve into specific policy actions that they would take abroad. In the first part of the debate, O'Malley repeatedly emphasized the need for better intelligence networks to anticipate threats and invest in sustainable development to plan ahead for the day after a dictator falls — a point Sanders also agreed with later.

Related: The Terror Attacks in Paris: A Timeline of Events

Clinton responded by saying "we invested quite a bit in development aid," but that good intentions do not always translate to stability. "Just because we have a plan and a strategy doesn't mean we're going to be able to dictate the outcome," she said. "These are often very long-term kinds of investments."

When the final part of the segment shifted to immigration, O'Malley raised that he was first candidate to suggest the US should accommodate 65,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict and jabbed at Clinton, saying there are "other way to lead and be a moral leader in this work other than being at the opposite end of a drone strike."

Clinton agreed with the refugee intake quota of 65,000, but said the "number one requirement" was to set up a proper screening and vetting system — a topic that has once against flared up as French officials work to determine the nationality of the IS attackers in France. Anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments have already flared up in Europe over questions about whether the attackers entered the country using the European Union's open border policy that has allowed free movement for refugees seeking asylum coming under fire. Early indications suggest at least one of the attackers may have come from Syria.

Related: The Paris Attacks Could Make Things Even Worse for Syrian Refugees

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields