Democratic presidential hopeful former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks in New Castle, N.H., Saturday, June 13, 2015.

Democratic presidential hopeful former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks in New Castle, N.H., Saturday, June 13, 2015. Cheryl Senter/AP

Meet Martin O’Malley, Hillary Clinton’s Latest Unlikely National Security Critic

The former Maryland governor offers a warier foreign policy, contrasting himself with a more hawkish Clinton and Republican field.

If Hillary Clinton is betting that 2016 won’t be a national-security election, at least for the Democratic base, Martin O’Malley is betting she’s wrong — and that voters want a candidate who will be warier about wielding U.S. military might.

On Friday, the former Maryland governor and current presidential candidate laid out a foreign-policy philosophy that stands in stark contrast to those of his GOP rivals, and took barely veiled jabs at Clinton herself.

“The invasion of Iraq, along with the subsequent disarming of the Iraqi army, the military, will be remembered as one of the most tragic, deceitful and costly blunders in U.S. history,” O’Malley told the Truman National Security Project’s annual conference. “And we are still paying the price of a war pursued under false pretenses and acquiesced to in the words of Dr. King, ‘by the appalling silence of the good.’”

Though he never mentioned Clinton by name, it was an obvious reference to the former New York senator and others’ vote for the Iraq War, and part of an attempt to distance himself from Clinton’s more hawkish brand of Democratic foreign policy. “Today’s challenges defy easy solutions. We may have the most sophisticated military in the world, but we don’t have a silver bullet,” O’Malley said in his speech, which a campaign adviser billed as his candidate’s most comprehensive remarks yet on U.S. foreign policy, national security, and America’s role in the world. Instead, he said, “We must construct a new framework for our national security strategy focused on the reduction of threats.”

He cited the threat foremost in voters' and candidates' minds: the Islamic State. “No threat probably better illustrates the unintended consequences of a mindless rush to war and a lack of understanding than the emergence of ISIS,” he said.

O’Malley responded to Republican candidates’ calls to send more U.S. troops to Iraq by noting that the use of U.S. military power could actually boost ISIS. “We must be mindful that American boots on the ground can be counterproductive to our desired outcome. We will not be successful in degrading ISIS if the number of militants taken off the battlefield is exceeded by number of new recruits replacing them,” he said.

And in contrast to a Republican field whose speeches are laced with the red meat of “radical Islamic extremism” — an attempted ding at a president whom they claim “won’t name the enemy” — O’Malley said, “We must do more to amplify credible local voices in the region to reveal ISIS for what it is: a gang of murderous thugs who have perverted the name of one of the world’s great religions.”

But his clearest attempt to tie Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state to what he framed as a short-sighted overeagerness to jump to military force in response to turmoil and instability abroad was in invoking Libya. “We must realize there are real lessons to be learned from the tragedies in Benghazi,” he said. “Namely, we need to know, in advance, who is likely to take power or vie for it once a dictator is toppled. Not after.”

Clinton continues to be embattled by the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and others. Republicans have sought to portray the U.S. government response as a kind of conspiracy cover-up, and the revelations that Clinton used a private email server have not helped her fight this narrative.

O’Malley contrasted Stevens’ personal approach to diplomacy with Clinton’s efforts to use technology and social media. “Twitter and Facebook are no substitute for personal relationships and human intelligence,” he said. “We must recruit and retain a new generation of talented American diplomats and foreign service officers and we must give them the tools they need to identify and to engage with a new generation of leaders from different walks of life in often very hostile environments where we lack historic ties … and that was the work, wasn’t it, that Ambassador Chris Stevens was all about? He gave his life reaching out to those emerging from the rubble of [Muammar] Qaddafi’s leadership.”

In his speech, O’Malley was short on specifics as to how his policies would differ from those of the current Democrat in the White House. “My purpose in our short time today is not to offer soundbite solutions to a laundry list of crises around the world,” he said, but instead to describe “a long-term framework” that will “enable us to master the challenges of our time rather than fall victim to them.”

For example, he proposed a new National Security Act; when asked what it should contain, he said that he was calling for policymakers to get together and talk about it.

The former governor also seemed careful to emphasize pragmatism, so that his progressive foreign policy would not be taken for dovish naivete. “First and foremost, the responsibility of the United States is to protect the people of the United States,” he said. “Today this means transforming our military’s force structure to focus on 21st-century challenges.”

He called for a “rethink” on relationships with countries such as Russia and China — “neither trusted allies nor are they total adversaries” — and a greater emphasis on new alliances for new threats in the Arctic, South China sea and sea lanes of the Middle East.

Doug Wilson, formerly an assistant defense secretary for public affairs and now O’Malley’s senior foreign policy advisor — and also chair of Truman’s board of advisors — insisted that the candidate’s speech was not intended to indict Clinton or any other candidate, but rather to lend some insight into his national security strategy amid questions of how former governors with little experience on the issue can serve as commander in chief at a time of global turmoil.

“There is no mention of Hillary or the Republicans,” he told Defense One. “People knee-jerk frame Benghazi with Hillary. And what he is saying is you’ve got to stop doing that. Benghazi is not Hillary 2016, Benghazi is an example of what happens when you topple dictators and do not know or understand who comes after them.”

“Martin is not poll-driven,” he said. “If he was, he wouldn’t be in the race. He’s doing this because he thinks there needs to be some different discussions going on in terms of America’s role in the world … He’s not a Brookings Institute foreign policy wonk, but he’s travelled, he’s met foreign leaders … he’s essentially putting his interest where his mouth is.”