Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spar at the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Tues, Oct. 13, 2015.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spar at the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Tues, Oct. 13, 2015. AP Photo/John Locher

Hillary Clinton Defends Hawkish Record in First Democratic Debate

But the expected “she voted for the Iraq War” line of attack didn't stick to the former secretary of state's superlative national security credentials.

Attacking Hillary Clinton on national security is no longer just for Republicans.

The four other Democratic candidates highlighted the former secretary of state’s relative hawkishness in their party’s first presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday, zeroing in on Iraq, Syria, and Libya — the same areas where the GOP perceives Clinton has been made vulnerable by security crises and the Obama administration’s response to them.

Debate moderator CNN’s Anderson Cooper chose to raise two of the GOP’s favorite attack topics against Clinton early on: the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, and her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But Clinton’s opponents instead more eagerly used her 2003 vote for the Iraq War to question her judgment and qualification to be commander in chief, as President Barack Obama did to great effect in the 2008 campaign.

Declining Cooper’s bait, Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” The former Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman kept to his own script, saying, “I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.”

Sanders, while largely avoiding national security in his own domestic-focused campaign, has often highlighted how he voted against the Iraq War. He chose Tuesday to explicitly call out Clinton for it. All five vying for the Democratic nomination — Sanders, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — have been far more reluctant than their GOP rivals to attack each other. But the debate offered Clinton’s competitors a high-profile opportunity to try and leverage her national security experience against her and peel off left-leaning base voters from the front runner.

Clinton long has said she regrets her vote for the Iraq War, but it is not one her Democratic opponents are likely to let her forget — particularly Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and vehement opponent of the Bush administration’s foreign policy who also voted against the war, and Chafee, the only then-Republican senator to say no. They, along with O'Malley (who also opposed the war) are barely garnering the required average of 1 percent in the polls to appear on the debate stage.

While most of the top military brass agree Russia is the No. 1 national security threat to the U.S., (though because of its nuclear arsenal and not recent interventions in Ukraine or Syria), each of the Democratic candidates had a different answer at Tuesday’s debate. Yet they formed a unified front against Clinton on national security. It was not a relitigation of the Iraq War, the inevitable framework in which Clinton and Republican candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have engaged in a months-long dynastic tit-for-tat. Rather, it was rather a strategic calculation.

ISIS and a string of security crises have forced Clinton to choose between owning her credentials and distancing herself from Obama’s mixed record of resisting larger military interventions. It’s well documented how Clinton was more than once the voice at the table pushing Obama more toward military force, whether in Iraq, Libya or Syria, and on the campaign trail, her calls for a tougher, more active foreign policy, at contrast with the Obama administration’s, have become louder.

But in attacking her hawkish foreign policy record, Clinton’s immediate challengers also allowed her to highlight her formidable experience. She argued the much-maligned “Russian reset” was successful for achieving a nuclear arms deal, sanctions on Iran, and agreements for Afghanistan under former President Dmitry Medevev. Today’s president, Vladimir Putin, she allowed, did “change the relationship.” While “applauding” the Obama administration, she called for more military action to counter Russia in Syria, including creating safe zones.

“It’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it's not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can't do that if we don't take more of a leadership position,” she said.

Sanders and O’Malley pointed out safe zones would need to be enforced, with the senator saying, “Let's understand that when we talk about Syria, you're talking about a quagmire in a quagmire.”

Clinton didn’t back down.

“Let me say — because there's a lot of loose talk going on here — we are already flying in Syria just as we are flying in Iraq,” she said later. “What I believe and why I have advocated that the no-fly zone — which of course would be in a coalition — be put on the table is because I'm trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table. You know, diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution. It's about how you balance the risks.”

The rest of the field’s national security credentials consist of Webb’s service as a decorated Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran, Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, and member of the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Veterans Affairs Committees. Chafee served on the Foreign Relations Committee. But Webb received poor marks even among liberal post-debate analysts for appearing brusque about his Vietnam combat experience rather than seizing the opportunity to gain leadership credibility points on Clinton.

Even while on defense at the center podium, Clinton demonstrated not only command of the subject, but the stage. Polls show, and the debate underscored, it’s still her race to lose.

In one exchange with Chafee, who has said Clinton should be “disqualified” because of her Iraq War vote, he said, “We just finished with the Vietnam era, we’re getting back into another quagmire … and you're looking at someone who made that poor decision in 2002.”

Clinton responded that after dozens of debates with Obama, he chose her for his first secretary of state, then turned to the “I was there” argument. “I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room,” she said, whether on the Osama bin Laden raid or building coalitions to back sanctions against Iran.

“Any time someone is running to be our leader, and a world leader, which the American president is, credibility is an issue,” Chafee continued. “I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president.”

Cooper asked Clinton if she wanted to respond.

“No,” she said.

The audience applauded.