Paris, Hillary, and the 3 a.m. phone call

     Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a point during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

    Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a point during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

    If Hillary Clinton hopes to sell herself as a foreign policy whiz and credible commander-in-chief, she’ll need to perform better than she did this weekend in response to the Paris attacks.

    What we wanted to hear from Hillary, in Saturday night’s debate, was a substantive strategy for stopping ISIS. We know what the Obama administration and its allies are doing, but clearly it’s not working too well. So what would she do differently, and more effectively?

    We never got an answer.

    Granted, her wobbly performance is probably just a speed bump on the road to the nomination. When she was paired with Bernie Sanders last week in a New York Times-CBS poll, 53 percent of Democratic primary voters said they were “very confident” of her ability to handle an international crisis; only 16 percent said the same about Bernie. And a focus group of undecided Iowa Democrats, convened after Saturday night’s debate, were favorably swayed by her answers on terrorism.

    So when I use the word “we,” I’m referring to swing voters in a general election. If the ISIS crisis is still hot in autumn ’16, she may need to demonstrate more persuasively how she’d handle that proverbial 3 a.m. phone call. Because what she said Saturday night was seriously underwhelming.

    When she was asked whether the Obama team (including her) had underestimated ISIS, she replied:

    “Well, John I think that — we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained, it must be defeated. There is no question in my mind that if we summon our resources, both our leadership resources and all of the tools at our disposal, not just military force, which should be used as a last resort, but our diplomacy, our development aid, law enforcement, sharing of intelligence in a much more open and cooperative way — that we can bring people together.”

    Note that she never answered the question. (And, yikes, did she say that we’re still not sharing intelligence in an open and cooperative way? What’s up with that?) Moderator John Dickerson followed up by asking again whether the Obama team has underestimated ISIS — but again she didn’t answer it. Instead she heaped general blame on Iraq and Syria “and the region itself.”

    But in the midst of her responses, she did address the Obama administration’s current ISIS strategy:

    “It cannot be an American fight. And I think what the president has consistently said — which I agree with — is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS. That is why we have troops in Iraq that are helping to train and build back up the Iraqi military, why we have special operators in Syria working with the Kurds and Arabs so that we can be supportive. But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.”

    I had problems with that.

    She basically endorsed the current strategy that doesn’t seem to be working well (if the slaughter of “soft target” Parisians is any indication), instead of proposing something substantively different. It’s conceivable that she does have new ideas, and that she’s hiding them for the moment because she doesn’t want to risk a public breach with Obama that would tick off antiwar Iowa Democrats, but that’s the most charitable spin I can offer. Mostly because her overall responses lacked clarity.

    On the one hand, “This cannot be an American fight.” On the other hand, “American leadership is essential.” On the other other hand, “I don’t think the United States has the bulk of responsibility” for what has happened in the region, which apparently means that we don’t have the bulk of responsibility to fix what’s gone amiss.

    Later, moderator Dickerson zapped her with a tough question: “You gave a speech at Georgetown University in which you said that it was important to show ‘respect even for one’s enemy. Trying to understand, and in so far as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.’ Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism [in Paris]?”

    Her response was probably more revealing than she intended. I’ll highlight the key phrases:

    “I think with this kind of barbarism and nihilism — it’s very hard to understand other than the lust for power, the rejection of modernity, the total disregard for human life — freedom or any other value that we know and respect. Historically it is important to try to understand your adversary in order to figure out how they are thinking, what they will be doing, how they will react. I plead that it’s very difficult when you deal with ISIS and organizations like that whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power. And that’s very difficult, to put ourselves in other shoes.”

    Translation: She’s flummoxed by this enemy. Not the best creds for an aspiring commander-in-chief.

    Fortunately for her, the competition is worse. Bernie Sanders, in his opening remarks, gave Paris and ISIS a grand total of two sentences — before seguing into our “rigged economy” and its “millionaires and billionaires.” Soon after, he basically said that even though ISIS is bad, global warming is worse (because the latter will cause terrorism in, like, a few generations). And as for Martin O’Malley, he was self-contradictory and vaporous: “This actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight …. Our role in the world is to make ourselves the beacon of hope. Make ourselves stronger at home, but also our role in the world, yes, is also to confront evil when it rises.”

    As for the Republican frontrunners, I won’t bother to parse their weekend bromides. Foreign policy scholar Ben Carson talked about putting “boots on the ground,” and Donald Trump said Paris wouldn’t have happened if the concert-goers and cafe habituees had packed heat. Lower in the pack, Joe McCarthy descendant Ted Cruz declared that “Barack Obama does not want to defend this country.” (That I did not know!)  Indeed, none of the Republicans (except Lindsey Graham, who’s polling at zero percent) have foreign policy experience, and none of them have a clue what to do differently on the military front (except use tougher rhetoric and crack down on Syrian refugees).

    All told, Hillary has plenty of time to prove that her international creds are real — and not just lines on a resume.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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