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As Sanders Chides Clinton on Regime Change, Is Democratic Front-Runner Touting a GOP Foreign Policy?

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley faced off Saturday in the third Democratic presidential debate. The candidates met just one day after the Sanders campaign sued the Democratic National Committee for blocking access to key voter data files. The DNC took action after a Sanders campaign staffer improperly viewed Clinton’s voter files, taking advantage of a glitch in the system. The Sanders campaign fired the staffer involved, and the DNC has restored access to the files. Sanders apologized for the breach during Saturday’s debate, which focused largely on foreign policy. Clinton and Sanders sparred over the role of the U.S. military, with Sanders accusing Hillary Clinton of being too quick to push for regime change overseas. We get analysis from two guests: Bill Curry, political columnist at and former White House counselor to President Clinton, and Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of several books, including “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley sparred Wednesday in the third Democratic debate. The candidates met just one day after the Sanders campaign sued the Democratic National Committee for blocking access to crucial voter data files. The DNC took the action after a Sanders campaign staffer improperly accessed Clinton’s voter files, taking advantage of a glitch in the system. The Sanders campaign fired the staffer involved, and the DNC has restored access to the files. During Saturday’s debate, Sanders apologized for the data breach.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton—and I hope we can work together on an independent investigation, from day one—I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run. And if I find anybody else involved in this, they will also be fired.

AMY GOODMAN: The incident highlighted a growing rift between the Democratic National Committee and Sanders and O’Malley. Both campaigns have accused the DNC of trying to help Clinton by limiting the number of debates and scheduling them on low-viewership periods like Saturday nights. According to Nielsen, just 6.7 million people tuned in to ABC Saturday, far less than the 18 million who watched Tuesday’s Republican debate on CNN. It was the second Democratic debate in a row held on a Saturday night. Ahead of the debate, Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs blasted the DNC for scheduling Saturday debates, saying, quote, “I guess Christmas Eve was booked.” The next Democratic debate is scheduled for Sunday, January 17, during the Martin Luther King Day three-day-long weekend.

Saturday’s debate focused largely on national security, foreign policy, gun control and economics. On the issue of gun control, Martin O’Malley accused both of his rivals of being part of the problem.

MARTIN O’MALLEY: ISIL videos, ISIL training videos, are telling lone wolves the easiest way to buy a combat assault weapon in America is at a gun show, and it’s because of the flip-flopping political approach of Washington that both of my two colleagues on this stage have represented there for the last 40 years.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

MARTIN O’MALLEY: We need commonsense gun safety legislation.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let’s calm down a little bit, Martin.

HILLARY CLINTON: Yeah, let’s get—let’s tell the—let’s tell the truth, Martin.

AMY GOODMAN: On the foreign policy front, Bernie Sanders accused Hillary Clinton of being too quick to push for regime change overseas.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Yeah, but there’s some difference of opinion with Secretary Clinton on this. Our differences are fairly deep on this issue. We disagreed on the war in Iraq. We both listened to the information from Bush and Cheney. I voted against the war.

But I think—and I say this with due respect—that I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be. Yes, we could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that destabilized the entire region. Yes, we could get rid of Gaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS. So I think, yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy. But before you do that, you’ve got to think about what happens the day after.

HILLARY CLINTON: Now, with all due respect, Senator, you voted for regime change with respect to Libya. You joined the Senate in voting to get rid of Gaddafi, and you asked that there be a Security Council validation of that with a resolution.

All of these are very difficult issues. I know that; I’ve been dealing with them for a long time. And, of course, we have to continue to do what is necessary when someone, like Gaddafi, a despot with American blood on his hands, is overturned. But I’ll tell you what would have happened. If we had not joined with our European partners and our Arab partners to assist the people in Libya, you would be looking at Syria. Now the Libyans are turning their attention to try to dislodge ISIS from its foothold and begin to try to move together to have a unified nation.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I was not the secretary of state.

DAVID MUIR: Senator Sanders—

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Saturday’s Democratic debate, we’re joined by two guests. Bill Curry, weekly political columnist at, Curry was a White House counselor to President Clinton and two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He’s now working on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism. He’s joining us from Hartford, Connecticut. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written a number of books, including, most recently, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.

Let’s begin with you, Phyllis. Can you respond to this latest clip and the overall debate that took place on Saturday night?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Amy, I think that what we’re seeing is an effort by all the candidates to distinguish from each other where they stand on issues of war and terrorism. And there’s some significant differences, but, unfortunately, I’m afraid the differences aren’t as significant as they need to be, if we were to have a really solid debate over this issue at the center of the Democratic primaries. So far, that has not been. It was the centerpiece of this debate, but the differences on economic issues are far more massive. The differences on domestic issues are far more massive than—and even some of the international issues, like trade and the environment, on climate, where there are vast differences between Secretary of State Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for instance, let alone Governor O’Malley.

On the question of war, we’re not seeing such vast disparities. There is a significance in the fact that Senator Sanders had opposed the war in Iraq—that was a strong position. Senator Clinton at the time, of course, had supported it. However, now, they’re both saying that we should go after ISIS using conventional military force. They both say troops on the ground that should not be American. Senator Sanders explicitly says they should be Saudi troops. Secretary Clinton doesn’t say exactly who they should be, just says they shouldn’t be American, they should be Muslim troops, as if that was going to somehow mean they were so effective. But both of them are saying, yes, we go after ISIS, and we go after the Assad regime. So, even Senator Sanders, unfortunately, is saying, yes, we want regime change. It’s just his difference with Senator—sorry, with Secretary Clinton is that he thinks those things should be sequential. He said, let’s concentrate on ISIS now, and then we can go after Assad. Clinton is saying, let’s go after both of them at the same time. It was left to Governor O’Malley to actually say—although he said, “I agree with both of them,” but then his own articulation of policy focused much more on issues of diplomacy, humanitarian support. And he had an interesting idea, that none of the others had mentioned, of making the head of USAID, the head of the assistance and development arm of the State Department, a separate Cabinet post, really elevating that, so elevating assistance and diplomacy over war. The two leading candidates—Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton—both were saying yes to war against ISIS, using conventional military force—bombing, drone strikes and air—ground troops that are not American—and they are both saying go after ISIS, differing on the timing of that.

The one significant difference was on the question of a no-fly zone. And here, Secretary Clinton really played out her well-known hawkishness, where she said we absolutely must have a no-fly zone, and as she put it, both for humanitarian purposes and to challenge Russia, because, of course, ISIS has no planes, al-Qaeda has no planes, so a no-fly zone is going to be targeting planes of either Russia or Iran or Syria, which means the U.S. going to war directly against the Syrian regime and potentially against Russia. So that kind of war talk from Secretary Clinton, when it was her own colleague in the Cabinet, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said, in the context of the Libya mobilization, which Secretary Clinton was leading—she was really the cheerleader on Libya. And it was at that time that the secretary of defense said, “Let’s be clear: A no-fly zone starts with going to war”—in that case, against Libya. What we know is that the anti-aircraft system of Libya hardly existed. And yet, he said, we would have to start with war. In Syria, the anti-aircraft system is a very developed system, which would take an enormous campaign, air campaign—and potentially more—to take out, as they call it, the anti-aircraft system in Libya, that would lead to the ability to impose a no-fly zone against Russian planes. It’s a very, very dangerous position that Secretary Clinton was talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curry, your overall assessment of the debate, and specifically on this issue?

BILL CURRY: Well, first of all, I agree with everything that was just said. I’d also point out, though, that Secretary Clinton, for instance, in a speech to the Foreign Affairs Council a few weeks ago, said—I’m closely paraphrasing—”I agree with President Obama that it isn’t time to send 100,000 troops into the Mideast.” And in point of fact, President Obama’s position is that it’s not time to send any troops in, even though there are some ground troops now, that he chooses to call special operatives. But his point is zero ground troops. The 100,000 figure, these kinds of things are never plucked out of the air. In the debate on Saturday night, Secretary Clinton said, “It’s not time to send tens of thousands.” Well, the most belligerent candidate in the race is Lindsey Graham, and he’s only for sending in 15,000. And so, you wish that the mainstream press did a little better job of parsing all this syntax, but I think that the only fair inference here is that Secretary Clinton is more than ready to take the position that Lindsey Graham is taking, holding down the right of the Republican debate. Her readiness—her apparent readiness to send in some ground troops, under whatever nomenclature, I think she’s made pretty clear.

The question of the no-fly zone, again, you have two countries here—Syria and Iraq—who have invited the Soviets into their airspace. We are not invited by either country to do that. It’s a violation of international law to establish this. And like the Republicans, the secretary doesn’t say, “Well, what do you do if the Russians fly anyway?” And, you know, as always, in all of these issues, what is the next—what happens then, when you’ve actually taken the first step toward war? And so, I really agree with what Phyllis said about what’s not being said here.

And let me just wind up with a couple of points. You’ve had the United Nations in Paris playing really an historic role on climate change just in these last few weeks. You see it taking the first steps on at least outlining a process toward a resolution of the civil war in Syria—not much in that case, but there’s something there. And the fact of the matter is that our safety lies not in the force of arms, but in the rule of law. And that it’s—if we’ve learned anything in the last 15 years, it is that the introduction of ground—of large standing armies and ground troops into these desert wars accomplishes nothing. We’ve seen the limitations of our military, not the reasons to keep growing it. We’ve seen what it can’t do in this fight. And above all, we have seen that our first commitment ought to be to the multilateral resolution of conflict in this world, that this is the end, really, of the age of unilateral military interventionism. And I know that for progressives, in particular, that you can be afraid that the moment you get up and say that, some right-wing yahoo is going to call you a sissy or a subversive, but it’s the truth, and it’s logic, and the facts all support it. And at some point, I think we have to take a greater—we have to have greater faith in the ability of the American people to hear it. This is the hard time. These are things we should have been saying for years. And it’s a hard time, I know, to raise these points, when people are at their most fearful, as they are, understandably, right now. But all the things being said in this debate fall far short of making this country safer or of solving the underlying problems.

And so, I was most struck also by what wasn’t in that debate. We need to talk about how you really resolve these kinds of conflicts and—if I could actually just throw in one last point—about their real roots. Bernie Sanders was right to talk about global warming. That’s not a security threat 50 years from now; it’s having an impact right this second across the world, and it is the greatest threat. And in terms of the roots of these problems, we don’t tell the American people our own history. We don’t tell them the history of interventionism, which has caused so much blowback throughout the world among developing countries. And we don’t tell them what’s happening right now. There’s this trope floating in the air that, you know, Sunnis and Shias have been fighting since the year 750. Not true. Sometimes they’ve fought, and sometimes they haven’t. In the last 40 years, the fighting has really picked up. Why is that? I would argue that part of this is the wages of global corporate capitalism today, that it does lift some people out of absolute poverty, no question, but it suppresses others. It throws people out of the middle class across the world, and it creates a permanent underclass—right now, in particular, of angry, aimless, hopeless young men. And whether it’s Dylann Roof in Charleston or the Tsarnaev brothers, what we’re seeing right now is a creation of this, what a British economist has called the precariat. And it really, really does threaten us. That notion that O’Malley touched on, that there are economic answers, that there is a question here that precedes all the stuff we’re talking about—in the words of an old adage, “If you want peace, work for justice”—that that has to be put on the table. We need to do that now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curry and Phyllis Bennis, I want to thank you for being with us. When we come back, we’re going to go to Burlington, Vermont, to speak with Sanders’ spokesperson, Symone Sanders, about the data breach, about the firing and suspension of staff members, and also about the lack of coverage of Bernie Sanders by the corporate media. Then we’ll come back to Bill Curry and Phyllis Bennis to continue this assessment of the debate that happened on Saturday night. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” by Pete Seeger. The FBI has just released nearly 1,800 pages of files on Pete Seeger, revealing how they spied on him for about three decades. That song that he sang first for Smothers Brothers was redacted by the networks, or it was cut out, and eventually, because of outcry, he was able to go on the network and sing. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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