Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gesture during the second Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, IO on Nov. 14, 2015.
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images
By Tessa Berenson
November 15, 2015

With the shadow of the Paris terror attacks looming over Saturday night’s Democratic debate, the three candidates quickly turned to debating the past and future of America’s involvement in the Middle East.

The topic began when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders traced the rise of ISIS back to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War when she was a senator from New York. “I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive instability we’re seeing right now,” Sanders said. “I think it was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States.”

“I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake,” Clinton conceded, but was also on the defensive about the context of acts of terror against the United States. “I think it’s important we put this in historic context,” she said. “The United States has unfortunately been victimized by terrorism going back decades… I think if we’re ever really going to tackle the problems posed by jihadi extreme terrorism, we need to understand it and realize that it has antecedents to what happened in Iraq.”

Sanders broadened his conflict with Clinton beyond her vote for the Iraq War. “If you look at history… you will find that… these invasions, these toppling of governments, regime changes, have unintended consequences. I would say that on this issue I’m a little bit more conservative than the Secretary, and I am not a big fan of regime changes.”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley then jumped in, arguing that the United States needs better intelligence and planning on the ground in the Middle East. “It’s not just about getting rid of a single dictator,” he said. “It is about understanding the secondary and third consequences that fall next.”

“I don’t think you can paint with a broad brush,” Clinton said. “This is an incredibly complicated region of the world.”

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