MANCHESTER, N.H., (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton backed elements of President Barack Obama’s strategy to fight Islamic State militants in a debate on Saturday, drawing criticism from all sides for saying “we now finally are where we need to be” in Syria.
Top rival Bernie Sanders accused Clinton of being too quick to push for regime change, while Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, said the former secretary of state was too willing to cede U.S. policy to other countries.
The debate was the Democrats’ first since the deadly Dec. 2 attack by a pair of radicalized Muslims in San Bernardino, California, which along with the November attacks in Paris elevated national security to the top of the campaign agenda.
Obama has relied heavily on U.S. air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, and has deployed dozens of special operations troops to northern Syria to advise opposition forces. In Iraq, about 3,500 U.S. troops are assisting Iraqi forces.
Like Obama, Clinton backs the use of special forces but says a large deployment of U.S. ground forces in the Middle East would be counterproductive.
“We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS,” she said, noting a U.N. Security Council resolution had brought “the world together to go after a political transition in Syria.”
That drew a quick response from Republican candidates, who seized the opportunity to tie Clinton to a Syria strategy that has yielded few tangible gains to date.
Fiorina, a former technology executive, said Clinton is too willing to rely on U.N resolutions rather than acting unilaterally. “It’s what ‘leading from behind’ is, I guess,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“No, Hillary Clinton, we are not ‘where we need to be’ in fight against ISIS,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wrote on Twitter during the debate. Hours later, his campaign released a video contrasting her comments with TV footage of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks.