Challenged about past remarks on the need to “respect” and “empathize” with enemies, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last night’s Democratic debate conceded it was “very difficult to put ourselves in others’ shoes” when those others were the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
CBS News debate moderator John Dickerson had asked Clinton about comments in a Georgetown University speech “in which you said that it was important to show, quote, ‘respect even for one’s enemy. Trying to understand and – insofar 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?” he asked, in reference to Friday’s deadly terror attacks in Paris.
“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 rights, freedom or any other value that we know and respect,” Clinton replied.
“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,” she continued.
“I plead that it’s very difficult when you deal with ISIS and organizations like that, whose– whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power,” she said. “And that’s very difficult to put ourselves in others’ shoes.”
‘This is what we call smart power’
Clinton’s remarks in the December 2014 Georgetown University speech cited by Dickerson were made in the context of negotiations with Islamist separatists in the southern Philippines.
Arguing for the value of women leading peace negotiations, Clinton cited an example of such a conflict-resolution effort. Efforts to end a long insurgency by Muslim separatists in the Philippines had proved fruitless until “two strong women” took over the negotiations, “made inclusivity their mantra,” and helped to broker a peace deal, she said.
“This is what we call smart power – using every possible tool and partner to advance peace and security, leaving no-one on the sidelines, showing respect, even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and – insofar as psychologically possible – empathize with their perspective and point of view, helping to define the problems, determine the solutions.
“That is what we believe in the 21st century will change, change the prospects for peace.”
The “enemies” referred to in her example were Islamists of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), whose violent, four-decade campaign cost more than 120,000 lives, and displaced some two million people. A peace deal was signed in early 2014.
During more than a decade of stop-start peace talks, MILF fighters periodically violated ceasefires, carrying out bombings and attacking Christian-majority towns.
An American Christian missionary was among the 22 people killed in one 2003 airport bombing attributed by the government to the MILF.
Soon after the airport attack, MILF gunmen using rocket-propelled grenades killed five people, including a six year-old child, in a dawn attack on a Christian town. Elsewhere in the same area, Christian passengers on a bus stopped by MILF gunmen were singled out for their inability to speak the local Muslim dialect. Police said six of them were shot dead.
That same year, then U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone warned the MILF to stop collaborating with the al-Qaeda-affiliate behind the Bali bombings, or risk being designated a foreign terrorist organization.
Five years later, MILF was still carrying out deadly terror attacks, with Christians among those being shot and hacked to death.
(The Philippines ceasefire was shattered last January – a year after the peace accord touted by Clinton was signed – when 44 Philippine commandos and 18 militants were killed in a clash with MILF fighters after raiding a rebel hideout to find, and kill, a Malaysian bomb-maker wanted by the U.S.)
A few days after Clinton’s Georgetown speech, Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on ISIS, and was asked about his predecessor’s remarks on empathizing with enemies. He defended her.
“Do you believe as secretary of state that a key solution to our enemies such as ISIS and al-Qaeda is, quote, showing respect and, quote, empathizing with their perspective and point of view?” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked Kerry.
“I don’t think she was referring – I’m confident, I know she was not referring to a group like Da’esh,” Kerry replied, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“I think in terms of what she meant, there’s no question in my mind she was referring to those out there with whom we are not actively fighting or engaged in a war but who are behaving in ways that are clearly opposed to our interests,” he continued, and then went on to suggest she may have been talking about dealing with adversaries like Russia.
“I mean, we have a lot of tensions right now with Russia,” Kerry said. It was important when dealing with Russian actions in Ukraine and elsewhere to examine its “posturing and where it comes from.”
In Saturday’s debate, Clinton declined to characterize the enemy as “radical Islam.”
Asked whether she agreed with GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio’s assertion that “we are at war with radical Islam,” she said, “I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists who have –“
Dickerson interjected, “He didn’t say all Muslims. He just said ‘radical Islam.’ Is that a phrase you don’t –?”
“I think that you can – you can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists,” Clinton said. “But I think it’s – it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that Senator [Bernie] Sanders was just making, that I agree with, that we’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries. We’ve got to have them be part of our coalition.”