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Parties diverge on foreign policy in age of renewed terrorism

As the holiday season brings a brief break in presidential politics, the final party debates of 2015 have left the voters to ponder how differently the Republican and Democratic candidates' propose to meet the terrorist threat facing the nation.

On the Republican stage, with the exception of isolationist Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the White House aspirants insisted that President Barack Obama has failed to recognize the scope of the peril posed by the Islamic State and that he lacks the personal fortitude and resolve to defeat, not merely contain, it. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas went so far in the debate as to reiterate his desire to carpet bomb territory held by the militant group.

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The three debating Democrats — Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland — while also speaking of the urgency of the task, generally defended the president of their party, though with caveats.

Ms. Clinton pointedly said her goal was "to defeat, not contain," the enemy, but she agreed with Mr. Obama's strategy that both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar Assad must be joint targets. "I wish it could be either/or," she said, arguing that for Mr. Assad to remain in power would prolong the civil war morass in Syria, which has allowed the Islamic State terrorists to establish a haven.

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But Mr. Sanders countered: "It is not Assad who is attacking the United States. It is ISIS, and ISIS is attacking France and attacking Russian airlines. The major priority, right now, in terms of our foreign and military policy should be the destruction of ISIS."

Mr. O'Malley chimed in, joining Mr. Paul, who in the previous Republican debate had lambasted the George W. Bush policy of "regime change" in invading Iraq. Why should we, Mr. O'Malley asked, "be the ones saying Assad must go?"

Ms. Clinton did, however, differ with Mr. Obama in advocating a no-fly zone over Syria to create a safe zone there for refugees from the Islamic State. But she strongly supported the president against putting American ground troops in force into Syria. Doing so, she said, would be "a strategic mistake," because the Islamic State leaders "want American soldiers on the ground fighting them, giving them many more targets and giving them a great recruiting opportunity."

In a comment that immediately drew Republican attack, Ms. Clinton observed: "We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS ... and we finally have a U.N. Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria."

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She also argued "we will not get the support on the ground in Syria to dislodge ISIS if the fighters there who are not associated with ISIS, but whose principal goal is getting rid of Assad, don't believe there is a political, diplomatic channel that is ongoing" to achieve that objective.

The Republicans in their year-end debate concentrated on their very negative view of Mr. Obama's leadership in the fight against terrorism. The Democrats attacked what they see as the opposition party's greater current vulnerability: Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and his focus on the public anger and fear generated by the new terrorism.

The Democrats seem to take comfort in the opposition party's quandary over its bombastic frontrunner, who they see as their ticket to another four years in the Oval Office. But with the re-emergence of terrorism as the issue most on American minds, amid a world suddenly more vulnerable, there's no telling the outcome.

Jeb Bush, struggling to be relevant in the whole equation, has continued to lead the anti-Trump sentiment among the Republican establishment, calling the celebrity candidate "a jerk." But the comment only came off as another mild drawing-room rebuke from a gentleman against a street-corner brawler.

Mr. Trump's embrace of Russian boss Vladimir Putin, with the implication that he as the master deal-maker could hold his own with the Kremlin, may make him more appealing than ever to voters who see him as the answer to business as usual in a malfunctioning, divided Washington.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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