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Pakistan replaced Iran as the preeminent foreign policy issue at the most recent Democratic presidential candidates' debate, held Thursday night in Nevada.
CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates how they'd respond to President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown on his political opponents in light of Pakistan's role as a key ally against al-Qaida, and then whether US national security interests should trump human rights.
Frontrunner Hillary Clinton, a New York senator, answered that "the first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America," a sentiment shared by Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, however, said human rights are sometimes more important than national security, while Illinois Senator Barack Obama replied that "the concepts are not contradictory" and that "if we simply prop up anti-democratic practices, that feeds the sense that America is only concerned about us and that our fates are not tied to these other folks, and that's going to make us less safe."
It was left to one of the members of the public allowed to ask questions to bring up Iran, which one woman did when she expressed concern that her son, back from three tours in Iraq, would be sent to fight "another unnecessary war," this time with Iran.
Delaware Senator Joe Biden said the way to avoid that was to "not ratchet up the winds of war" as he argued was done with a recent Senate resolution urging the government to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
Clinton, the only Democratic candidate who voted for the resolution, reiterated the defense of her vote that she has offered at several debates, saying, "I believe they are a terrorist group. I think sanctioning them and putting some pressure on them is an important part of getting to the diplomatic table with both carrots and sticks."
She also said that what "is most important is that we have aggressive diplomacy with Iran. I believe that the Bush administration has allowed this situation to worsen and fester because they won't have any diplomatic relations of any sort with Iran. So what I would do is to immediately begin that kind of negotiation."
That response didn't satisfy former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who described the IRGC vote as doing what "what Bush, Cheney and the neocons wanted... because it's part of their path to moving militarily on Iran."
He raised the specter of the faulty intelligence cited by the US government in the run-up to the Iraq war when he said that the administration had proceeded to designate the IRGC for helping terror groups as well as "the part everyone's going to love - a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction."
Obama said it was "a mistake" that he hadn't been present for the vote on the IRGC designation. He opposed the resolution, which also mentioned the IRGC's activity against American forces in Iraq, for giving the administration "an excuse to perpetuate their failed strategy in Iraq."
When a student asked the candidates how they would unite the country as the situation in the Middle East seems to be worsening and polarizing the American public, only Richardson mentioned Israel and the peace process.
He advocated a US envoy to the Middle East and "a two-state solution - protection for the security of Israel and a Palestinian state. I would also look at adjustments in the '67 borders. I would also look at dealing effectively and efficiently and fairly with the settlements issue, with Jerusalem.
"I would do something else. I would talk to Syria. I would talk to Iran," he continued, concluding, "It's all tied in a solution. It's called leadership and diplomacy. And to take these steps you have to be bold."
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