Hillary Clinton’s flapping of her hawkish wings only intensifies the pressure on President Barack Obama to escalate US military involvement in the sectarian wars of Iraq and Syria. Domestic political considerations already are a major factor in forcing Obama to “do something” to save the Yazidis, avert “another Benghazi” and double down in the undeclared Long War against Islamic fundamentalism.
Clinton certainly was correct in arguing that Obama’s statement “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle of US foreign policy. Instead of offering a new foreign policy, based for example on democracy, economic development and renewable energy, however, Clinton lapsed into the very Cold War thinking she once questioned in the sixties. America’s long war on jihadi terrorism should be modeled on the earlier Cold War against communism, Clinton said. We made “mistakes,” supported many “nasty guys,” did “some things we’re not proud of,” but the Cold War ended in American triumph with “the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism.”
Ignoring the new cold wars with Russia and China, Clinton’s nostalgic vision is sure to be widely accepted among Americans, including many Democrats. She ignores, or may not even be familiar with, the actual Long War doctrine quietly promulgated during the past eight years by national security gurus like David Kilcullen, the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. Put simply, the Long War theorists have projected an eighty-year military conflict with militant Islam over an “arc of crisis” spanning multiple Muslim countries. Starting with 9/11, the Long War would continue through twenty presidential terms. In Kilcullen’s thesis, Iraq is only a “small war” within a larger one. Since a war of such duration could never be declared officially, the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) stands as its feeble underlying justification.
Obama has made cautious attempts to separate himself from the Long War doctrine and even seeks to narrow or revisit the AUMF. But Obama has never named and or criticized the doctrine, presumably for fear of being accused of going soft in the “War on Terrorism.” Obama’s true foreign policy leaning is revealed in his repeated desire to “do some nation building here at home,” which many hawks view as a retreat from America’s imperial role. They prefer, in Clinton’s words, the posture of “aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward” rather than being “down on yourself.”
While expanding US drone attacks, intervening in Libya and Yemen, and now escalating again in Iraq, Obama has emphasized another foreign policy direction that is disturbing to hawks. Obama repeatedly argues that “there is no military solution” to the very wars he has engaged in, or tried to disengage from. That rational observation apparently is too “radical” for a government with the largest military in the world.
Clinton thinks the better approach is a little more muscular intervention—arming the Syrian rebels, for example—combined with some “soft power” on the ground. Thus far she hasn’t had to address the issue faced by President John Kennedy, that a little escalation is like the first drink to an alcoholic who inevitably wants another. Nor has she addressed the failures of “soft power” from the Phoenix Program in South Vietnam to the counterinsurgency projects in Afghanistan. Does anyone even remember Gen. McChrystal wowing the press with his promise to drop a “government in a box” into Helmand Province after clearing the place of Taliban fighters?