Since it’s foreign policy week this week, with President Obama delivering a major speech on Wednesday at West Point, Christie Watch will spend the next few days looking at the foreign policy views of the various 2016 candidates, starting today with the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
When it comes to Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, start first by disentangling the nonsense about Benghazi—a nonexistent scandal if ever there was one—from the broader palette of Clinton’s own, relatively hawkish views. As she consolidates her position as the expected nominee in 2016, with wide leads over all the likely GOP challengers, it ought to worry progressives that the next president of the United States is likely to be much more hawkish than the current one. Expect to be deluged, in the next few weeks, with news about Hard Choices, the memoir of her years as secretary of state under President Obama, to be released June 10.
But we don’t need a memoir to know that, comparatively speaking, two things can be said about her tenure at the State Department: first, that in fact she accomplished very little; and second, that both before her appointment and during her service, she consistently came down on the hawkish side of debates inside the administration, from Afghanistan to Libya and Syria. She’s also taken a more hawkish line than Obama on Ukraine and the confrontation with Russia.
In the brief excerpt that’s been released by her publisher, Clinton notes that as secretary of state she “ended up visiting 112 countries and traveling nearly one million miles.” But what, if anything, did she accomplish with all that to-ing and fro-ing? Not a lot. She largely avoided the Israel-Palestine tangle, perhaps because she didn’t want to risk crossing the Israel lobby at home, and it’s hard to see what she actually did, other than to promote the education and empowerment of girls and women in places where they are severely beaten down. And, while it’s wrong (and really silly) to call Clinton a neoconservative, she’s more of—how to put it?—a “right-wing realist” on foreign policy, who often backed military intervention as a first or second resort, while others in the White House—especially Obama’s national security staff and Vice President Biden’s own aides, were far more reluctant to employ the troops.
In that vein, it’s useful to explore the memoirs of Robert Gates, who was secretary of defense under George W. Bush and then, inexplicably, under President Obama, too. In Duty: Memoir of a Secretary at War (which could also be the subtitle of Clinton’s own memoir), Gates says several times that he and Clinton saw eye to eye. (This has also been extensively documented by Bob Woodward, if more narrowly focused, in his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars.) In Duty, Gates says that he formed an alliance with Clinton because both he and her had independent power bases and were, in his words, “un-fireable”:
Commentators were observing that in an administration where all power and decision making were gravitating toward the White House, Clinton and I represented the only independent “power center”, not least because…we were both seen as “unfire-able.” [page 289]
Gates confirms that he and Clinton lined up with the hawks against the doves on Afghanistan:
The Obama foreign policy team was splintering. [Joe] Biden, his chief of staff, [Rahm] Emanuel, some of the National Security Council staff, and probably all of the president’s White House political advisers were on a different page with respect to Afghanistan than Clinton, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] Mullen, [Dennis] Blair, and me. [page 350]
And Gates says that on the crucial decision to escalate the Afghan war in 2009 and then to slow the drawdown in 2010, he and Clinton were on the same side:
Yet again the president had mostly come down on Hillary’s and my side. And yet again the process was ugly and contentious, reaffirming that the split in Obama’s team over Afghanistan, after two years in office, was still very real and very deep. [page 502]
And, says Gates (page 587), Obama’s efforts to centralize foreign policy decision-making inside the White House “offended Hillary Clinton as much as it did me.”
As The Nation noted in 2013, just before the November 2012 election—after Gates had left the administration and was replaced by Leon Panetta—Clinton joined Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus and the military in proposing that the United States go to war in Syria. (That the United States didn’t act more aggressively in Syria back then was entirely due to President Obama’s decision to resist Clinton and the other hawks.)
And, more famously, Clinton—joined by several other administration officials, including Samantha Power and Susan Rice—pushed hard, and successfully, for the United States to go to war in Libya. For Republicans who’ve endlessly waved the bloody flag of Benghazi, Clinton’s hawkish view on Libya contradicts much of the nonsense they go on about. But for progressives, it’s an ugly blot on Clinton’s résumé. Not only did the war in Libya go far to inflame Russian nationalism, it also created a terrible vacuum in North Africa, toppling Muammar Qaddafi but leaving hundreds of armed militias in his stead, creating chaos and anarchy. (And, because the war against Qaddafi followed the Libyan leader’s decision to forgo a nuclear arms program, it also sent the wrong message to Iran, namely, give up your nuclear program and we’ll attack you anyway.)
In their book about Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, HRC, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes don’t provide much insight into Clinton’s role as maker of foreign policy decisions, preferring to concentrate far too much on the politics of the Clinton people vs. the Obama people. But they do suggest that there was far more tension between the White House and the State Department under Clinton than is usually cited. For instance, they write:
Many of the White House aides saw the Clinton network as part of a bipartisan Washington foreign policy establishment that kept getting it wrong. [page 143]
As background, Allen and Parnes note that Clinton’s relationship with Gates was founded in part on the fact that both Clinton and Gates backed Barry Goldwater in 1964—Clinton was a “Goldwater Girl”—and that Gates took note of the fact that Clinton, as senator from New York, “had made friends with a number of high-level flag officers—three- and four-star generals and admirals—during her time on Armed Services.” She was, Gates noted, “an ardent advocate of a strong military” and “believed in all forms of American power, including force.” As important decisions were imminent during the Obama administration, Allen and Parnes quote a “high-ranking Pentagon source” who says:
[Gates and Clinton] often compared notes in advance of some of those meetings to find common ground to allow them to influence or drive the direction of policy on a given issue.
In its summary of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, The New York Times suggests that even Clinton herself has a hard time deciding what her real accomplishments were, noting that she “seemed flustered” when asked about it at a public forum. In the end, the way she responded was, well, meaningless:
“I really see my role as secretary, and, in fact, leadership in general in a democracy, as a relay race,” Mrs. Clinton finally said at the Women in the World meeting, promising to offer specific examples in a memoir she is writing that is scheduled to be released in June. “I mean, you run the best race you can run, you hand off the baton.”
But the Times adds that, after countless interviews, it is clear that Clinton was the administration’s hawk:
But in recent interviews, two dozen current and former administration officials, foreign diplomats, friends and outside analysts described Mrs. Clinton as almost always the advocate of the most aggressive actions considered by Mr. Obama’s national security team—and not just in well-documented cases, like the debate over how many additional American troops to send to Afghanistan or the NATO airstrikes in Libya.
Mrs. Clinton’s advocates—a swelling number in Washington, where people are already looking to the next administration—are quick to cite other cases in which she took more hawkish positions than the White House: arguing for funneling weapons to Syrian rebels and for leaving more troops behind in postwar Iraq, and criticizing the results of a 2011 parliamentary election in Russia.
And the Times quotes Dennis Ross, the pro-Israel advocate who worked for both Clinton and for the White House on Iran: “It’s not that she’s quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power.”
Since leaving office, Clinton has gone out of her way to sound more hawkish than Obama on a range of issues, including expressing skepticism on the negotiations with Iran. Some observers say that it’s just politics, and that Clinton is positioning herself for 2016. Maybe so. But it sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton is just being, well, Hillary Clinton.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss questions Obama’s “Goldilocks” approach to foreign policy.