It’s not exactly surprising news, but The Wall Street Journal reported Friday morning that Hillary Clinton is leaning towards a much more interventionist foreign policy than Barack Obama, should she become president:
Private meetings that she’s held with various foreign-policy experts offer some hints as to how she might part ways with President Barack Obama when it comes to crises in Ukraine, Syria and other global trouble spots. The major takeaway from these private talks is that she wants a strategy more suited to shaping conditions overseas, as opposed to reacting to events as they arise, people familiar with the meetings said.…
“She’s much less risk-averse” than Mr. Obama, said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars who has taken part in Mrs. Clinton’s foreign-policy briefings. [Emphasis added.]
It can be exhausting to funnel important policy debates through endless Hillary speculation, but the fact is she’s an avatar for where the party is headed. Much of the Democratic establishment hopes she’ll be the presidential nominee, and even more of it thinks she will be.
Yet a foreign policy with clear echoes of neoconservatism—pre-emptively shaping events overseas, with less reluctance to use military force—isn’t in line with many elected Democrats nor most Democratic voters. And while the effort to draft Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race is aimed at ensuring Clinton respects the more populist wing of the party on economic issues, no such effort of that scale yet exists on the foreign policy side.
It’s strange, because restrained, diplomatic foreign policy is fertile political ground in the Democratic Party. Just in recent days, many congressional Democrats, from the ranking members of the House Intelligence and Senate Judiciary committees to the entire Progressive Caucus, have opposed Obama’s proposed war authorization against ISIS because they feel it is too broad. Democratic opposition in Congress helped scuttle a 2013 vote Obama sought that would allow strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and this is an area where Clinton has explicitly said Obama still wasn’t aggressive enough. Even dating back to Obama’s first term, congressional Democrats—including all but eight Democratic members of the House—were urging Obama to withdraw more rapidly from Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal report says Clinton’s advisers feel the public is moving away from war-weariness and is ready to embrace more aggressive US intervention again, and cites a NBC/WSJ poll that shows 56 percent of the public disapproves of Obama’s foreign policy.
But looking at the polls when broken down by party identification, it’s hard to find Democratic voters rejecting Obama’s foreign policy course. Fox News released a poll this week showing that among Democrats, Obama has a 71 percent approval rate on foreign policy, and the same level of support for his approach to terrorism. Fox News also asked this rather weighted question: “The Obama administration says the United States is pursuing a strategy in the Middle East that relies mainly on diplomacy and alliances rather than decisive military force. Does this sound more like a serious attempt to address the problem with Islamic extremists or a half-hearted attempt?” Fifty-two percent of Democrats still said serious, while 41 percent answered that it was half-hearted.
Democrats simply aren’t eager to depart from Obama’s foreign policy approach in favor of a more aggressive posture. Perhaps Hillary can convince them. But it’s eminently clear the party should at least have a serious debate about a more hawkish stance, and among possible presidential candidates, there seem to be few options that could make it happen.
Warren offers no discernible difference from Clinton’s foreign policy. Former Senator Jim Webb is a deep skeptic of military interventions, but until further notice he’s a non-factor that remains unknown to much of the public. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is considering a run, opposes Obama’s AUMF as too broad and generally sketches out more careful foreign policy vision. But he is polling in the low single digits, and the cornerstone of his political persona is economic populism. Beyond that, none of the rumored Democratic candidates seem positioned or even willing to challenge Clinton from the left on foreign policy.
There is some hope outside the 2016 field—Senator Chris Murphy has reportedly been arguing behind the scenes that the party needs a more credible progressive foreign policy vision, and in recent days he’s gone public with that appeal. He told Buzzfeed, “Progressives have been adrift on foreign policy and it means presidential candidates don’t feel a lot of pressure to move away from the right-wing orthodoxy.”
It’s a noble effort to be sure, considering where the center of the party actually lies. But the timeframe for success is short—once a president enters the White House, there’s very wide latitude for executing whatever foreign policy vision he or she chooses, and Clinton is starting to make her plans clear.