Hillary Clinton is running for president not only on her record as secretary of state, but also by presenting herself as tougher than Barack Obama on foreign-policy issues. With this stance, she presumably plans to distance herself from a president increasingly branded as “weak” in his approach to international issues, and to appeal to the supposedly more hawkish instincts of much of the electorate.
It is therefore necessary to ask a number of related questions, the answers to which are of crucial importance not just to the likely course of a hypothetical Clinton administration, but to the future of the United States in the world. These questions concern her record as secretary of state and her attitudes, as well as those of the US foreign-policy and national-security elites as a whole. They are also linked to an even deeper and more worrying question: whether the country’s political elites are still capable of learning from their mistakes and changing their policies accordingly. I was brought up to believe that this is a key advantage of democracy over other systems. But it can’t happen without a public debate—and hence mass media—founded on rational argument, a respect for facts, and an insistence that officials take responsibility for evidently disastrous decisions.
The difficulties that a Democratic politician must overcome in designing a foreign and security policy capable of meeting the needs of the age are admittedly legion. These include US foreign-policy and national-security institutions that are bloated beyond measure and spend most of their time administering themselves and quarreling with one another; the weakness of the cabinet system, which encourages these institutions and means that decisions are constantly thrown in the lap of the president and a White House staff principally obsessed with the next election; an increasing political dysfunction at home, partly as a result of the unrelenting American electoral cycle; a Republican opposition that is positively feral in its readiness to use any weapon against a Democratic White House; a corporate media that, when not working for the Republicans directly, is all too willing to help turn minor issues into perceived crises; and problems in some parts of the world (notably the Middle East and Afghanistan) that are indeed of a hideous complexity.
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Even more important and difficult than any of these problems may be the fact that designing a truly new and adequate strategy would require breaking with some fundamental American myths—myths that have been strengthened by many years of superpower status but that go back much further, to the very roots of American civic nationalism. These myths, above all, depict the United States as—in one of Clinton’s favorite phrases—the “indispensable nation,” innately good (if sometimes misguided), with the right and duty to lead humankind and therefore, when necessary, to crush any opposition.
It is the strength and centrality of these nationalist myths that have prevented our elites and the American public from learning or remembering the lessons of Vietnam—a failure that helped pave the way for the disaster of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the consequences of which are still unfolding in the Middle East today. And as Clinton’s entire record—all her writings and all the writings about her—show, she has made herself a captive of those nationalist myths beyond any possibility of escape. As she asserts in her new book, Hard Choices:
Everything that I have done and seen has convinced me that America remains the “indispensable nation.” I am just as convinced, however, that our leadership is not a birthright. It must be earned by every generation.
And it will be—so long as we stay true to our values and remember that, before we are Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, or any of the other labels that divide us as often as define us, we are Americans, all with a personal stake in our country.
It’s the same old nationalist solipsism: all we have to do is stick together and talk more loudly to ourselves about how wonderful we are, and the rest of the world will automatically accept our “leadership.” This is not a case—as has sometimes appeared with Obama—of a naturally cool and skeptical intellect forced to bow to the emotions of the masses. To all appearances, Clinton’s nationalism is a matter of profound conviction.
And let us be fair: this may help to get her elected president. Once she is, however, it is likely to constrain drastically her ability to shape a foreign policy appropriate to the new circumstances of the United States and the world. Above all, perhaps, it hampers her ability to learn from the past, and from her own and America’s mistakes—a defect blazingly on display in her latest memoir. Instead, even when (on very rare occasions) she does make the briefest and most formal acknowledgment of a US crime or error, it is immediately followed by the infamous statement that we must put this behind us and “move on.” This phrase is dear not only to Clinton, but to the foreign-policy establishment as a whole. It makes any serious analysis of the past impossible.
Of course, one hardly looks for great honesty or candor in what is, in effect, election propaganda—and one must always keep in mind the presence of a Republican Party and media ready to tear into even the slightest appearance of “apologizing for America.” Nonetheless, a passage early in the book did give me hope that it would contain at least some serious discussion of past US mistakes and their lessons for future policy. It concerned what Clinton acknowledges as her own greatest error—the decision to vote for the Iraq War:
As much as I might have wanted to, I could never change my vote on Iraq. But I could try to help us learn the right lessons from that war and apply them to Afghanistan and other challenges where we had fundamental security interests. I was determined to do exactly that when facing future hard choices, with more experience, wisdom, skepticism, and humility.
Neither in her book nor in her policy is there even the slightest evidence that she has, in fact, tried to learn from Iraq beyond the most obvious lesson—the undesirability of US ground invasions and occupations, which even the Republicans have managed to learn. For Clinton herself helped to launch US airpower to topple another regime, this one in Libya—and, as in Iraq, the results have been anarchy, sectarian conflict and opportunities for Islamist extremists that have destabilized the entire region. She then helped lead the United States quite far down the road of doing the same thing in Syria.
Clinton tries to argue in the book that she took a long, hard look at the Libyan opposition before reporting to the president her belief that “there was a reasonable chance the rebels would turn out to be credible partners”—but however long she looked, it is now obvious that she got it wrong. She has simply not understood the fragility of states—states, not regimes—in many parts of the world, the risk that “humanitarian intervention” will bring about state collapse, and the inadequacy of a crude and simplistic version of democracy promotion as a basis for state reconstruction. It does not help that the US record on democracy promotion and the rule of law—including Clinton’s own record—is so spotted that very few people outside the country take it seriously anymore.
Her book manages simultaneously to repeat the claim that the United States and its allies were only enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya and to try to take personal credit for destroying the Libyan regime. And she wonders why other countries do not entirely trust her or America’s honesty! There is also no recognition whatsoever in her book that those who opposed US military action were in fact right and not “despicable,” to use her phrase about Russian opposition to the US military intervention in Syria. Nor has her disastrous record on Iraq led her to take a more sensible stance toward Iran. On the contrary, in her anxiety to appear more hawkish than Obama, she has clearly aligned with those who would make a nuclear deal with Iran impossible and therefore leave the United States in the ridiculous and unsustainable position of trying to contain all the major forces in the Middle East simultaneously.
This kind of nationalist faith in American strength and American righteousness is no longer adequate to the challenges the country faces. Above all, such a faith makes it impossible to deal with other nations on a basis of equality—not only on global issues or those of great interest to Washington, but on issues that other countries regard as vital to their own interests.
This also makes it far more difficult for US officials to do what Hans Morgenthau declared is both a practical and moral duty of statesmen: through close study, to develop a capacity to put themselves in the shoes of the representatives of other countries—not in order to agree with them but to understand what is really important to them, the interests on which they will be able to compromise and those for which they will feel compelled to fight. Clinton displays not a shred of this ability in her book.
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The greatest future challenge in this respect is our relations with China. The arrogance with which Washington treats other countries is at least understandable given that none of them are or are likely to be equals of the United States—though some, like Russia, can often compete successfully in their own regions. China is another matter. If, as now seems all but certain, its economy soon surpasses that of the United States, then on issues of interest to Beijing, it will indeed demand to be treated as an equal—and if Washington fails to do so, it will propel the two sides toward terrifying confrontations.
In terms of the day-to-day conduct of relations with Beijing, Clinton had a generally good record as secretary of state—though in this, she was following what has generally been a restrained policy by both political parties. But if Clinton’s day-to-day record was pragmatic, her long-term strategy may prove disastrous. This was the Obama administration’s decision—in which she was instrumental—to “pivot to Asia.” As Clinton’s writings make clear, “pivot” means the containment of China through the enhancement of existing military alliances in East Asia and the development of new ones (especially with India). This strategy is at present reasonably cautious and somewhat veiled, but if Chinese power continues to grow, and if collisions between China and some of its neighbors intensify, then a containment strategy will inevitably become harsher—with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This is not simply a case of a knee-jerk US reaction to the rise of a potential peer competitor. Some of China’s policies have helped to provoke the new strategy and also enabled it by driving China’s neighbors into America’s arms. This is above all true of Beijing’s territorial claims to various groups of uninhabited islands in the East and South China seas. While some of its claims seem reasonably well founded, others have no basis in international law and tradition; and by pushing all of them at once, Beijing has frightened most of its neighbors and created real fears that in East Asia, at least, its “peaceful rise” strategy has been abandoned.
But if aspects of China’s strategy have been aggressive, that does not necessarily make the US response to them wise—especially since Obama and Clinton’s announcement of the pivot to Asia, at least in part, preceded the new aggressiveness of Chinese policy. In particular, Clinton appears to have forgotten that a key difference between the Cold War with the USSR and the current relationship with China is that during the Cold War, Washington was careful never to involve itself in any claims by neighbors on Russian territory. In consequence (as I can testify from my work as a British journalist in the USSR during the years of its collapse), there was no successful mobilization of Russian nationalism against the United States. That has come later, when with monumental folly the United States (under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations) involved itself in the quarrels of the post-Soviet successor states.
As a senator, Clinton was entirely complicit in the disastrous strategy of offering NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, which led to the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 (and a de facto US strategic defeat) and helped set the scene for the Ukraine crisis of this year. This is not to excuse Russia’s mistaken and criminal reactions to US policy; but to judge by her book, Clinton never bothered to try to understand or predict likely Russian reactions—let alone, once again, to acknowledge or learn from her mistakes. On the Georgia War, she simply repeats the lie (which, to be fair, she may actually believe) that this was deliberately started by Putin and not by Georgia’s president at the time, Mikheil Saakashvili.
In her policy toward China, Clinton and the administration in which she served have embroiled the United States in the islands disputes. Formally, Washington has not taken sides concerning ownership of the islands. Informally, though, by emphasizing the US military alliance with Japan and its extensive character, it has done so—at least in the case of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. As a result, Clinton may have helped put her country in a position where it will one day feel compelled to launch a devastating war to defend Japanese claims to uninhabited rocks, and at a time dictated by Tokyo.
As the Australian realist scholar Hugh White has suggested, underlying the other disputes between the United States and China is Washington’s refusal to accord legitimacy to China’s system of government, something repeatedly demonstrated in Clinton’s book. White argues that such recognition is essential if the two countries are to share power and influence in East Asia and avoid conflict.
This is admittedly a very difficult moral and political issue, given China’s human-rights abuses. Clinton made human-rights advocacy a hallmark of her tenure at the State Department (without, it seems, understanding the disastrous effects on this advocacy of the US international record). More substantial has been her contribution to raising global awareness of women’s rights; and perhaps most praiseworthy of all (because it is deeply unpopular with many Americans as well as others around the world) is her staunch defense of gay rights.
It would be an immense help, however, if American representatives could recognize the degree to which the US model at home and abroad is now questioned by enemies as well as concerned friends—at home due to political paralysis and the increasing and obvious inadequacy of an eighteenth-century Constitution to deal with a twenty-first-century world; abroad due to a series of criminal actions carried out in defiance of the international community, as well as the catastrophic failure of the US war and state-building effort in Iraq—and very likely in Afghanistan, too. There is not the slightest indication of such a recognition in Clinton’s book.
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When it comes to the Obama administration’s dysfunctional policy toward Afghanistan, Clinton herself cannot be held chiefly responsible. As her work and books by others make clear (notably Vali Nasr’s The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat), this was a policy driven chiefly by the White House, and for domestic political reasons. Nonetheless, she can hardly evade all responsibility, since on issues that can in any way be presented as successes, she is so anxious to claim responsibility.
At the core of the administration’s failure (leaving aside the horribly intractable nature of the Afghan War itself) was the combination of a military surge with the announcement of early US military withdrawal. As far as hardline Taliban elements were concerned, this meant they only had to wait. As far as actual or potential moderates were concerned, Washington failed to accompany the surge with any serious attempt at a peace settlement.
For this failure, opposition by the US military and Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai, was chiefly responsible, together with the fear of a political backlash in the United States. But as Clinton makes clear, there was no way that she would have supported any peace offer that even the most moderate Taliban elements would have discussed. In her words, “To be reconciled, insurgents would have to lay down their arms, reject al Qaeda and accept the Afghan Constitution.” In other words, not a settlement but surrender.
Such an offer should indeed have been made by the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003; it probably would have been accepted by many Taliban commanders, since at the time the Taliban appeared to have been thoroughly defeated. That opportunity was missed, and today—with the United States withdrawing, the Afghan “constitution” deep in crisis, and the Taliban conquering more and more of the east and south—it will not even be looked at. And this syndrome, of either pretending or genuinely believing that Washington is offering compromise when it is actually demanding surrender, is a leitmotif of Clinton’s work. It is very sensible to make such offers if you are winning, not so if you are retreating.
This is not to say that, in Afghanistan or the Middle East, there are easy answers that Clinton has somehow missed. In both cases, there are no real “solutions,” only better or worse management of crises based on a choice of lesser evils. Perhaps as president, Clinton would prove to be a competent manager of these crises; but on the basis of her record and writings so far, the verdict on this must at best be “unproven.” So far, her actions and those of the United States have succeeded only in making things worse.
Can the United States escape the trap created by its belief in its own supreme morality and right to lead? To do this would require its leaders to tell the American people a number of things that a majority of the country’s political classes (which on foreign policy can generally manage to impersonate the people) really do not want to hear: about the relative decline of US power and the need to adjust both policy and rhetoric to accommodate this development; about the consequent need to seek compromises with a number of countries that Americans have been taught to hate; about the insufficiency of the American ideology as a universal path for the progress of humankind; and, most important of all, about the long-term unsustainability of the US economic model and the absolute need to take action against climate change.
In an ideal world, an astute president with popular support should be able to reach past the elites to appeal to the generally sensible and generous instincts of the majority of Americans. As recent polls have demonstrated, on the question of arming Syrian rebels and of seeking a reasonable compromise with Iran, large majorities have shown much more cautious and pragmatic instincts than Clinton, let alone the Republicans. Only 8 percent of Americans want Washington to attempt to lead the world unilaterally, compared with overwhelming majorities in favor of seeking cooperation (and cost-sharing) with other powers.
But as Peter Beinart has shown in a recent essay in The Atlantic, there is a yawning gap on these issues between the American public and the political and media elites—and, most crucial of all, the big donors on whom candidates increasingly depend. If, as many now believe, the United States is heading toward a de facto oligarchy, then the views of that oligarchy on foreign-policy and security issues are clear—and they’re close to those of Hillary Clinton.
There is certainly little basis for the belief that she would be prepared to challenge the oligarchy on these issues. Thus, on the crucial question of climate change, she has indeed taken a rhetorical stand sharply different from the Republicans and a number of conservative Democrats. On the other hand, the chapter on it in Hard Choices begins with an extended passage in which Clinton crows about a tactical victory over China at the 2009 Copenhagen summit—a victory that did nothing to combat climate change and only managed to alienate further the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians. Clinton’s verbal commitment to this central issue is impressive and commendable, her actual record much less so. But again, the real question is whether any US statesman could do better, given that most Republicans—who now dominate Congress and control federal legislation on this issue—have managed to convince themselves that the problem does not even exist. How is it possible to implement rational policies if much of the political class has abandoned respect for facts and evidence?
Given the US record of the past dozen years, there is a great deal to be said in principle for a long period in which Washington simply pulls back from involvement in international crises. In practice, though, as several administrations have found, international affairs will not leave a US president alone. Crises blow up suddenly, and to craft an appropriate response requires a consistent philosophy, deep local knowledge, a firm grip on the US foreign-policy apparatus, and the ability to frame that response in ways that will gain the necessary support from the policy establishment, media and population. These are sufficiently great challenges in themselves. To expect in addition that a statesman will display originality, moral courage and a willingness to challenge national shibboleths is probably too much to ask of anyone. On the evidence to date, it is certainly too much to ask of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
More on Hillary Clinton in this issue…
The Editors: “Wanted: A Challenge to Clinton”
The Editors: “How Many Ways Can Goldman Give?”
Michelle Goldberg: “David Brock’s Long Strange Trip”
Kathleen Geier, Joan Walsh, Jamelle Bouie, Doug Henwood, Heather Digby Parton, Steven Teles and Richard Yeselson: “Who’s Ready for Hillary?”