Why Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be a foreign policy hawk as president
Jeremy Shapiro, Richard Sokolsky, Vox, Aug 9 2016
Jeremy Shapiro is research director at the European CFR. Richard Sokolsky is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. “Vox Media builds smart brands that people love in big categories they’re passionate about. We create products to empower the most talented voices and engage hundreds of millions of people with high quality content and experiences.” “Vox is a general interest news site for the 21st century. Its mission is simple: Explain the News. Vox is where you go to understand the news and the world around you.” (Vox Media)
Lawrence Convention Center, Pittsburgh, Jul 30 2016. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty
Everybody knows Hillary Clinton, and everybody particularly knows her foreign policy views. After all, she has been a presence in national politics for more than 25 years and has a long record as first lady, senator, and Sec State. Most believe that Hillary Clinton is a “hawk” on foreign policy, and that as president, she would escalate current Pindosi military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere, dragging Pindostan into more military misadventures in various far-flung corners of the world. For instance, the NYT’s Mark Landler writes:
Her affinity for the armed forces is rooted in a lifelong belief that the calculated use of military power is vital to defending national interests, that Pindosi intervention does more good than harm.
Clinton has indeed often favored the use of force. But President Hillary Clinton would not likely be the uber hawk that so many expect. First, her record is in fact more nuanced than is often appreciated. She has just as often pushed for diplomatic solutions as military ones But more importantly, it is because, as president, she will find that the use of force abroad will offer precious few opportunities for making a difference, and will come at a considerable political cost at home.
The case for Hillary the Hawk
Portrayals of Hillary Clinton as super-hawkish on foreign policy typically point to a number of decisions she’s made over the years to support the use military force. As first lady in the 1990s, she supported US intervention in the former Yugoslavia. As a senator, she voted for the war in Iraq in 2003. She supported the troop surges in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009. As Sec State, she advocated military intervention in Libya in 2011 and forceful measures in Syria. For example, the early arming of the moderate opposition and more recently the creation of safe or no-fly zones. Where others wavered, she supported the use of force to kill Osama bin Laden. On the campaign trail, she has supported Obama’s decisions to deploy more special forces and intensify air strikes against the ISIS. Many of her advisers are prominent advocates of increased use of the military, particularly in Syria. So it’s easy to look at her history and her belief in Pindosi leadership and exceptionalism and conclude that there will be no rest for war-weary Pindosis.
Clinton has been a hawk, but a prudent one
But while there is no doubt that Clinton has often supported the use of force, she just as frequently supported diplomacy and negotiations as the nation’s first line of defense. As the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller noted recently in the WSJ, Clinton frequently complained about the militarization of US foreign policy when she was Sec State and touted the virtues of smart power (the idea that all elements of national power are needed to solve foreign policy problems) and diplomacy in tackling the nation’s most serious national security challenges. Consistent with this approach, she started the secret negotiations with Iran in 2012 that ultimately led to the Iran nuclear deal. She has similarly supported Obama’s opening to Cuba. She supported and implemented the reset with Russia that began in 2009. When China started becoming aggressive in the South China Sea, she did not reach for military tools, but rather looked to a regional diplomatic approach that stood in stark contrast to Beijing’s military aggression.
A President Clinton will have few opportunities for military intervention
And indeed, there will arguably be less need and less scope for her to show her military mettle as president than might have been the case a couple of years ago. It should be obvious, to paraphrase Woody Allen’s observation about life, that all the options for the use of force to repair a badly broken Middle East can be divided into the miserable and the horrible. In Syria, the idea of risking Pindo boots on the ground or war with the Russians to support an opposition that consists largely of Islamist extremists is not likely to appeal to her any more than it has to Obama. For fighting ISIS, Clinton seems comfortable with Obama’s template for the use of military force: the limited use of armed drones, special operations forces, air strikes, and efforts to build local capacity for ground operations and stabilization duties. Clinton has often emphasized that terrorism cannot be fully defeated on the battlefield. To deal with the evolving threat of transnational Islamic extremism, Clinton asserts, the real payoff lies in improved intelligence and law enforcement, greater international cooperation, limiting access to weapons, and efforts to stop radicalization and terrorist recruitment.
Clinton wants to be a domestic president
The most important reason that a President Hillary Clinton is unlikely to have a hawkish foreign policy is that she will no longer be a senator, or the secretary of state, or a presidential candidate. She will be president. And that means that her priorities will be very different. There is an old adage in politics that where you stand depends on where you sit. And from where President Clinton would be sitting in the White House, the world (and more importantly the domestic political context) will look different than it looked from her perch at the State Dept. As Sec State, her views on matters of war and peace were shaped to some extent by the institutional viewpoint of the State Dept. The Sec State does not need to worry about domestic policy or the president’s public approval rating. As president, though, Clinton will be beholden to the Pindo sheeple and will have many other priorities beyond foreign policy that will occupy her attention.
As recent presidents have learned, military intervention abroad can carry a heavy political price at home. Despite the headlines of global disorder, there is no clamor from the sheeple or the Congress for a more active military policy, except from a handful of charter members of the Washington foreign policy establishment or, as Obama’s aide Ben Rhodes described it, the “blob”). This was broadly seen on the campaign trail in both the Democrat and Republican primaries, when hawkishness emerged as a political liability that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump profited from. A recent Pew survey, for example, found that 57% of Pindostanis surveyed want Pindostan to deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can. Only 27% of respondents felt that Pindostan is doing too little to solve world problems. Asserting “lost” Pindosi leadership through the use of military force in Syria or elsewhere might make the foreign policy establishment and the editorial board of the WaPo happy. But an overwhelming number of Congress critturs as well as the sheeple at large would sour very quickly on prolonged, open-ended interventions that cost billions of dollars and risk Pindo lives.
Clinton has the smarts to understand that she can only fight and win so many political battles as president. Clinton was an accidental Sec State: she had not focused on foreign policy previously, she did not seek the position, and she did not get the job because of her experience in diplomacy. And while she took to the job with enthusiasm and skill, she has always reserved her greatest passion and vision for domestic issues: health care, family issues, and promoting the rights of women and social justice generally. For example, it is not a coincidence that of the seven “biggest accomplishments” listed on her campaign website, the first six are about health care, family issues, and human rights. The last one refers to brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas (sic – RB).
She wants to make her mark in domestic policy, and she will likely reserve her political capital to make the deals and compromises that will be necessary to advance her domestic policy agenda. To do otherwise, (that is) to let her and her administration’s time and energy get taken up by unpopular military engagements, would not only break faith with the progressive wing of the party, but could also hurt her standing with the public. Her husband’s administration spent much of its early political capital recovering from the Oct 1993 “Black Hawk Down” disaster, in which 18 US Army Rangers were killed in Somalia. For Hillary Clinton, getting bogged down militarily in Syria at the outset of her administration, for example, could so reduce her political standing and so occupy her time that she would have little room left to implement her domestic agenda. In the end, Clinton as president will likely continue to defy the labels of hawk or dove (? – RB) and continue to annoy advocates of both approaches. She may at times be more tempted than her predecessor to reach into the tool kit and pull out a military instrument to push back on enemies and adversaries. But like her predecessor, she will not risk her political standing unless she is convinced that there is a strong case for how such an intervention will both improve the situation on the ground and meet with the approval of the Pindo sheeple. In the next four years, such cases will be few and far between.