Clinton’s Speech: A Lost Opportunity

With the expected choice of status-quo candidate Hillary Clinton or off-the-wall Donald Trump, the U.S. has missed out on a desperately needed opportunity to examine a failed foreign policy, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The easy part for Hillary Clinton and her speechwriters in constructing what was billed as a major foreign policy speech was to enumerate some of the many valid reasons that Donald Trump is unfit to lead the United States in its relations with the rest of the world.

Clinton is correct that what has passed for Trump’s ideas on foreign policy “are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.” Trump’s efforts to sound coherent have been laden with contradictions and declarations that resemble bumper stickers more than carefully thought-out policy proposals.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Some of his most specific and distinctive pronouncements belong in the realm of the fantastic, such as excluding all Muslims from the country, building a huge wall and somehow getting a neighbor to pay for it, and encouraging Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea to get nuclear weapons. Just when he has seemed to have made a suggestion that sounds fresh and constructive, such as referring to neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he suddenly veers in a much different direction.

Clinton is correct that Trump is “temperamentally unfit” for the presidency and that it is easy to imagine him “leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.” When Trump rightly labels past military expeditions in Iraq and Libya as mistakes, he claims a past personal opposition to those interventions that is nowhere near as clear as what the record indicates.

And that record in turn reflects how Trump has so little involvement or experience in foreign affairs that he did not even have to express any opinions about such military operations at the time they were undertaken. That lack of experience points to one of the biggest and most important differences between the two presumptive presidential nominees.

Clinton is right to draw attention to that difference, and to note that “there’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf-course deal.” Trump’s complete lack of public service — which would be unprecedented among incoming U.S. presidents—contrasts sharply with Clinton’s experience. Her service in the Obama administration is the sort of experience that the nation once appropriately valued so highly that five of the first eight U.S. presidents were former secretaries of state.

Clinton’s speech was much less than it could have been, however, by being structured around the criticisms of Trump and sounding as if she were defining herself mainly as the un-Trump. Such an approach is not going to satisfy those who sense that the United States has, through several administrations, been suffering from some fundamental misdirections.

Trump’s Appeal

Many people who have that sense, even if they would have difficulty articulating exactly what would characterize a new direction, are attracted to Trump because, amid all the rants and incoherence, he seems to stand for change, including change in foreign affairs. Clinton’s approach also is not going to satisfy those who have thought very carefully about the misdirection and have articulated the ways in which much U.S. national security policy has incurred great costs with meager results.

Billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Clinton did, to be fair, express some policy preferences that not only are different from Trump’s but also are specific and constructive. She was right to mention as a first priority that “we need to be strong at home. That means investing in our infrastructure, education and innovation – the fundamentals of a strong economy. We need to reduce income inequality…” She was also right to distinguish sharply her views from Trump’s regarding climate change and the use of torture.

But in much of the rest of the speech she repeatedly fell back into aspects of a Washington conventional wisdom that have made for the persistence of problems rather than the solution of them. This was true, for example, in portions of her discussion of relationships with allies and adversaries.

She showed a good understanding of what diplomacy with adversaries consists of when she remarked that these are “countries that share some common interests with us amid many disagreements” and that “Donald doesn’t see the complexity” involved. But she gave no acknowledgment that there also are mixtures of common interests and disagreements — indeed, not just disagreements but conflicting interests — in relations with countries commonly considered allies.

This arose, for instance, when amid her appropriate defense of the diplomacy leading to the nuclear agreement with Iran she started talking about the security of Israel — without mentioning that the Israeli government has done all it can to subvert and kill the very agreement she was defending.

Clinton’s discussion of policy on ISIS reflected the usual Washington approach of just doing more, especially more militarily, in response to such problems without stepping back to ask more fundamental questions about costs, effects, and where major U.S. interests lie.

Clinton was correct in asserting that her “plan for defeating ISIS” is more specific and transparent than Trump’s. But the “plan” appears to consist of current policies involving diplomacy aimed at settling the Syrian civil war while also saying that the United States should “take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground.”

That all-too-commonly used phrase “take out” disguises a multitude of omissions of figuring out what happens next after such an adversary has been “taken out” and whether such action does anything at all on balance to reduce violence and extremism. The difference between “taking out” an adversary such as ISIS and, as Trump would put it, “bombing the s—t” out of that adversary may mainly be one of the primness or vulgarity of the expression.

More Conventional Wisdom

Clinton’s overall approach is grounded in that central tenet of Washington conventional wisdom that, as she put it in the speech, “America is an exceptional country,” that “we lead with purpose, and we prevail,” and that “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.”

U.S. and Afghan soldiers patrol in Khost province in Afghanistan, seeking information about improvised explosive devices. (Photo credit: Army Sgt. Kimberly Trumbull)

In 2012, U.S. and Afghan soldiers patrol in Khost province in Afghanistan, seeking information about improvised explosive devices. (Photo credit: Army Sgt. Kimberly Trumbull)

The awful metaphor of a vacuum, with the misleading notion that in any troubled place in the world if the United States does not occupy it then bad vapors will whoosh in, has underlain thinking that has repeatedly meant costly trouble for the United States, including in some of the places where U.S. troops are found today.

The longstanding, despite being damaging, conventional wisdom central to Hillary Clinton’s thinking on foreign policy mirrors what was laid out at greater length in the recently released report from the Center for New American Security titled “Extending American Power”.

As critical readers of that report have noted, it represents a mashing of neoconservatism and liberal interventionism and a recipe for repeating many of the failures that have contributed to the very unease and wishing for change that have helped to build support for Donald Trump, notwithstanding how little he has to contribute in the way of solutions.

This election year evidently is not going to be the year for positive redirection of U.S. national security policy. The first priority needs to be to keep dangerous incoherence out of the White House, because that is where the biggest potential damage to U.S. interests lies. Staying stuck in the rut of conventional wisdom is the relatively safer choice, although it’s too bad we won’t have a chance for something better.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

20 comments for “Clinton’s Speech: A Lost Opportunity

  1. Brad Benson
    June 6, 2016 at 16:01

    No thanks. No more conventional wisdom. Nor is Mr. Pillar’s suggestion the better choice in this case.

    Both Trump and Hillary have said enough for me. Hillary has also done enough to disqualify her from eligibility for the job. She is a WAR CRIMINAL. I’ll take my chances with Trump, thank you very much!

  2. Gregory Herr
    June 4, 2016 at 12:27

    “Staying stuck in the rut of conventional wisdom is the relatively safer choice.” Really? For one, “wisdom” is a complete misnomer. Secondly, I don’t like the odds of things being “relatively safer” with such “wisdom.” And Clinton’s prattle about infrastructure and innovation is pure politicking with no real sincere or serious agenda behind it. I think one of the more tiresome and distressing aspects of this upcoming election is going to be the use of talented writing space to convince that Trump or Clinton is worse! I would rather see real critiques of conventional “wisdom” with appropriate appraisals of individual candidates, including third parties, without any more of this lesser-evil crap.

    • June 4, 2016 at 15:59


      There are 3 candidates in this race and only one of them has a positive rating with people:

      See: Real Time with Bill Maher: Bernie Sanders Interview – May 27, 2016 (HBO)

      • Peter Loeb
        June 5, 2016 at 07:36


        Paul Pillar has presented the kind of cogent and thoughtful analysis
        of the foreign policy positions of the two main presidential candidates.
        (Bernie Sanders is not a candidate who can win nor serve if elected.
        He is a white Senator from a small white state in the northeast
        who gets cheers from romantically idealistic white middle class
        students. These students are not a movement. They are not
        a revolution. They have no backing from any “minority” groups.
        When the shouts have died, they will continue in their careers
        and we shall all be in their debt for help in the high-tech world, as doctors,
        lawyers and so forth.They will not starve.)

        Presidential campaigns are hardly the place where profound
        reassessments of foreign policy are performed. It never has been.

        For those of us who oppose “regime change” policies, who condemn Israel
        for its crimes continuing every day with American dollars, tax guarantees,
        weapons we must remain vigilant. Going back to an earlier era, one
        could just as likely argue that Mussolini ‘made the trains run on time”.
        The Zionists are our kind of guys? (Not mine!)

        I pity HRC for having been shaped by having been a Senator from the State of
        New York. Will HRC (or Trump) make a visit to Gaza (without Israeli
        minders)? Will the US stop protecting this criminal apartheid state in
        international forums (such as the UN)?

        Of course, neither Donald Trump nor HRC could admit this in a campaign.
        There is too much campaign money at stake.

        But as Pillar points, governing is another matter.

        Meanwhile for those of us who remaint, we must develop strategies of
        coping with the hell we will face. This need not be in gigantic conferences
        held in chandeliered hotels.

        Whoever becomes President must receive the same tough criticism we have
        always given Barack Obama.

        On another level, I have often pushed for a response not on a grand scale
        but on smaller levels. This has been the strategy of the far right in the US
        not advocating impossible” revolutions” from on high but capturing one
        city council seat after another, one state legislator after another. This has been
        a long term strategy with some gains and some losses.

        (Note: Do not rely on well-established “progressive” organizations. They
        consistently let us down when push comes to shove and take that
        appointment with all those “opportunities” as well as a paycheck.)

        I have also recommended lawyers to assist in the intricacies of the
        law. They are not all great, but these areas will be overlooked
        at our eventual peril.

        I will vote for neither HRC, Trump, nor Bernie. I will attack whomever
        wins as appropriate.

        —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

        • Joe Tedesky
          June 5, 2016 at 13:36

          Peter, I think you captured the essence of it very well. With your analysis I may now at least brace myself for what’s coming.

  3. dahoit
    June 4, 2016 at 11:00

    Off the wall Trump?
    America First is off the wall?sheesh.
    Scratching my head on this one.Is this a controlled opposition site?

  4. Jeff Joseph
    June 4, 2016 at 10:14

    No one from the Clinton or Bush clan should be allowed to hold office for 100 years.

  5. exiled off mainstreet
    June 4, 2016 at 00:44

    While I essentially agree with the other three comments, I would say that Hillary’s record of spearheading the Libya overthrow renders her a war criminal, and, even though things might not be that much better under Trump, a war criminal belongs in confinement, not in the presidency. I think the attacks on Trump are motivated in large part by the fact he is not under the requisite control by the deep state power indicated in the top three comments. A loose cannon may accidentally blow up the dark star battleship now running amok in the world. It is reasonable to think, as is indicated by Pillar’s posting, that our future is under serious threat if the fascist harpy gets in.

  6. Dennis Merwood
    June 3, 2016 at 13:15

    I agree Dr. Soudy.
    This whole “Evil Deep State” concept/conspiracy surely has some validity, eh?
    Does it really matter who gets to hold the top office anymore?
    And, has there been a candidate for US President since WWII who has run on a “peace” platform?
    Has there?

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      June 3, 2016 at 14:03

      Please read “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” and “Overthrow” among others……They might help.

      • Dfnslblty
        June 4, 2016 at 10:06

        Excellent essay and comments – institutionalized aggression with invisible direction.
        Indict, Impeach potus on down & defund military which is subsiding [taxing unwilling citizens] arms manufacturers.
        Protest and continue to investigate usa criminal military/financial activities.

      • June 4, 2016 at 15:49

        This is getting more and more interesting. Let’s hope Bernie beats Hillary in Calif.
        It will be good to see this tragic and comic campaign done with.

    • Peter Ehrhorn
      June 4, 2016 at 15:16

      Yes, his name was Jimmy Carter. who was rejected because he was not a war monger.

    • Brad Benson
      June 6, 2016 at 16:08


  7. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    June 3, 2016 at 13:03

    Does anyone, with even slightest level of intellect, still believe that the US policies depend on who is implementing them??!! Cannot people see that it is the same act with different actors?! Is there a difference between George W. Bush and Barack Hussain Obama?! YES, Trump is very bad BUT so is Hillary………..The French are correct when they say America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without going through civility………….

    • Peter Ehrhorn
      June 4, 2016 at 15:14

      Actually yes there are differences between Obama and GW and it is sad that people continue to dismiss them. Hillary is bad when it comes to foreign policy but it might be wrong to assume that her hawkish positions will continue into the presidency. Just look at Richard Nixon, a bigger anti commie you can’t find, yet who opened the doors to that Pinko commie nation China? I am not saying that Hillary will be a dove but the main reason she was a hawk was due to the propaganda floating around at the time. Hopefully this propaganda will be attacked when it arises in the future and not just accepted.

      • Brad Benson
        June 6, 2016 at 16:07

        That’s a really skewed version of history. Nixon was a WAR CRIMINAL and he extended the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos. His trip to China was a political move, which worked out. It had nothing to do with ideology.

    • June 4, 2016 at 16:08

      Since the Cold War there has been a narrowing of foreign policy debate. Does this explain why Washington blunders from one fiasco to another?

      American Foreign Policy: Dumbed Down

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