Exclusive: Besides bashing Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton offered few specifics in her big foreign policy speech which stressed the value of “friends.” But those “entangling alliances” helped create today’s global chaos, writes Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
Now that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic nomination, her June 2 foreign-policy speech is looking more and more important. The reason is simple: Clinton is going to be all over Donald Trump in the coming months, punching away at his racism and xenophobia, his thinly veiled appeals to violence, and his fraudulent business practices.
But what she’ll no doubt hit him hardest on is his general unfitness to be anywhere near the nuclear button. As she put it in San Diego: “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes – because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”
It’s hard to disagree – the man does seem out of control. But what has critics choking on their morning coffee is the implication that because Trump is bonkers, Hillary must be the opposite, i.e. thoughtful and mature. As opponents ranging from ConsortiumNews’s Robert Parry to Paul R. Pillar, Jeffrey Sachs, Jeet Heer, Diana Johnstone, and Gary Leupp have pointed out, this is a woman who has had a hand in five or six of the major foreign-policy disasters of the post-9/11 period. So where does she get off calling Trump reckless?
But while critics have subjected her record to close examination, they haven’t given the June 2 speech itself the attention it deserves beyond quoting the zingers hurled Trump’s way. Yet everything about her flawed methodology is right there in that one 35-minute talk – the misguided logic, the ill-considered assumptions, the one-sided worldview that consistently leads her into trouble. Essentially, the speech is an ode to international friendship without recognizing how some of those “entangling alliances” have helped tie U.S. foreign policy into knots.
As Clinton put it: “America’s network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional. And our allies deliver for us every day. Our armed forces fight terrorists together; our diplomats work side by side. Allies provide staging areas for our military, so we can respond quickly to events on the other side of the world. And they share intelligence that helps us identify and defuse potential threats.”
Friends make America strong, Clinton assures us, and if the U.S. is the most powerful country on earth, it’s because it has so many friends. Indeed, “Moscow and Beijing are deeply envious of our alliances around the world,” Clinton went on, “because they have nothing to match them.”
Yet Trump, a classic bull in the china shop, wants to wreck what generations of U.S. diplomats have worked so hard to build up, Clinton argued. If he gets away with it, the Kremlin will celebrate while Americans will mourn the loss of an international power structure that has kept them safe:
“And 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. Then they’ll be the ones making the decisions about your lives and jobs and safety – and trust me, the choices they make will not be to our benefit.”
Allies – a word that appears in various combinations some 15 times during the talk – are what allow the U.S. to multiply its force around the world, Clinton argues. Instead of insulting everyone from Mexico to the Pope, the White House should therefore concentrate on strengthening the friendships it has and adding as many more as it can, Clinton contends.
But there’s an obvious fallacy here. Simply put, it is that every ally is a separate nation with a separate set of priorities, none of which coincide completely with those of the U.S. (and often don’t coincide even more with the priorities of either their own people or the American people). Hence, every “friend” is also a problem, and the more “friends” a country has, the more the problems pile up.
This is an old issue in statecraft, which is why George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and other Founders warned against “entangling alliances” and why Lord Palmerston declared that great powers do not have friends, only interests.
But since the June 2 speech says nothing about goals, problems to be addressed or any other long-range considerations, Clinton apparently views friendship as an end in itself. Friends make America great, and great is what America ought to be. It’s circular reasoning like this that continually leads Clinton astray.
Take the Middle East where the two dominant powers (and U.S. “friends”) are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Although they have certainly had their differences, for the moment their governments’ interests overlap particularly with regard to Syria, the great bleeding wound on the edge of Europe. But this is not the case with the U.S. Even though both Saudi Arabia and Israel are old, old friends of Washington, they are in fact sharply at odds with key American interests.
The chief reason has to do with Al Qaeda, known in Syria as the Al Nusra Front, and its offshoot Islamic State, the ultra-terrorist group also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward such groups is ambiguous. It is obviously hostile to ISIS since it calls for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. But it is not entirely unsympathetic either, especially in Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State is locked in combat with Shi‘ite forces that Riyadh despises even more.
This is why the Saudi kingdom has taken part (albeit halfheartedly) in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria while at the same time allowing private donations to flow to the group via Kuwait. It’s a hedge that allows Saudi Arabia to keep its options open.
Meanwhile, Saudi attitudes toward Al Nusra have been frankly positive ever since King Salman, a hardliner, ascended the throne in January 2015. Despite Saudi promises never to have anything to do with Al Qaeda, one of Salman’s first acts was to meet with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and work out plans to supply it with U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles so that it could mount a major offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib province, which it did just a few weeks later. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]
The reason for the rapprochement is clear: Al Nusra is the most effective force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the Saudis regard as part of a great Iranian-Shi‘ite conspiracy stretching from Yemen to Bahrain and the kingdom’s own oil-rich, Shi‘ite-dominated Eastern Province. This makes Assad public enemy number one. Since Al Nusra is the enemy of Saudi Arabia’s enemy, it must to a degree be Saudi Arabia’s friend.
Israel is more or less in the same boat. It has fought three wars with Syria and one with its close ally Hezbollah, and it regards Iran as a long-term threat to its very existence. Thus, it regards Assad as the prime enemy as well. For that reason, it “prefers IS to Iran,” as then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon remarked at a conference last January, and Israel is so friendly to Al Nusra that it has taken in its wounded for treatment in Israeli hospitals.
But the U.S. does not quite agree since the American people still recall Al Qaeda as the villains of 9/11 and ISIS chopping off the heads of Western hostages (and claiming credit for Sunday’s massacre of some 50 people at an Orlando, Florida night club). Various neocons and neolibs have tried to confuse matters by arguing that Al Qaeda and longtime bêtes noires like Saddam Hussein were essentially the same, the “logic” that helped trick many Americans into supporting the Iraq War even though the secular Hussein was a bitter enemy of Al Qaeda.
Along those lines, Clinton, in her October 2002 speech endorsing an invasion of Iraq, accused Hussein of “giv[ing] aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.” (Clinton’s claim about aiding “Al Qaeda members” apparently was a reference to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi supposedly going to a hospital in Baghdad although there was never any evidence that Iraqi authorities were aware of Zarqawi’s whereabouts if indeed he did seek treatment at a Baghdad hospital. Still the canard worked as an effective way to confuse the American people.)
But when push has come to shove regarding these terrorists, official U.S. policy since 9/11 has been that the fight against Al Qaeda and its spinoff ISIS must take top priority. So if Israel and Saudi Arabia are both soft on Al Nusra and even to a degree on ISIS, the U.S., at least on paper, is committed to being ultra-hard, a dilemma that Clinton’s speech ignored.
But this paradox is a problem that no amount of fancy footwork can get around. Consequently, the White House dithers, stalls and generally ties itself up in knots trying to do the impossible. It bombs ISIS except when ISIS is locked in battle with Assad’s troops, at which point the U.S. military holds its fire so as not to offend Saudi sensibilities.
The U.S. government supports Sunni extremists such as the fighters of Ahrar al-Sham who fight alongside Al Nusra in the Saudi-and-Turkish-backed Army of Conquest. The Obama administration even suggested at one point that Russia refrain from bombing Nusra forces in Aleppo since they are so intermingled with U.S.-backed fighters that it is all but impossible to pry them apart. But sometimes the U.S. bombs Al Nusra as well just to keep up appearances.
The Obama administration continues to call for Assad’s removal even though the effect would be to clear a path for ISIS and Al Nusra straight through to the presidential palace in Damascus. When Assad recently vowed to “rip out terrorism from its root wherever it exists,” State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner replied that the “remarks show once again how delusional, detached and unfit he is to lead the Syrian people.”
Since Israel and the Saudis regard Assad as an enemy, the U.S. feels obliged to follow suit. But since Assad also battles ISIS and Al Nusra on a daily basis, no one can quite figure out why the Obama administration continues with this contradictory policy. (The best the State Department and the mainstream U.S. media can come up with is a claim that somehow Assad is to blame for Al Qaeda and ISIS although the terror groups trace their origins back to U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s and the Iraq War last decade.)
As Secretary of State, Clinton helped engineer this incomprehensible and incoherent policy by leading the charge against Assad on Saudi Arabia and Israel’s behalf. She called for his ouster in July 2011, a full month before Obama got around to declaring that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Dooming Peace Talks
As Jeffrey Sachs points out, her insistence on Assad’s resignation as precondition for peace talks insured that negotiations would die aborning. Although she insists in Hard Choices, her 2014 memoir of her State Department years, that the U.S. provided the rebels only with nonlethal aid, she had to be aware that, with the death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, U.S. officials began shipping large amounts of Libyan weaponry – including hundreds of sniper rifles, RPG launchers, and howitzer missiles – from Benghazi to the ports of Banias and Borj Islam, Syria.
Since Saudi Arabia is committed to the violent overthrow of Assad, how could the U.S. say no? Isn’t that what friends do — stand by one another regardless of the consequences?
Libya is yet another example of the horrors that this Clinton doctrine of “entangling alliances” leads to (with France and other European “allies” eager to oust Gaddafi and thus strengthen their influence in oil-rich northern Africa).
According to a State Department memo, the Secretary of State spent much of late March 2011 persuading Qatar to contribute to the anti-Gaddafi effort. She was therefore overjoyed when Doha at last agreed, as was her boss. Welcoming Qatar’s dictatorial leader Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the White House the following month, a grateful Obama said:
“We would not have been able I think to shape the kind of broad-based international coalition that includes not only our NATO members but also includes Arab states without the Emir’s leadership. He is motivated by a belief that the Libyan people should have the rights and freedoms of all people.”
Or as Obama put it a bit more candidly a few hours later in front of what he didn’t realize was an open mike: “Pretty influential guy. He is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform – you’re seeing it on Al Jazeera. Now, he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”
Evidently, Al-Thani’s enormous oil wealth (and his willingness to host U.S. military bases) gave him a free pass as far as democracy is concerned. But no matter. Qatar is a friend, so what could go wrong? A great deal as it turned out.
A longtime patron of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar turned out to have priorities that were separate and distinct from Washington’s. Of the $400 million that it pumped into Libya, most wound up in the hands of Islamist militias that soon spread anarchy from one side of the country to the other.
Their pockets stuffed with Qatari cash, fundamentalists set about removing “pagan” symbols – i.e. flags of NATO members engaged in driving Gaddafi out – from public squares where daily group prayers were held and encouraging local imams to issue fatwas ordering rape victims not to report such crimes to the police.
A few days after Al-Thani’s meeting with Obama in the White House, Qatar organized a secret meeting in Istanbul bringing Libya’s Islamist factions together in a united Islamic Front. (For more information, see Ethan Chorin’s Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution and Jason Pack’s The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future, published in 2012 and 2013 respectively.)
But Secretary Clinton still didn’t recognize the dangers. “For the first time we have a NATO-Arab alliance taking action, you’ve got Arab countries who are running strike actions,” Clinton burbled. What she didn’t realize was that she and Obama had been outfoxed (or perhaps were more interested in helping out NATO allies which wanted a bigger share of Libyan oil and France which feared that Gaddafi would create a pan-African currency that would supplant the French franc).
Today, Libya is a lawless zone with ISIS controlling miles of coastline around the city of Surt, a scant 300 miles from Europe, and literally thousands of other Islamist militias rampaging across the rest of the country. Three rival governments are now vying for control while vast amounts of weaponry have gone to fuel other conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East.
One might be inclined to call the Libyan mess the worst disaster in the Middle East – except for all the other disasters that Clinton has helped engineer. Concerned about Qatar’s role in fueling Libyan chaos, Obama administration officials batted around ideas about how to show Qatar that they were displeased with its support for extremists in Libya. Suggestions were floated to trim military aid or perhaps transfer U.S. military assets to other locations.
According to a major takeout in The New York Times: “But Middle East hands at the State Department pushed back, saying that pressuring the gulf monarchy would only backfire. And the Defense Department strongly objected: It had a 20-year history of close cooperation with Qatar, which hosted critical American military bases. In the end, there was no appetite for anything beyond quiet diplomacy…. Only last year did President Obama rebuke the nations meddling in Libya, and by then it was too late.”
After all, as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton now says, America must stand by its “friends.” Meanwhile, Qatar has contributed more than $1 million to the Clinton Foundation, which makes it not just a friend of the U.S. but a friend of Bill and Hillary – and thus doubly precious.
As Americans march to the polls on Nov. 8, voters should keep in mind Hillary Clinton’s dictum that friends like these are what make America great.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).