Hawkish State Department officials and Official Washington’s neocons are eager for a Hillary Clinton presidency, counting on a freer hand to use U.S. military force around the world, but that future is not so clear, says Michael Brenner.
By Michael Brenner
Is Hillary Clinton a warmonger? Well, the record demonstrates that she certainly is a hawk – someone who believes strongly in the utility of military force and is ready to use it.
There is ample evidence in support of this contention. Her actions as Senator and Secretary of State as well her speeches and campaign statements paint a picture of a would-be President who views the world in terms of an ominous threat environment, who believes that core American interests are being challenged across the globe, who is a firm advocate of intervening on a preventive basis (e.g. Syria, Libya) as well as a preemptive or defensive basis, who is dedicated to keeping putative rivals like China or Russia in a subordinate position.
This complex of attitudes puts a considerable amount of blue water between her and Barack Obama. Indeed, early in her campaign she made a point of criticizing the White House for its overly restrained policies vis a vis Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. She only switched tacks when it became evident that she needed to associate herself with the Obama record in the face of the unexpected Sanders insurrection.
The specific criticisms directed at HRC from those who find her too hawkish are well-known. They include her vote in favor of the Iraq war; her cheerleading for the Global War on Terror in all its aspects; her collaboration with the Robert Gates-led faction to push President Obama into a major Afghan escalation; her advocacy of direct military action in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and in Syria to unseat Assad; her unbending attitude toward containing Iran even after the nuclear accord; and her bellicose language in calling Putin another “Hitler’ after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea.
Hillary Clinton’s big foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations reinforced the impression of a hard-liner across-the-board who thinks primarily in terms of power balances and its deployment. In addition, her full-throated endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions left no room for accommodating the concerns of those realists who see the United States as inflicting unnecessary harm on itself through its unqualified backing of everything Israel does.
Praise from Neocons
It is no coincidence that she has drawn admiring remarks from Robert Kagan and other neoconservative luminaries who envisage her as a President sympathetic to their audacious, muscular conception of American foreign policy. The coalescing of the neocons and the gung-ho liberal interventionists who pushed hard for the Libyan intervention (Samantha Power, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Susan Rice) who now promote aiding the Saudis and Gulf Cooperation Council in Yemen, and wading into Syria involves a number of people who worked for Clinton in the State Department and/or figure prominently among her current advisers.
The outstanding example is Victoria Nuland – Clinton’s spokesperson at State and now Assistant Secretary of State for Europe – who has aggressively spearheaded the anti-Russian crusade. Previously, she had been principal deputy foreign policy advisor for Vice President Dick Cheney.
Nuland was escorted into the Obama administration by Strobe Talbot who was her boss at Brookings and viewed her as his protege. Talbot himself, who had been Deputy Secretary of State during the second Bill Clinton administration, has moved progressively toward the hawkish end of the foreign policy establishment continuum (admittedly a rather short band width these days). The affiliation at Brookings of the prominent neocon Robert Kagan, Nuland’s husband, may have cemented the deal.
Some of Hillary Clinton’s defenders argue that her hawkish views must be understood in a political context. Her presidential ambitions, they explain, dictated that she find a way to overcome the liabilities she incurred on national security matters as a supposedly liberal Democrat, as heir to the Clinton dynasty that emphasized building bridges of cooperation in foreign relations – at least as seen by Republican critics, and as a woman.
That became an imperative after 9/11. So, we saw a series of moves in the form of votes and rhetoric designed to make her look tough. Hence, the much publicized buddying with John McCain on senatorial junkets to faraway places with strange sounding names highlighted by reports of her matching her macho colleague in knocking back shots of vodka.
We should bear in mind that foreign policy never had been a prominent concern of HRC. Most certainly not national security. It was a slate of domestic issues that drew her attention and on which she was knowledgeable. Her prepping only began seriously when she set her sights on winning the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Conviction or Expediency?
It is reasonable to infer that what began as an exercise in political expediency hardened into genuine conviction – at least insofar as general predisposition is concerned. There is no evidence of HRC having formulated a comprehensive strategy for the U.S. in the world, much less a theoretical model of what international affairs are all about.
At the same time, though, there is abundant reason to believe that her hard-edged rhetoric and policy proposals do express her views – however nebulous they may be. Her few concrete proposals have been half-baked and unrealistic: the idea of enforcing a “safe zone” in northern Syria being a case in point. All that it might accomplish is to create a secure base for Al Qaeda/Al Nusra and their Salafist partners while carrying the high risk of an encounter with Russian military forces operating in the area.
Does this mean that an HRC Presidency automatically would mean the dispatch of American troops to Syria? Intensified military efforts against ISIS in Iraq? The insertion of American-led force into Libya? Further provocation of Russia in Eastern Europe including an invitation to Ukraine to join NATO as first offered by George W. Bush?
It is premature to answer those questions in the affirmative. Jingoistic rhetoric is easy when you’re on the outside. When you are the one who actually has to make the decisions about military deployments and to anticipate dealing with the unpredictable consequences, anyone will move with a measure of caution.
Hillary Clinton is more likely to stumble into a war than calculatingly start one – for a number of reasons. First, there are no obvious places to intervene massively with ground troops, no tempting Iraq circa 2003. Iran has been high on the neocon hit list, but the nuclear accord removes what could have been a justification. Iraq (again) and Syria are also theoretical candidates. Who, though, is the enemy and what would be the purpose?
ISIS obviously; but now it is being contained and slowly is degrading. American boots on the ground simply would ensure an open-ended guerrilla war. As for Al Qaeda/Al Nusra in Syria, it is not seen as an enemy, rather as a tacit ally within the “moderate’ camp.
There is Assad. With Russia on the ground, however, and the lack of a Western consensus or prospect of an enabling United Nations Security Council resolution, an invasion to replace the Ba’ath regime with Salafists of the Islamic State and/or Al Qaeda could not be rationalized even with the agitation of the Kagans and Samantha Power. In addition, this is an assignment that the Pentagon brass do not want – in contrast to the CIA. After all, we have spent enormous amounts of blood and treasure to immunize Afghanistan against a terrorist presence much smaller than what exists now in Syria – to no avail.
Libya is the one place where a substantial American force could be dispatched. The argument for doing so would be Afghanistan redux. Still, in the absence of 9/11-like event, that would be a hard sell to the American public.
The chances of war by miscalculation are higher. Obama’s bequest to his successor is a United States stranded in a mine field in the Middle East bereft of friends or diplomatic GPS. Hillary, of course, bears a large share of responsibility for creating this hazardous topography, and for the prevailing hyper-active habits of American policy – a potentially lethal combination.
For one, maintaining a state of high tension with Iran creates opportunities for incidents to occur in the Persian Gulf. Too, American and Iranian forces in Iraq mingle like oil and water. So, there is some possibility of relatively minor encounters escalating into serious combat by stoking the political fires among crazies on both sides.
Playing with Matches in Ukraine
The other combustible situation is Ukraine. There, the narrative of Russia as an aggressor hell-bent on regaining its Eastern European empire has led to a series of provocative military moves by Washington via NATO that are generating another Cold War. The strength of ultra-nationalists in Kiev, encouraged by their backers in the Obama administration and the fiery rhetoric of American military commanders, have killed the opportunity for a resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine as embodied in Minsk II.
Paranoia is sweeping the Baltic states and Poland – again with active connivance of the “war party” in Washington. Hillary Clinton is a charter member of that group. While one can be certain that she hasn’t thought through the implications, and one can be reassured by Putin’s sobriety, the lack of prudential thinking makes this the most dangerous of situations.
Then, there is the Bill factor. He is the joker in the pack. We know that Hillary consults with him on all questions of consequence as a matter of routine. He is her all-purpose confidante. It is inescapable that he will act as an eminence gris in the White House. So a key issue is the role that he will play and the counsel that he will offer. There is good reason to believe that he will serve to tone down Hillary’s war-mongering tendencies – such as they are.
After all, what Bill Clinton craves at this stage of his life is being back in the White House where he can prowl at will and whisper in his wife’s ear. He relishes that historically unique position. He relishes being on parade. It’s the status that counts – not the doing.
In any case, he has few convictions about the most salient foreign policy issues. Hence, his instinct will be to avoid 3:00 a.m. phone calls, grave crises and the risks they entail. Bold acts that require courage and fortitude never have been his strong suit. Like Obama, he is not cast in the heroic mold.
We should be thankful for that.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]