Rethinking America

Is Hillary Clinton a Warmonger?

A closer review of Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy experience and tendencies.

Credit: PAN Photo. www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Hillary Clinton has assembled a foreign policy coalition of neocon hawks & neoliberal white knights.
  • Hillary Clinton went from someone not focused on foreign policy to making that her selling point.
  • Hillary Clinton is more likely to stumble into a war than to start one intentionally.

Former Secretary of State (and Senator and First Lady) Hillary Clinton has based her campaign for president of the United States States heavily on her many years of foreign policy experience.

Especially outside the United States, that is typically regarded as an automatic positive, but that assumption deserves a critical review. Relying on “experience,” after all, is only a positive if the record is a good one that deserves to be extended.

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.

She believes that core American interests are being challenged across the globe. She is a firm advocate of intervening on a preventive basis (e.g. Syria, Libya), as well as on a preemptive or defensive basis.

She is dedicated to keeping putative rivals to the United States, 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-à-vis Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi.

She only switched tacks when it became evident that she needed to associate herself closely with the Obama record in the face of the unexpected Sanders insurrection.

Known knowns

The specific criticisms directed at HRC from those who find her too hawkish are well-known. Most prominently there is her vote in favor of the Iraq war.

But they also hear her cheer-leading for the Global War on Terror in all its aspects, her collaboration with the Robert Gates-led faction to push Obama into a major Afghan escalation and her advocacy of direct military action in Syria to unseat Assad.

Then there is her unbending attitude toward containing Iran, even after the nuclear accord. Or 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 the deployment of power.

In addition, her full-throated endorsement of Bibi Netanyahu’s policy actions were extreme even within the context of Israel’s rightward political drift.

It 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.

The neocon-neoliberal axis

It is no coincidence that Secretary Clinton has drawn admiring remarks from Robert Kagan and other neoconservative luminaries. They envisage her as a president sympathetic to their audacious, muscular conception of American foreign policy.

There has been, in fact, a coalescing of the neocons and the gung-ho liberal interventionists who pushed hard for the Libyan intervention (the Gang of Three: Samantha Powers, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Susan Rice) and who now promote aiding the Saudis and GCC in Yemen and wading into Syria.

This emerging neocon/neoliberal coalition involves a number of people who worked for Hillary Clinton in the State Department and/or figure prominently among her current advisors.

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’s was escorted into the Obama Administration by Strobe Talbot who was her boss at Brookings and viewed her as his protege.

Talbot himself had been Deputy Secretary of State during the second Bill Clinton Administration. He has moved progressively toward the hawkish end of the foreign policy establishment continuum (admittedly a rather short spectrum these days in official circles).

The affiliation at Brookings of the prominent neocon Robert Kagan, Nuland’s husband, may have cemented the deal.

Tactical hawkishness to the White House?

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 political liabilities she incurred on national security matters.

She entered the U.S. Senate in 2001 – with an eye toward the presidency – as a supposedly liberal Democrat, as heir to the Clinton dynasty that emphasized building bridges of cooperation in foreign relations, and as a woman aspiring to an office culturally associated with machismo.

Shaking her public perception 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, too, 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.

How did this become her selling point?

We should bear in mind that foreign policy never had been a prominent concern of Hillary Clinton. Most certainly not national security. It has been 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. 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 Clinton having formulated a comprehensive strategy for the United States 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 a Hillary Clinton Administration 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?

The weight of the office – and a dearth of easy targets

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 to 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. It would also not be an easy victory or a clean engagement, even from the start.

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 guerilla 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 UNSC resolution, it would be a difficult sell.

Worse, an invasion to replace the Ba’ath regime with Salafists of the ISIS and/or al-Qaeda could not be rationalized even with the agitation of the Kagans and Powers.

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.

Accidents do happen

The chances of war by miscalculation are higher. Obama’s bequest to his successor is a United States stranded in a minefield in the Middle East, bereft of friends or diplomatic GPS.

Hillary Clinton, 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. 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.

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 could be reassured by Putin’s sobriety about Russia’s position, the lack of prudential thinking makes this the most dangerous of situations.

The Bill factor

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.

Indeed, with everything at stake on the global security front today, we should be thankful for that.

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About Michael J. Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [Texas, United States]

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