Hillary Clinton’s experience in foreign affairs—eight years as intimate counselor to the forty-second president, six years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and then four as secretary of State to the forty-fourth—is the biggest obstacle that her candidacy for president in 2016 faces in establishing credibility regarding these matters. That is because, partisan rhetoric notwithstanding, U.S. foreign policy has been remarkably consistent for a generation. Correctly, the American people see little difference between the foreign policies of the two Bushes, of Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Being dissatisfied by wide margins with what has come before, Americans naturally ask what difference the next president might make.
Hence, for candidate Clinton, offering herself as the continuation of the past generation’s policies is out of the question. Yet, she knows that articulating how her foreign policy might differ involves some kind of mea culpa—to which she is averse personally and politically. Besides, the Democratic Party’s base rejected her in 2008 and, more than ever, prefers Obama’s consistent soft-on-America instincts to the waverings of yesterday’s Democrats. So, Hillary Clinton tries to convey the image of difference, minus substance, for which she might be held accountable.
Reading her Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on her book, “Hard Choices,” is a bit like watching a dance of the seven veils performed in leotards: suggestions, but no flesh. All too obviously, her presentation on foreign affairs is about sounding intimately involved but not responsible for unpleasant outcomes, ready with solutions without advocating any. After endless head fakes in one direction and hip fakes in another, readers tire of interpreting Delphic hints and of filling her pronouncements with their own imagination.
Just Answer the Question
Herewith are some examples of the ambiguities candidate Clinton would have to resolve for us to understand what difference her presidency might make for U.S. foreign policy.
Asked what she had learned from recent disasters in Libya and Egypt about the limits of American power to spread American values, she replied: “Let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.” But what lessons had she learned? Might they be the same as what led Obama to say: “Don’t do stupid shit”? And what constitutes stupidity? After stating categorically that the invasion of Iraq was stupid (it helps folks forget that she voted for it), she said: “I don’t think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories. That’s what I’m arguing.”
Having stated that “great nations need an organizing principle,” and pressed about what that might be, she defined it as “some harmony between muscular intervention—‘We must do something’—vs. let’s just not do something stupid.” Pressed to clarify, she said: “I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.” Like what? Pressed further yet, she made clear that she was on the smart rather than on the stupid side: “Most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase ‘smart power.’ I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement.” One veil follows another. No flesh shows.
But oh the hints: “I know that the failure to help build a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad . . . the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Gratuitously, this indicts Obama for the current upsurge in terrorism and suggests that President Hillary might have avoided it. But Secretary of State Clinton was part and parcel of that “failure.” “If I were prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank].” But Secretary of State Clinton screamed at Israel’s prime minister, to intimidate him into dropping or diminishing that expectation. What would President Hillary Clinton do?
Candidate Clinton hinted at the corruption of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his inner circle, “who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things.” But Secretary Clinton supported providing the U.S. taxpayer money that sustains not just that corruption, but also the Palestinian educational system that fills new generations with murderous hate for Americans and Jews. The financial flow to Fatah started under Bushes, and continued under Bill Clinton and Obama. Most recently, Fatah bragged about its continuing commitment to murder: “Fatah has killed 11,000 Israelis; Fatah has sacrificed 170,000 Martyrs (Shahids)…; Fatah was the first to carry out operations during the first Intifada… Fatah was the first to fight in the second Intifada …” Would President Hillary Clinton continue to finance it, or cut it off?
This leads to a troubling question, to which Candidate Clinton may have given more of an answer than she intended. Goldberg recalled asking her in 2011 whether Americans have reason to fear the Muslim Brotherhood—i.e. is the MB a bad thing, an enemy? Goldberg made sure that the question covered the rest of the Islamist movement as well. Clinton had answered that the jury was out. Now Goldberg pressed: “Is the jury still out for you today?” Her answer, after the MB’s persecution of opponents in Egypt and Turkey, after its support of terrorism: “I think the jury would come back with a lesser included offense, and that is a failure to govern in a democratic, inclusive manner while holding power in Cairo.” And further: “Could different leaders have made a difference in the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance of Egypt? We won’t know and we can’t know the answer to that question.” By blaming just a few leaders, and only for venial offenses, she articulated a view of Islamism very much in line with what Communism’s defenders were saying about the Soviet Union after Stalin’s purges—don’t blame a whole movement for a few leaders’ minor mistakes.
Perhaps this is her flesh and bone. But since she goes to such trouble to disguise what she really means, if anything, perhaps it is yet another set of veils deployed for reasons at which we can only guess.
We can be confident only that we cannot know what difference president Hillary Clinton would make to U.S. foreign policy, because we have yet more evidence that she is well practiced in subordinating the substance of policy to the political needs of the moment.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace, Hoover Institution Press, 2014