Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)
Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)

In Vox on Tuesday, Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky argued that, as president, Hillary Clinton would be too focused on her domestic political agenda to be too bothered with foreign policy, whether she’s really a hawk or a dove or [name your bird of prey].USflag

I worry that lets Clinton off the hook for some poor policy decisions over the course of her career, both as a senator from New York and as the nation’s leading diplomat as US secretary of state. After all, it was vice president Joe Biden who proclaimed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous piece for The Atlantic earlier this year on the ‘Obama doctrine’ that Hillary ‘Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.’

That same profile gave us the following nugget into Clinton’s mind on international affairs:

Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”

Suffice it to say that, as the 45th president of the United States, Clinton wouldn’t quite welcome the end of unipolarity just yet.

But I also worry for another reason, summed up in four words by former British prime minister Harold MacMillan: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ George W. Bush, until September 2001, wasn’t supposed to be a foreign policy president, either. You don’t choose your issues in the Oval Office; the issues choose you. (One reason, among many, why Donald Trump remains such a terrifying presidential nominee).

To steal a concept from Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, who might be the only person left in the United States who’s managed to turn the 2016 general election into an exercise in intellectual growth, I’d like to engage in my own version. I’ll call it  ‘foreign policy hindsight 20/20 for me, but not for thee.’

In the context of Bush-Cheney-McCain, Clinton’s positions have always been dovish. That was true in 2003, in 2008 and from 2009 to 2013.

Clinton is really a mainstream realist. However more hawkish she might be than Barack Obama, she’s certainly no neoconservative. It’s important to remember that as so many prominent Republicans start to endorse her for president. Samantha Power, perhaps the most prominent voice today that argues for liberal intervention was, you may recall, originally an Obama supporter who once called Clinton a ‘monster’). Power, it’s worth noting, is now the US ambassador to the United Nations.

It’s true that Clinton talks hawkish, and it’s true that she probably wants to be seen as tough. Is that such a bad thing in American politics? Clinton is 13 years older than Barack Obama, and that’s enough of an age gap to say that she comes from a Democratic generation tagged as weak and unpatriotic because it was too antiwar in 1968 and 1972 (to say nothing of Mike Dukakis sitting in that ridiculous tank in 1988).

Maybe gender plays a role too. Maggie Thatcher was certainly viewed as ‘tough,’ and, sure, so was Golda Meir. Indira Gandhi suspended democracy for the only time in post-independence India! Angela Merkel is an East German physicist, and her political style often shows it — it took a decade for Germans to call her ‘Mutti.’ None of that analysis may be fair, I agree, but that’s what it sometimes takes to shatter a glass ceiling.

But more than a gender thing, it’s a generational thing, and that explains Clinton’s Iraq vote in 2003 authorizing the use of unilateral force. Threat of force, by the way, is often more effective than use of force. It’s a point that’s seldom made by the DC foreign policy establishment ‘blob.’

No one will dispute that Clinton’s instincts on Syria were worse than Obama’s, because she probably would have armed Free Syrian Army rebels with American weaponry that would have wound up in the hands of ISIS at worst or Jabhat al-Nusra (now renamed Fatah al-Sham and officially no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda) at best. But it’s not like she wanted an American occupation in Damascus to dismantle the armed forces, alienate the Alawite minority, introduce an unworkable constitution and attempt to create a democratic state on the cheap.

In Libya, it’s true that the NATO-led attacks largely facilitated the advent of a failed state (or, more to the point, a collection of failed microstates). But the alternative, for both Clinton and Obama, was to step aside and allow Muammar Gaddafi to massacre thousands of Libyans in Benghazi. If you’d lived in the White House through the 1994 Rwandan genocide, you too might be haunted by the thought of standing aside and doing nothing to stop so much killing.

Above all, as George W. Bush’s second-term secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, once said, ‘The world is a messy place, and someone has to clean it up.’

If you’re looking for the next great Clinton doctrine on international affairs, Rice’s words probably come the closest.

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