The Problem With Hillary Clinton’s Interventions
One of contemporary political journalism’s clichés is that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is more “hawkish” than Barack Obama’s — “tougher,” more “interventionist.” Pundits left and right repeat it as though self-evident. Paradoxically, leftist commentators who normally deride “hawkish” politicians extol Clinton, while rightist observers say it makes Clinton more tolerable than, or even preferable to, Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, whom they dislike for other reasons.
Is the cliché accurate? Is Clinton really tougher internationally, not just more than Obama, but more than the entire Democratic Party establishment? Is she the last survivor of the Democrats’ once-formidable Scoop Jackson wing? Or is this all just another Clintonian spin job?
Consider, for purposes of testing the “hawkish” hypothesis, President Obama’s 2011 decision to use military force to help overthrow Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. And consider particularly Clinton’s memoir of her State Department days, “Hard Choices,” where she describes Obama’s policy and her role in it. Focusing on “Hard Choices” is both fair and revealing for many reasons. This narrative was written in Clinton’s words, with her desired emphases, and in her own good time, unconstrained and far from the glare of spotlights or political pressure. What she says in “Hard Choices” can be taken as her gospel.
Indeed, the only political variable was her clear intent that “Hard Choices” would embody her coming campaign’s baseline argument that serving as secretary of State qualified her to be president. If there were ever a place to reveal, in a courteous, professional way, that Clinton had wanted tougher action on Libya, “Hard Choices” was it.
She said nothing of the sort. Clinton’s version of ousting Gadhafi contains not a word — not one — expressing any distance from or dissatisfaction with Obama. There is no trace of the version, extensively reported at the time by the mainstream media (and thereafter monotonously repeated by commentators) that three advisers (Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Council staffer Samantha Power) joined to induce a weak, hesitant Obama to authorize military force.
Instead, Clinton narrates a debate with herself apparently in the middle, right along with a passive Obama.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for example, “was firmly opposed” to military intervention, arguing “that the United States did not have core national interests at stake.” Clinton did not disagree initially, recounting her contemporaneous congressional testimony, where she said that “absent international authorization,” we “would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable.”
Conversely, Clinton has Rice and Power asserting that America bore a “responsibility to protect” innocent civilians threatened by Gadhafi. This so-called “duty of humanitarian intervention,” a fixture of the international left for years, was the central rationale for Obama’s Libya intervention. Clinton describes the qualifications and limits Obama placed on US involvement — but never implies disagreeing with them, before or after the intervention.
“‘No boots on the ground’ became a mantra,” she says, describing several conversations with foreign officials explicating Obama’s decision, never admitting to private doubts. Says Clinton, “we never went down the slippery slope of putting troops on the ground, as some had feared.”
Equally revealing in Clinton’s narrative about Gadhafi is her eagerness to subordinate America’s role to international approval. Her caveat about the absence of “international authorization” essentially adopts John Kerry’s 2004 “global test” for the legitimacy of US policy, namely that Washington should act only with approval by the U.N. Security Council or some comparable body.
Obama plainly shared this perspective, stressing in his public announcement of US military action that “the writ of the international community must be enforced. That is the cause of this coalition.”
But UN-authorized “humanitarian intervention” hardly is the stuff of a muscular, pro-American foreign policy. Instead, its advocates are typically proud they support using US military force for reasons utterly unhitched to concrete American interests, under “international authorization” rather than unambiguous US control.
Clinton herself shows no regrets: “the revolution had succeeded, and the hard work of building a new country could begin.” Obviously, she was flatly wrong about the revolution succeeding, as the terrorist murder of four Americans on Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi tragically proved (and which “Hard Choices” also fails to explain).
My view, then and now, was that US intervention was justified for completely different reasons: Gadhafi had threatened returning to international terrorism, which he had implicitly abandoned along with his nuclear-weapons program in 2003. This threat was aimed primarily at the United States and warranted immediate action to remove it.
Hillary Clinton’s “hawkishness,” by contrast, is decidedly tilted ideologically. It subordinates US discretion to international organizations and disconnects military action from American national interests as historically understood. And we can justifiably surmise that Clinton’s passivity as an adviser will be even more pronounced when the mantle of decision-making rests on her shoulders rather than another’s. That is Hillary Clinton’s unspinnable message to voters, in her very own words.
This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.