As I’ve said before, the concern I hear most often about Hillary Clinton from Democrats is her more “hawkish” views on foreign policy. On the campaign trail, that isn’t addressed by her opponents when they resort to soundbites about how she is simply in favor of “regime change.” That is an attempt to use an old frame to describe something that is much more complex when it comes to the challenges we face in the world today.
That is why I was interested in a discussion between Jeffrey Goldberg and Mark Landler in which they delve into the differences between Clinton and Obama on foreign policy. I suspect that they might be on to something here:
Landler: But my argument is that if you look at their instincts and reflexes and the way that they are apt to respond to a crisis, they just come at it very differently, and this is in part because they come from very different places both in terms of time and geography. Obama grew up in the ’70s, and he had this itinerant existence, living in Indonesia for a period –
Goldberg: Looking at America from the outside in –
Landler: Looking at America from outside in, as sort of an expatriate’s view of America –
Goldberg: And Hillary is literally in the middle of America looking out –
Landler: Yes. She’s in the heartland, but also in the 1950s, with a conservative Navy petty officer father. And so she viewed America as a country that was a force for good, that American interventions generally could be a positive rather than a negative thing. And I think Obama was much more skeptical about that.
That was reminiscent of something Clinton said to Goldberg in their interview back in 2014 when discussing the current “jihadist” threats (her words) in the Middle East.
I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.
That was her attempt to suggest the need for an “organizing principle” in our foreign policy beyond Obama’s “Don’t do stupid stuff.” While it is important that she acknowledged that “we made a lot of mistakes,” she seems to suggest that they were justified because we won the Cold War. But it was the myopic vision of seeing struggles for democracy as nothing more than communist threats (the organizing principle) that led us to make some of the biggest mistakes in our country’s history. After 9/11, the Bush/Cheney administration introduced another organizing principle – the Global War on Terror – that was their justification for everything from the Iraq War to torture to Guantanamo. In light of all that, “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not a bad alternative when it comes to organizing principles.
From there, it was disappointing to see both Goldberg and Landler consistently employ the Washington Playbook to analyze the similarities and differences between Obama and Clinton. I won’t point to a specific example because it permeates the entire discussion. For both of them, the assumption is that U.S. intervention in global affairs can only take the form of military intervention. In discussing what a Clinton presidency would do differently than Obama when it comes to Syria, it is presented as a matter of whether or not she will change course and attempt to implement a military solution.
In order to understand why that is such a shallow view of the alternatives, it is important to keep three things in mind when it comes to the civil war in Syria:
1. It began during the Arab Spring when the people of Syria rose up in protest against the dictatorial abuses of the Assad regime.
2. Once Assad responded by using the military to violently suppress the people, the civil war became a proxy war, with Russia and Iran joining the regime to fight against what was viewed as a Sunni uprising supported by many of the Gulf States.
3. That chaos gave ISIS an opening in Syria.
What President Obama knows is that even the U.S. military can do little other than escalate the situation in Syria – especially when it comes to how Russia and Iran would respond. So what is the alternative? The key to long-term success in Syria is ending it as a proxy war being engaged by Russia, Iran and the Gulf States. That means diplomacy takes center stage with things like the Iran nuclear deal and the Syrian peace talks. Those can be seen as “interventions” in the Syrian civil war, but were unaddressed as such by Goldberg and Landler.
What would be interesting to explore with Hillary Clinton is whether or not she agrees with President Obama’s goal (as expressed to David Remnick) of a “new equilibrium” in the Middle East.
Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
What is clear is that, if elected to be our next president, Hillary Clinton’s approach to foreign policy will be different in some complex ways from what we’ve seen from Obama. But it is difficult for many of us to understand what that will look like if all we hear are either campaign soundbites or analysis that is limited to the assumptions dictated by the Washington playbook.