Opinion // Hillary the Hawk
by Marshall Breger
Clinton’s foreign policy may surprise her opponents—and her supporters.
Poll-reading liberals may be starting to feel confident that, come January, they will have a like-minded liberal in charge of America’s foreign policy. Poll-reading conservatives, even those who declare themselves Never-Trumpers, likewise offer dark predictions of what will happen if there is a continuation of the Obama foreign policy “legacy.” Both are missing the Hillary Clinton who is in plain sight.
Liberals tend to see Hillary Clinton through their own eyes—as someone who will support a more nuanced and humble foreign policy, operating in a multilateral context, with an emphasis on diplomacy. In choosing another Democrat to succeed President Obama, they think, they are getting rid once and for all of the neoconservatives who gave us the Iraq War. But they are wrong. Clinton is a hawk who channels neocon values, even if she won’t use the word—or perhaps can’t, because it has become so closely associated with Republicans.
Look at the record. First, any way you look at it, she voted for the Iraq War. While she opposed the Iraq troop surge in 2007, she told then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates that she did so for political reasons. Once she became secretary of state, she supported the 2009 surge in Afghanistan to the max, pushing for the president to send the largest possible number of troops.
In general, Clinton has shown herself willing to use a muscular approach to the military—both to use our troops and to threaten to use them. She leaned in early on support for the Syrian rebels and supports a no-fly zone in Syria. She supported intervention and then regime change in Libya. And regime change leads inevitably to the notion of nation-building.
Compare this to Obama, who has largely tried to promote diplomatic solutions, multinational solutions and the idea that America can’t do it alone. When he has deployed the military, he has appeared to be forced into it. None of this is part of Clinton’s worldview.
In some ways, Clinton is even more interventionist than the neocons, because she accepts the idea of “Responsibility to Protect,” or RtoP, which was the basis for our intervention in Libya. And when you look to other parts of the world, Clinton is on the front lines for imposing sanctions on Russia over its behavior in Ukraine. True, early in the Obama administration she supported a “reset” of relations with Russia, but she has since moved dramatically toward a militant stance.
It’s hard to draw a serious contrast with Donald Trump, who has no coherent foreign policy, unless you see foreign policy in playground terms—“I’m tougher than you.” Getting past the tough talk, Trump supports a sort of us-first neo-isolationism: Turn away from the world and focus on America’s needs first and maybe always. He would let Russia and ISIS “fight each other,” even though this would once again give Russia a home in the Middle East; he is prepared to consider accepting Russian annexation of Crimea and doesn’t view Ukraine as an important American problem. He has suggested that we won’t fulfill our NATO obligations until we have checked the yearly accounts payable, protecting only those who have paid up.
So why haven’t hawks generally—not to mention supporters of Israel—embraced Clinton enthusiastically? Why do the Never-Trumpers talk about “maybe” being forced to vote for her while implicitly cringing and holding their noses? And why is she seen by so many as anti-Israel? On Israel, Jewish activists are mostly channeling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for reasons noble (they support him) or ignoble (they want to preserve their access to him). After years of hearing Netanyahu say that Obama is selling out Israel on Iran, many people simply merge Clinton with Obama as an object of these attacks. (At times, her campaign has sought to suggest quietly that as secretary of state she was following Obama’s inclinations rather than her own. But this is risky, as it offers critics the choice of seeing her as ineffectual rather than hostile.)
More fundamentally, I believe that when such people look at the long-term demographic trends within the Democratic Party—the influence of progressive labor leaders, the efforts of black and gay activists focused on intersectionality and the pull exerted by Bernie Sanders supporters—they see the party over time as becoming less supportive of Israel. The Democratic grassroots are more cautious about intervention today than they were in 2008. Looking at the party as a whole, people assume Clinton must be anti-Israel.
But Clinton is a lagging indicator here. She comes out of an earlier world and an earlier tradition of muscular Democrats (and maybe, too, from a sense that to be taken seriously, she has to be tougher than the boys). Unlike the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, she subscribes to the vital strategic importance of Israel—part of the neoconservative view. (It’s part of Trump’s view too, apparently, but only because someone took him aside and told him it was in the script.)
From this angle, it is no surprise that Robert Kagan, whom many call the doyen of neoconservatism—he was the cofounder in 1997, with William Kristol, of the Project for the New American Century, which pressed for the Iraq War—was an early Clinton supporter. Indeed, he has headlined a fundraiser for her. And it should not raise many eyebrows that Paul Wolfowitz, generally considered the architect of the Iraq War, has said he “may” need to vote for Clinton—though he hasn’t reached the fundraising stage yet. As for the rest of the electorate, whether they vote for her or not, they ought to know what they are getting.
Marshall Breger is a law professor at Catholic University.