Hillary Clinton’s gaffes during a tour to promote her new book have drawn much attention, but her biggest weaknesses have little to do with her poor choice of words. Rather, they involve what Clinton likely expected to be the core of her political strength: her record as secretary of state.
Barring a sharp reversal of America’s fortunes abroad, Clinton’s inextricable ties to President Obama’s foreign policy will have sown the seeds of her 2016 campaign’s destruction. Voters realize that the world has taken a turn toward tumult, one that stems in significant part from the key initiatives Clinton championed as President Obama’s chief diplomat. If crises abroad persist, voters will be seeking a change from Obama’s foreign policy, and it will be virtually impossible for Clinton to separate herself from the failures continuing to play out overseas.
Chief among these issues today is the unraveling of Iraq. Its current chaos stands in sharp contrast to the Iraq that Obama and Clinton inherited in 2009. Iraq at that point was relatively stable due to the surge of U.S. troops ordered by President Bush. But as the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — an al-Qaeda offshoot — throws Iraq into conflict, the hard reality is that many of the gains that America spent blood and treasure to win have been lost.
This is in large part the result of Obama’s and Clinton’s failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq that would have kept a contingent of U.S. military trainers and advisers in the country to solidify our gains. Although both Obama and Clinton have strenuously tried to spin their precipitous troop withdrawal at the end of 2011 as a success, a residual force had been the centerpiece of their Iraq policy up to that point. Their failure to find a way to get to yes with the Iraqis on a SOFA had a number of dire consequences.
The day after U.S. troops withdrew, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, began to aggressively consolidate governmental power along sectarian lines. He proceeded to undermine the professionalism of the Iraqi military by replacing competent commanders with cronies. These power grabs left Iraq unable to handle either the recent offensives by ISIS or a resurgence of smaller terrorist attacks throughout the nation. Sunni populations have little incentive to assist what they see as a Shiite-dominated central government, and Iraq’s military, lacking proper leadership and training, has faltered in the face of a much smaller ISIS force.
The crisis in Iraq is deeply connected to Clinton’s naïveté and inaction in Syria. Starting in 2009 she implemented a charm offensive toward Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — a dictator who sponsored terrorism, developed weapons of mass destruction, and aided insurgents who killed American troops in Iraq — in hopes of peeling him away from his patron state, Iran. She restored a U.S. ambassador to Syria, and her special envoy declared an easing of U.S. sanctions. Even when Assad began butchering his own people, Clinton continued her quixotic charm offensive by infamously declaring him a “reformer.”
Ultimately, Clinton’s State Department never implemented an effective strategy to urge Assad’s removal and empower Syrian moderates. It clung to a policy of caution even as the hope for a new Syria faded and prospects grew that Assad would survive, or that a failed state teeming with jihadists would burn in the heart of the Middle East. And now those jihadists, in the form of ISIS, have made the jump into Iraq.
In Libya, another jihadist hotbed has arisen due in large part to Clinton’s policies. Clinton was the key advocate for U.S. military intervention in Libya, which achieved its immediate aim of removing Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. But intervention failed to achieve the overall strategic aim of enhancing regional security. This is because State Department–led efforts to stabilize and build the capacity of Libya’s government and economy were wholly inadequate. So were initiatives to secure loose weapons that could fall into the hands of jihadists.
The results of that neglect have been dire. Jihadists armed with Libyan weapons seized northern Mali in 2012, necessitating French military intervention the following year. These weapons have also likely been acquired by ISIS, fueling the group’s current offensive in Iraq. And back in Libya, security and governance drastically deteriorated, leaving the central government unable to control vast tracts of the nation. It was this environment that allowed for the tragic murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
Meanwhile, if the Middle East and North Africa weren’t dominating the headlines, we’d be paying more attention to Clinton’s failed Russian “reset.” In 2009 a smiling Clinton offered Russia’s foreign minister a toy button — emblazoned with a mistranslation of “reset” — to show that Russia’s then-recent invasion of Georgia was all but forgotten. Now cast in the cruel light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued aggression toward the rest of Ukraine, that episode is an embarrassing encapsulation of Clinton’s naïve approach to the Kremlin. It is an approach that emboldened Russian efforts to frustrate American interests, whether in opposing crippling economic sanctions on Iran, arming the Assad regime in Syria, or harboring Edward Snowden.
It was not supposed to be this way for Clinton. The theory of a 2016 Clinton candidacy has always been that she would coast to the presidency on the credibility gained by having been on the world stage before.
But the world isn’t following the tidy political script she’s written.
Clinton’s credential as a former secretary of state will likely help carry her to the Democratic nomination she missed out on in 2008. But general-election voters will not be so forgiving. They will look past the façade of her credential, recognize her leading role in a failed foreign policy, and opt instead for a clean break with the recent past.
— Alex N. Wong is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and was the foreign and legal policy director on the Romney-Ryan campaign. Lanhee J. Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, teaches in the public-policy program and at the law school at Stanford University, and was policy director on the Romney-Ryan campaign.