The dominating story about Hillary Clinton lately has been her mishandling of government e-mails. Meanwhile, it is widely agreed that foreign policy and national security will play a large role in the presidential election of 2016 — larger than in 2008 and 2012. Conventional wisdom states that this will be better for Republicans than for Democrats.
A twist on this formula is that Hillary Clinton is being portrayed as stronger than the current occupant of the White House. She is asking voters to remember the foreign policy of her husband, rather than that of the president she served as secretary of state. There are two fundamental problems with this fable: First, Bill Clinton’s foreign policy was catastrophic, made marginally more palatable in retrospect by comparison with the Obama years, and, second, Hillary Clinton was an active supporter of President Obama’s foreign policy, pushing his agenda at every turn. No secretary of state since Thomas Jefferson can claim to be a functionary, merely executing the president’s policy. The secretary of state makes foreign policy in the service of the president; he or she is not some Foreign Service officer in chief.
Thus, there are only three scenarios that a Hillary Clinton foreign policy could plausibly follow.
Scenario One: Bill Clinton, the Next Act
Hillary may favor this scenario, since she said, during a 2007 Democratic candidates’ debate: “I not only advised; I often met with he [sic] and his advisers, both in preparation for, during, and after [her trip to China in 1995]. I traveled with representatives from the Security Council, the State Department, occasionally the Defense Department, and even the CIA. So I was deeply involved in being part of the Clinton team in the first Clinton administration. And I am someone who wants the best possible advice from as many different sources as possible, and that would certainly include my husband.”
Some conservatives are nostalgic for “Bubba”; they cast him as the affable moderate who, though having feet of brittle clay, was someone they could cut deals with. This might be understandable if it had been the 1890s, but it was the 1990s, that misbegotten decade of strange dreams. If there was a Clinton Doctrine, it was half-hearted humanitarian intervention, coupled with limitation of the use of force. The theme of the Bill Clinton years was vacillation mixed with hesitancy, in the framework of a vague notion of liberalism and pro-globalization in economics. His administration resurrected the risk-averse poltergeists of Vietnam and engaged in humiliating misadventures in Haiti; it failed to prevent or stop the genocide in Rwanda, and it displayed cowardice in Somalia. These incompetencies solidified a view by the United States’ enemies — in particular al-Qaeda and the Chinese military — that Americans were feckless, unwilling to take casualties, and unable to sustain a fight.
The Bill Clinton years proved two things: First, the United States was so powerful that it could rest on the laurels of successful past presidents, surviving — for a time — sheer incompetence in national security. Second, President Clinton’s inability to deal with the rise of Islamic extremism exposed the United States to its most dangerous threat since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Clinton years were completely rudderless; policies came and went, and strategy emerged despite the president, not because of him. If Hillary wants a repeat of those mistakes, we’d be in for a rough time with her in the White House.
Scenario Two: Obama Lite
In scenario two, Hillary would attempt basically a continuation of the Obama years, which boil down to a witches’ brew that is half the worst aspects of Jimmy Carter’s defeatism cloaked in humility, and half Clintonian incompetence, with just a dash of Nixonian burden-sharing by our allies to make the necromancy work. The failures encompass entire geographical areas: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine. The outright mistakes are Iran, the U.S. defense posture, and the entire category of counterterrorism. This all culminates with the alienation of our allies, most especially Israel and Great Britain. The Obama administration squandered the major gains of the Bush years in what was either one of the most calculated disasters in history, or a bumbling and stumbling that defies logic. One must keep in mind that Hillary Clinton was secretary of state during the worst of these failures and mistakes, and she set the stage for many of the current crises.
Scenario Three: Letting Hillary Be Hillary
In this scenario, she attempts to distance herself from both her husband and the president she served. There are five areas where she has claimed that she differs from President Obama, and in some cases from her husband. She has stated that she would take a softer line toward the Israelis and not push so hard for a freeze on settlements; she claims to have pushed for a gentler approach to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Regarding Syria, she seemed to be going against President Obama when she suggested arming some of the rebel groups. Russia and Iran seem to be her biggest problems with consistency. Although she now wants to portray herself as taking a harder line toward Putin, she was also the author of the infamous “reset” with Russia. Iran is her Achilles’ heel: She has recently stated that she is opposed to a deal that leaves the Iranians in possession of nuclear fuel; she nonetheless orchestrated the secret talks with the Iranians to begin with. She has admitted opposing the successful surge into Iraq in 2007 in the hope of gaining the Democratic nomination in 2008. This is perhaps the salient point that’s pure Clinton, no matter which scenario you discuss: It is the expediency of the moment, popularity here and now, and the inability to take action on the basis of anything but one’s own ambition.
She has not yet offered a grand outline, but when she does, one will have to be suspicious of it from the beginning. Which of the three scenarios is in play at any given time will be dependent on the audience, and the assumed outcome. Voters and the media will have to discern which scenario is being followed. Some in the media think that Hillary needs to thread the needle between a “risk-taking” George W. Bush and a “risk-averse” Barack Obama, though this is a false choice. However, the greater question is simple: Whose interests would she serve? What kind of America does she wish to see? How would she guarantee American military and economic supremacy?
Whichever scenario she chooses to follow to obtain the Democratic nomination, one can assume a different one will be used if she makes it to the general election. And if she should win, an entirely different scenario yet would be used to govern. This scenario-switching belittles the electorate and sets a low priority on the national interest. We survived her husband’s lack of foreign-policy strategy because Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had created the terms for a new Pax Americana. We are still hobbling along now with the current administration because of the successful and tough choices made by George W. Bush, who placed us in a position of supremacy once again — something some on the Republican side need to be reminded of, whether they generally approve of Bush or not. The nation can ill afford another president coming into office without a sound national-security strategy, one based on the greatness of the American people, not the whims of any individual or group.