Politics & Policy

On Foreign Policy, Hillary Exploits the GOP Identity Crisis

Clinton delivers her foreign policy address in San Diego. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
A hawkish Mrs. Clinton blasts Trump.

Hillary Clinton may seem an odd figure to serve as a defender of the legacy of Ronald Reagan, a champion of the honor of John McCain, and a critic of the economic prescriptions of Depression-era Democrats, but 2016 has been nothing if not surprising.

What the former secretary of state’s presidential campaign had billed as a foreign-policy address, in San Diego on Thursday, was, in fact, an attack on her presumptive Republican rival, Donald Trump. And in pivoting toward the general election, Clinton also pivoted toward the center.

“He had the gall to say prisoners of war, like John McCain, aren’t heroes,” Clinton averred, drawing boos from the animated crowd of partisan Democrats.

She attacked Donald Trump’s assessment of the weakness of American leadership. To illustrate her case, she chose a 1987 full-page newspaper advertisement authored by Trump, in which he attacked Ronald Reagan’s supposedly wilting spine. “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure,” the advertisement read. Two years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years after that, Communism in Europe perished.

Clinton even had harsh words for the kind of trade protectionism that Trump champions and that appeals to the progressive voters rallying around Bernie Sanders. Though she chided China for its protectionism and dumping, she also offered a note of caution about escalating reciprocal tariffs and the “trade war” Trump has promised will follow. “We went down that road in the 1930s,” said Clinton. “It made the Great Depression longer and more painful.”

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For Democrats who have spent the past seven years defending Barack Obama’s Keynesian economic interventionism and the efficacy of tariffs on Chinese tires, this attack on the Obama-style Democratic-party policies of the 1930s must have felt like a knife in the gut.

Or, at least, it would have — had Clinton’s speech not struck such a deft contrast with her Republican opponent. Conservatives should take heart in the fact that Clinton’s advisers determined that the most effective way to present herself as the antidote to Trump was to sound like a Republican — at least, the kind of Republican that has been nominated to the presidency for the last 40 years. Gone was the hand-wringing about American post–Cold War supremacy. Her speech was bereft of self-indulgent pretentiousness about the sacred sovereignty of Iran or Guatemala, which were cruelly violated by Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA. Clinton’s speech was, by and large, a defense of America’s current role in the world and a pledge to maintain it through robust and preemptive action.

#share#The biggest problem with Hillary Clinton’s message is that Hillary Clinton was its messenger. “I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants,” Clinton quipped. “I just wonder how anyone could be so wrong about who America’s real friends are. But it matters. Because if you don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with, men like Putin will eat you for lunch.” As the architect of the failed “Russian reset,” though, Clinton knows what it’s like when Moscow’s apparatchiks steal your milk money. In a staggering display of arrogance, the Obama administration presumed in 2009 that Russian antagonism was a product of George W. Bush’s hapless foreign policy, and not more simply the result of the Kremlin’s geopolitical objectives’ conflicting with those of the United States. In the time that has passed since Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov shared a chuckle over a repurposed Staples-brand “Easy Button,” Russia violated the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, invaded and annexed sovereign territory in Europe (the first event of its kind since 1945), undermined America’s alliances in the Middle East, and orchestrated military intervention beyond the former Soviet Union’s borders for the first time since Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan.

The biggest problem with Hillary Clinton’s message is that Hillary Clinton was its messenger.

While paying lip service to the value of America’s network of allies abroad, she defended the Iran nuclear deal that is reshuffling a longstanding power balance in the Middle East and turning Washington away from Cairo and Riyadh and toward Iran. Clinton’s warnings of Iran’s expanded influence in the region and her promises to contain the crisis in Syria sound discordant, from a former secretary of state who watched helplessly as Tehran sent its soldiers to fight in the Levant on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

For Republicans, their bind is that Clinton’s hypocrisy matters little when weighed against Trump’s contention that the Islamic State should have a “free zone” in Syria, that America’s multilateral alliances should be dissolved, that individual allies should provide Washington recompense for the privilege of a mutual-defense treaty, or that nuclear proliferation is not only unpreventable but desirable. His brand of retrenchment is and has been a traditionally Democratic value since at least the Vietnam War. Republicans who came of age voting for the kind of robust defense of American interests abroad championed by conventional Republican presidential candidates should not be surprised to see some resistance among conservatives to abandoning all that.

#related#Republicans should have no illusions about how Hillary Clinton would govern as president. Nor should they be shocked by how she will conduct America’s foreign affairs. If the last quarter century is any guide, conservatives will probably find her tenure suboptimal. They will see America’s influence on the world stage shrink, as it has under Barack Obama’s leadership. But they can be forgiven for being surprised by how Clinton seems prepared to campaign for the White House. The chords she struck in this speech were not unfamiliar to Republican ears; they have been sounded by countless Republicans in the past and only weeks ago by such candidates as Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina. If Hillary Clinton plans on running an optimistic campaign in defense of a bright future in which American hegemony is unapologetically preserved, the Republican party’s identity crisis is far from over.

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