Hillary Clinton threw down a gauntlet worthy of a medieval knight when she attacked Donald Trump’s foreign policy competence in her much-noted speech in San Diego a couple of months ago. She bragged that she was the voice of experience – especially compared to Trump, who she described as “dangerously incoherent.”
If only it worked that way.
Experience in and of itself is not a value. Ford built the Edsel after 54 years of experience. Clinton was secretary of throughout President Obama’s first term. How much does that experience matter? Not much, if you match her record against the foreign policy planks in Clinton’s 2016 presidential platform.
One overarching theme is instantly evident: Clinton is almost weirdly incapable of learning from experience. It’s as if she fixed her thinking at some point in the past and lacks the confidence to alter it in response to a world that changes more swiftly than anyone could’ve imagined even a few years ago.
Here’s a brief look at the major policy questions—the big stuff that will define a Hillary Clinton presidency, should she be elected in November. (Two of the largest issues, China and Russia, were considered in this space in the past two weeks.)
• Syria. Clinton favors aggressive intervention in the Syria conflict, which lines her up with a faction at the State Department that raised its voice in a memo to Secretary of State Kerry leaked to The New York Times in mid–June. The shared argument is that deposing President Assad must remain the objective of U.S. policy.
You don’t need a taste for Assad to recognize the error here. Knock over Assad before defeating the Islamic State and you’ve created another post–Qaddafi Libya. This danger is precisely what drew Russia into the Syria conflict last fall. Why can’t Clinton learn from her very costly misjudgment in the Libyan case?
• Israel. In foreign policy as in love, “unconditional” is a dangerous word. Yet Clinton hasn’t tempered her unqualified support for Israel since she declared it during her years as New York’s junior senator. It’s wrong in numerous dimensions, two of them big. One, it drastically reduces Washington’s room to maneuver in a region amid fundamental flux. Two, it’s also a case of false kindness toward Israel.
Asher Schechter called Clinton “Israel’s worst best friend” in his Haaretz column earlier this year. “She has enabled and even encouraged self-destructive behaviors and elements that have effectively killed the two-state solution and are now threatening Israel’s security and democracy,” Schechter elaborated.
That’s straight to the point. Israel needs a dose of tough love, and Clinton isn’t long on that kind.
• The Greater Middle East. Whoever moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next January will have to navigate exceedingly complex rivalries among regional powers with whom U.S. relations are in flux, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two poles in the region’s Shi’a–Sunni conflict.
Whether Clinton is up to this is a serious question. The problems here are balance and—as so often with the Clinton’s—potential conflicts of interest.
Having famously threatened to “obliterate Iran” while running against Obama in 2008, Clinton remains hawkish toward Tehran even amid shifting winds. There were no reformists in power eight years ago; there are now. Do we want to encourage them or sabotage them?
On the other side, Clinton took Washington’s long-consolidated ties to Riyadh just as she found them, and these, too, are changing. Equally, the Saudis have long been prominent among the Clinton Foundation’s donors, as has been widely reported. This can’t be dismissed as immaterial.
• Trade. Clinton vigorously endorsed the Trans–Pacific Partnership as secretary of state but flipped in response to Bernie Sanders’ opposition (and Trump’s). She now opposes it “in its current form,” prompting widespread suspicion that she’ll tweak it and flip again if elected.
Treating the TPP as a political football doesn’t instill confidence. This pact is monumentally complex; standing for or against it doesn’t conflate with a position on free trade. Pushing the TTP through—and the TTIP, its Atlantic equivalent—requires a lot more caution and balance than Bill Clinton displayed when he signed NAFTA into law. The question: Does Hillary Clinton have enough of either?
Two broader questions also hang over Clinton’s foreign policy positions.
One: Clinton has a hawkish preference for policies that rank military options first. The use of force has to be recognized as a necessity in some cases. In no case will it ever succeed unless it is accompanied by sound, sophisticated diplomatic and political work that addresses underlying problems and conflicts.
Does Clinton grasp this point? It’s unclear but looks doubtful. She clearly missed it, to tragic result, when she backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and again when she encouraged NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya five years ago.
Of her thinking now on Syria after Assad, we have heard nothing. This has to be a worry.
Two: Clinton believes without apparent questioning or doubt in American primacy in global affairs. That was the 20th century game, but the rules are different in the 21st. The world’s multipolar now: We must all face this core reality, no matter our different political stripes.
Hillary Clinton comes across as too rigid on this point, a touch stuck in the past. Dexterity and imagination are what we want to see in the next president. Clinton’s experience in foreign affairs is extensive, but it doesn’t seem to have endowed her with much of either.