How would President Hillary Clinton conduct foreign policy? After decades of public exposure, including four years as secretary of state, one would think the answer to that question would be obvious. But it isn’t entirely clear.
Perhaps that’s because Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom she debated Thursday ahead of the New York primary, has tried to paint her as Hillary Hawk by constantly harping on her Senate vote for the Iraq war (while punting on most foreign policy questions.) Clinton has apologized for backing the 2003 war.
Or perhaps it’s because her role as secretary was constrained by the fact that, during her tenure, foreign policy decision-making was closely held by the Obama White House. We don’t know what Clinton would have done had she been given the leeway of a James Baker (who held the post under President George H.W. Bush).
We do know that Clinton’s instincts were more muscular than her boss. In the summer of 2012 – before the Islamic State, when senior Syrian military defectors were looking for help in organizing a secular rebellion – she urged President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels. This position was also adopted by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA head David Petraeus and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. Obama demurred.
When I asked a senior aide how she would differentiate herself from Obama, he replied, “They are two different people with two different styles and temperament (and differences in) how they think of America in the world.”
Clinton sees America as the leading global actor, without apologies, and wants to use all the tools of American power – including force, in collaboration with allies, if there is a compelling national interest and all other tools have failed.
Whereas an aide famously described Obama as “leading from behind” Clinton is clearly eager to lead from the front.
But, during a conference call with The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Editorial Board this week, when I asked her to describe her foreign policy philosophy, her emphasis was on diplomacy. “When I became secretary of state,” she said, “I chose to say I wanted to practice smart power, meaning I wanted to elevate diplomacy and development (alongside) defense, because I thought the Bush administration militarized our foreign policy to our detriment.”
A perfect example of “slow, patient diplomacy,” she said, was the Iran sanctions. As secretary, she put together the international coalition, including Russia and China, that imposed the toughest ever sanctions on Tehran, which finally brought the ayatollahs to the bargaining table. Clinton started the negotiations for the agreement that was completed by Secretary John Kerry.
But, and here she was emphatic, “We’ve got to enforce it. If the Iranians violate even a lesser provision, there needs to be consequences.” Her emphasis on enforcement was made with a vehemence that isn’t usually heard from Obama.
I asked her views on use of force, and whether she regretted her advice to Obama to intervene in 2011 to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from massacring the inhabitants of Benghazi, Libya, a decision that ultimately produced a failed state which has become a terrorist haven. (This is a different issue from the tragic deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three U.S. officials in Benghazi, which have generated endless conspiracy theories that have been disproved by eight congressional committees.)
Clinton insisted she acted only after urgent requests from the British and the French, as well as the Arab League, and after the U.N. Security Council had called for measures to protect civilians. U.S. military involvement was limited, in support of NATO partners and the Arabs.
Yet a humanitarian intervention evolved into regime change, and America’s allies failed to help rebuild Libya after the fall of Gadhafi. A Clinton aide cautions “don’t extract from Libya that she is a fan of regime change, but sometimes a dictator remaining in power is the worst option.”
To be fair, had Obama not intervened, the Libyan situation might have turned out like Syria, with a dictator clinging to power as civil war raged and terrorist groups took root.
Clinton seems on firmer ground when speaking of Syria, where she says diplomacy must be accompanied by “intensifying our military actions against (the Islamic State).” She would like a more robust air coalition to take out Islamic State infrastructure and leadership, while supporting Kurdish and Arab fighters on the ground who are battling the Islamic State.
I have my doubts about her call for a “no-fly zone” in the north of Syria to train and equip those fighters. With Russia involved, and Turkey at odds with the Kurds, I doubt such a zone is possible, but Clinton says she would push it in talks with Moscow and Ankara.
However, events in Syria are moving so fast, no one can predict the situation when the next president is sworn in.
What one can say is that Clinton has far more foreign policy experience and a deeper network of advisers than any of her competitors. And the foreign policy alternatives to her candidacy are slim.
In a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board, the charismatic Sanders was clearly disinterested and thinly briefed on foreign issues. As for her GOP competitors, Donald Trump is totally irresponsible while Sen. Ted Cruz’s mix of fundamentalism and careless military bravado is scary.
Obama once said his organizing principle was “don’t do stupid stuff.” Clinton aides say her organizing principle is this: “The United States must be aggressive in leading, in pulling friends together and creating disincentives for our adversaries.” In this strange election year, that looks like the best foreign policy mantra we can get.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.