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Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy: Nothing Wagered, Nothing Learned

by Pierre Tristam

Hillary Clinton is not the most hawkish foreign policy Democrats among 2008 hopefuls. Barack Obama, who suffers from that Kennedy inferiority complex, is. At least that's the conclusion one is forced to draw after reading their respective white papers in Foreign Affairs. Obama's preceded Clinton's by several months. Maybe Clinton is softening her image. She is all about adaptation, triangulation, obfuscation. And she gives few specifics. That said, her Foreign Affairs piece projects a more human, less bombastic Clinton foreign policy than we're generally led to believe. But it also projects an astonishing reverence for the status quo and a fatal misunderstanding of how American power is perceived abroad: she makes no distinction between the way Americans want it perceived, and the way it actually is perceived. The question is not whether she can be trusted. It is whether she considers her education complete. If yes, we-the United States and the world-have not seen the end of their American-enabled troubles.

The usual presumptions are all there: "The world still looks to the United States for leadership. American leadership is wanting, but it is still wanted." Who she means by "the world" isn't clear: The 50-odd countries of the Arab and Muslim world want American leadership? The European Union wants American leadership? The 2 billion people of China, India and Indonesia want American leadership? What Clinton means is that 300 million Americans want the world to want American leadership, but that moment is past.

What the world wants, more likely, is a little less American leadership, which the world interprets as unilateral Father-Knows-Best Americanism, and more American responsibility: America, in other word,s should do its part, from cutting its own nuclear weapons stockpiles to its own carbon emissions to its own arms exports to its own proclivities for meddling. Clinton is still hung up on "leadership," a term increasingly locked and loaded. The proof is in Clinton's kicker: "I will rebuild our power to ensure that the United States is committed to building a world we want, rather than simply defending against a world we fear." A world we want? I have visions of a three year old at the dinner table commanding the spread before and beyond him: I want this, I want that, I want it all, and expecting the convicts around the table to jump at his every command. That, it seems, is how Clinton sees her world, with herself its 3-year-old head.

Clinton is right to note the obvious: the "next president will be the first to inherit two wars," actually three, although she calls the "war on terror" by its more accurate name: "a long-term campaign against global terrorist networks." That's one of the more encouraging small details in her approach: there's no mention of a "war on terror," certainly no mention of Giuliani's harebrained "War Against Us" or John McCain's apocalyptic, and apoplectic, vision of a civilizational clash. But the open-endedness that Clinton gives her campaign, in time and targets, is no different than that of Clinton or McCain, even if her overriding principle is not: "We must return to a pragmatic willingness to look at the facts on the ground and make decisions based on evidence rather than ideology." Maybe we'll be spared pre-emptive wars in a Clinton presidency. Here she is at her principled strongest:

Avoid false choices driven by ideology. The Bush administration has presented the American people with a series of false choices: force versus diplomacy, unilateralism versus multilateralism, hard power versus soft. Seeing these choices as mutually exclusive reflects an ideologically blinkered vision of the world that denies the United States the tools and the flexibility it needs to lead and succeed. There is a time for force and a time for diplomacy; when properly deployed, the two can reinforce each other. U.S. foreign policy must be guided by a preference for multilateralism, with unilateralism as an option when absolutely necessary to protect our security or avert an avoidable tragedy.

She cannot, however, resist the Rambo imagery every one of her rivals has embraced: "We cannot negotiate with individual terrorists; they must be hunted down and captured or killed." Note the distinction between terrorist nations (which she deems Iran to be) and "individual terrorists." She'll negotiate with Iran, as we'll see in a moment. She won't negotiate with individual terrorists. Why the distinction, especially when she recognizes, as we all do, that individual terrorists have just as much power as states? Clinton (and all establishment candidates) are still hopelessly stuck in a rather childish mode of perceptions that seeks to appease public presumptions more than tackle international problems in earnest.

What of Iraq? That's the big question. Here, one finds her at once in her safest, vaguest mode. She recognizes that ending the war "is the first step toward restoring the United States' global leadership," but that immediately raises a red flag. As noted earlier, restoring American leadership, as opposed to restoring American credibility in the world, are two currently contradictory motives. Clinton opts for leadership.

On withdrawal from Iraq, here are her best proposals:

  • "I will convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council and direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home, starting within the first 60 days of my administration."
  • "While working to stabilize Iraq as our forces withdraw, I will focus U.S. aid on helping Iraqis, not propping up the Iraqi government. Financial resources will go only where they will be used properly, rather than to government ministries or ministers that hoard, steal, or waste them." (Good, but corruption is rampant at every level of Iraqi society.)
  • "I will convene a regional stabilization group composed of key allies, other global powers, and all the states bordering Iraq. Working with the newly appointed UN special representative for Iraq, the group will be charged with developing and implementing a strategy for achieving a stable Iraq that provides incentives for Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey to stay out of the civil war." (To stay out of Iraq, of course, is the wrong word: all those nations are up to their missiles' neck-deep in Iraq as it is.)

It's good to see Clinton recognizing the plight of 4 million Iraqi refugees, and wanting the United States to do more than it's doing, but she doesn't say what or how.

On Israel and Palestine, she's scant and imprecise. She repeats the usual platitudes: Palestinians must have a nation of their own, they must recognize Israel, they must renounce violence (never once, of course saying that Israel would do well to renounce violence and end its occupation of Palestinian lands). And she puts a premium on American mediation, which is what's lacked most during the Bush years. Beyond that, nothing.

On Iran: She doesn't call for nuking Iran here, but she leaves the option open: " Iran must conform to its nonproliferation obligations and must not be permitted to build or acquire nuclear weapons. If Iran does not comply with its own commitments and the will of the international community, all options must remain on the table." Those musts raise the question: what if Iran didn't do any of these things? And why should it not acquire nuclear weapons? Still, there's an adaptive approach. Clinton notes that one of the best ways to strengthen American credibility on convincing Iran to verge off nuclear armament is to cut its own nuclear stockpiles. A good, original suggestion (at least among presidential candidates, most of whom seem to have forgotten that America's stockpiles are still massive and massively dangerous).

Obama has adapted his outlook too. In his Foreign Affairs piece, he all but endorsed war on Iran if it carried on with nuclear ambitions. He has since tempered his approach, talking of engaging Iran diplomatically first and foremost, including a promise of not seeking "regime change," if Iran agrees to renounce terrorism and meddling in Iraq in return, and abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. That's a tall order. It amounts to telling Iran who and what to be. How can the United States tell Iran not to meddle in Iraq when American troops are occupying the country? But don't get hung up on specifics. Candidates are painting an image of themselves, not setting out agendas. So what's more important is the shift in tone. Obama may be realizing that he went too far with the war talk. Clinton, aside from her silly reminder that she's as nuke-trigger-happy as the next guy, was always a step ahead of him.

But Clinton's hawkishness was in full force a couple of weeks ago when Bush announced sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds division. The Senate went further. It declared the Guard a foreign terrorist organization (which is no different than declaring the U.S. Marines an American terrorist organization). And Clinton voted for that silly initiative, as did 74 other senators. None of the other Democratic candidates supported the resolution.

On China: Here too, Clinton is taking the establishment line that China is America's next great challenge, if not enemy: "Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century." Then she makes a startling statement: "The United States and China have vastly different values and political systems, yet even though we disagree profoundly on issues ranging from trade to human rights, religious freedom, labor practices, and Tibet, there is much that the United States and China can and must accomplish together." Strange. Why doesn't that standard apply to Iran? China sponsors terrorism, too. In Darfur. Which Clinton in this very essay declares a "genocide" (it'll be interesting to see if she maintains that designation when she's elected president. One of her husband's most shameful legacy is his tap-dancing around the word when it came time to see the Rwandan genocide for what it was-and his withdrawing of U.N. troops from Rwanda once the genocide became known.) China is repressive. China meddles.

Ah, but China holds more than $1 trillion in U.S. public and private debt. Let's not upset the tiger. Let's cozy up to the cage, especially since we're the ones in the cage.

On the rest of the world: Clinton has cursory recognition for India's rise as an economic power, but barely a few lines for Africa, the eternal step-child of foreign affairs. She declares education "the foundation of economic opportunity" the world over, and that it should lie "at the heart of America's foreign assistance efforts," but that will require a fundamental shift away from what's at the heart of America's foreign assistance efforts today: arms sales. She has a few good words for fighting global warming, but her clearest suggestion is as tame and unconvincing as her market=-based approach to health care reform: "a market-based cap-and-trade approach."

Her reprise of the old Jimmy Carter theme is encouraging: "We have undercut international support for fighting terrorism by suggesting that the job cannot be done without humiliation, infringements on basic rights to privacy and free speech, and even torture. We must once again make human rights a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy and a core element of our conception of democracy."

But in the end, while one's not surprised by anything, Clinton comes off as a Lieberman-like equivocator who'll do what's necessary to protect the American status quo first and foremost. Her foreign policy recognizes that massive mistakes have been made, but her program includes nothing like a retraction as opposed to an adjustment, a retreat-with-honor sort of bet that, if we still deploy American might all over the world but do it more carefully and less bombastically, the world would love us all over again. She forgets the biggest lesson of all-not 9/11, but the 1990s, when her husband was president and American forces and power was projected in exactly the sort of ways she now projects. It was those projections that gave rise and reason to al-Qaeda's followers, and to their attacks on the Cole, on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, on the embassies in Africa, and so on.

Clinton, in other words, has learned very little. She wants education for the rest of the world. The best place to start is Hillary Clinton.

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at ptristam@att.net or through his personal Web site at www.pierretristam.com .

© 2007 Pierre Tristam

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