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Hillary Clinton speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in December of 2015. (Photo: AP)

Trump as Unifier: Are Hillary Clinton and Neoconservatives Ready to Join Forces?

'Neocon elites are probably the likeliest faction to defect to Clinton, and what they'd want is blood-curdling aggressiveness overseas and Benjamin Netanyahu in charge of Middle East policy.'

Jon Queally

As Donald Trump is declared the presumptive Republican nominee for president, members of the neoconservative establishment, disgusted by the prospect of Trump in the White House, appear to be heading into the welcoming arms of someone more sympathetic to their imperial worldview: Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. 

Steve Schmidt, a prominent Republican strategist and former senior aide to Sen. John McCain, is just one of several political insiders to have made the case over the last couple days – and he has done so repeatedly while speaking as a contributor for MSNBC.

"I have faith that Clinton’s foreign policy would align with what I’m looking for, and she would have my vote."
—unnamed American Enterprise Institute staffer
With Trump at the head of the GOP ticket, Schmidt predicted on Chris Matthews' show earlier this week, "You're going to see a concerted and organized effort by the Hillary Clinton campaign to go after senior members of the Republican foreign policy establishment — big names. I'm not trying to put a partisan imprint on David Petraeus. But names like Petraeus, retired General Odierno, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft. Men and women who served in senior positions, in national security positions, in Republican administrations. The Clinton campaign's going to go after them. They're going to go after them forcefully."

On Wednesday, the Clinton campaign at least hinted at this approach by posting a list of people it described as "prominent activists, journalists and elected officials" in the Republican Party who have decided to reject Trump, quoting some who explicitly said they would vote for Clinton if she ends up as the Democratic nominee. A verbatim sampling from the list (which was further updated by the campaign on Thursday) follows:

According to journalist and political commentator Sam Sacks, who spoke with D.C.-based Sputnik Radio about the same dynamic on Thursday, observers can expect to "see a lot of the neoconservatives, people who were, ironically, very close in the George W. Bush administration... coming home and supporting Clinton, who has a foreign policy record that hews pretty neoconservative."

Offering a taste of what this looks like, one unnamed Republican who works on national security issues for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., explained to ThinkProgress why he won’t be supporting Trump in November and why Clinton might ultimately be the best choice.

"If a conservative emerges that approaches foreign policy in a principled, coherent manner, and that understands and values the important role that America plays in world affairs, I will support them," he wrote in a text. "Otherwise, I have faith that Clinton’s foreign policy would align with what I’m looking for, and she would have my vote."

With various factions of Republicans and so-called "movement conservatives" still holding the line on what has become known as a #NeverTrump effort, Ryan Cooper writes at The Week on Thursday that "Neocon elites are probably the likeliest faction to defect to Clinton, and what they'd want is blood-curdling aggressiveness overseas and Benjamin Netanyahu in charge of Middle East policy."

Not that this is good news in the mind of Cooper. And though he acknowledged it "would be bad" in numerous ways, he also suggested it might not make that much difference in terms of the Republican base. Cooper writes:

Clinton probably won't be able to get meaningful numbers of Republican defectors. She is absolutely loathed among the Republican base and has been for years and years. Reuters says 84 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Clinton, CNN has them at 85 percent. While she might get a few prominent neocons like Max Boot or Robert Kagan, they won't bring anyone over with them. And those few aside, the vast majority of the party will accommodate themselves to Trump eventually. It's happening already.

Besides, even if lots more conservatives came out for Clinton, the entire story of the GOP primary has been Republican elites completely losing control over the party. If they couldn't get conservatives to vote for Jeb Bush, there's little chance they'll get them to vote for someone they dislike much more than him.

That may well be accurate in terms of the electoral calculus, but the deeper question is how Clinton's ties to the neoconservative movement will impact foreign affairs if she is elected to serve as commander-in-chief.

"You're going to see a concerted and organized effort by the Hillary Clinton campaign to go after senior members of the Republican foreign policy establishment — big names."
—Steve Schmidt, GOP strategist

Long known as an aggressive interventionist and regime change advocate on military matters—including her vote approving the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; the leading role she played in the assault on Libya in 2011; her backing of the Honduran coup in 2012, her repeated call for a "no-fly zone" in Syria; and a stated commitment to back Israel's subjugation of the Palestinian people despite the outcry of human rights campaigners—Clinton has an extensive and "hawkish" record.

And neither the question about the symbiotic intellectual relationship she has forged with the neoconservative movement, or the charge she is a neocon herself, is new. In 2014, the New York Times' Jacob Heilbrunn wrote a lengthy examination of the question, "Are neocons getting ready to ally with Hillary Clinton?"

During an interview on Democracy Now! on Tuesday of this week, journalist Jeremy Scahill described Clinton as one of the "legendary Democratic hawks in modern U.S. history" and said the former secretary of state is what he likes to call "a cruise missile liberal" – someone who believes "in launching missiles to solve problems and show they’re tough across the globe."

And, as a profile in the New York Times Magazine last month highlighted, Clinton has made a concerted effort—both as a U.S. senator and during her tenure heading the State Department—of fostering deep and meaningful ties to powerful members of the global military-industrial establishment.

As Mark Landler, the author of that profile and a new book on Clinton's foreign policy mindset, reported in the Times:

As Hillary Clinton makes another run for president, it can be tempting to view her hard-edged rhetoric about the world less as deeply felt core principle than as calculated political maneuver. But Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts are bred in the bone — grounded in cold realism about human nature and what one aide calls “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” It set her apart from her rival-turned-boss, Barack Obama, who avoided military entanglements and tried to reconcile Americans to a world in which the United States was no longer the undisputed hegemon. And it will likely set her apart from the Republican candidate she meets in the general election. For all their bluster about bombing the Islamic State into oblivion, neither Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has.

“Hillary is very much a member of the traditional American foreign-policy establishment,” says Vali Nasr, a foreign-policy strategist who advised her on Pakistan and Afghanistan at the State Department. “She believes, like presidents going back to the Reagan or Kennedy years, in the importance of the military — in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence. The shift with Obama is that he went from reliance on the military to the intelligence agencies. Their position was, ‘All you need to deal with terrorism is N.S.A. and C.I.A., drones and special ops.’ So the C.I.A. gave Obama an angle, if you will, to be simultaneously hawkish and shun using the military.”

Unlike other recent presidents — Obama, George W. Bush or her husband, Bill Clinton — Hillary Clinton would assume the office with a long record on national security. There are many ways to examine that record, but one of the most revealing is to explore her decades-long cultivation of the military — not just civilian leaders like Gates, but also its high-ranking commanders, the men with the medals. Her affinity for the armed forces is rooted in a lifelong belief that the calculated use of military power is vital to defending national interests, that American intervention does more good than harm and that the writ of the United States properly reaches, as Bush once put it, into “any dark corner of the world.” Unexpectedly, in the bombastic, testosterone-fueled presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton is the last true hawk left in the race.

Critics, of course, will take issue with the assertion that U.S. military intervention over the last two decades has done "more good than harm," but few would argue that among the three candidates of the two major parties left standing, Clinton remains the one "true hawk."

And, as a nascent body of evidence suggests, the members of the pro-war and military establishment know it.

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