In fending off the challenge posed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Hillary Clinton has wrapped herself around President Obama, touting her appointment as secretary of state as confirmation of his trust in her “judgment,” while criticizing Sanders for not being ready for prime time as commander in chief. In fact, when it comes to foreign policy, there is little question that Sanders is closer to Obama’s sensibility than is Clinton.
One revealing “tell” is that Clinton’s criticism of Sanders echoes the attacks she leveled at Obama in 2008. That year, her campaign released its infamous “3 a.m. phone call” ad, implying that Obama was not ready to be president. Now she criticizes Sanders because there “is no way to predict what comes in the door of that White House from day to day that can pose a threat to the United States or one of our friends and allies.” Also in 2008, she dismissed Obama as “irresponsible and frankly naive” for saying that he’d be prepared to meet with Iran, North Korea and Cuba without “preconditions.” Now her campaign accuses Sanders of “fundamental misunderstandings” for calling for engaging Russia, Iran with the Sunni nations, and our allies in a coordinated effort to defeat the Islamic State.
The campaign rhetoric exposes a significant divergence in perspective. Both Sanders and Obama opposed President George W. Bush’s catastrophic war of choice in Iraq. Clinton voted for it and defended her vote for years. That was, as Sanders repeats, not just a calamitous case of bad judgment; it also reflects differing worldviews.
Clinton, as Vice President Biden noted, is by temperament an “interventionist.” She believes the United States is an “indispensable nation,” that, in Biden’s phrasing, “we just have to do something when bad people do bad things,” whether our vital interests are involved or not. Leading neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan (a Post contributor) who touted the Iraq War declare themselves “comfortable” with Clinton’s views. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” Kagan said in June 2014, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, share a perspective of “skeptical restraint.” They worry about the unintended consequences of regime change. They are more aware of the limits and costs of military force. They don’t believe the United States can or should police the world. They understand that without restraint abroad, we will never be able to focus on rebuilding our country at home.
This difference was reflected throughout the Obama years. Secretary of State Clinton lobbied hard with the generals for a counterinsurgency “surge” in Afghanistan, over the opposition of Biden and her own aide Richard Holbrooke. The president was skeptical but finally signed on. The counterinsurgency was a failure, and the United States remains mired in Afghanistan to this day.
As a deeply reported two-part article recently published in the New York Times documented, Clinton pushed for the bombing of Libya, countering the objections of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president was reluctant but finally signed on. Clinton exalted when the intervention expanded from stopping civilian massacres to regime change. Upon receiving the news of Moammar Gaddafi’s killing, she crowed, “We came, we saw, he died.” She suggested this was a classic example of “smart power.” Now Libya is a failed state, savaged by warring militias, with the Islamic State consolidating a new base there.
Clinton pushed hard for the United States to arm the somewhat mythical “moderate rebels” in Syria when that civil war broke out. The president resisted, calling the idea a “fantasy” in 2014 because we’d be arming amateurs up against a well-armed government “backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah.” The CIA did provide small arms and assistance to the Kurds, but a $500 million effort to arm “moderate rebels” in Syria to fight the Islamic State ended in abject embarrassment.
When she left office, Clinton then branded the president’s policy in Syria a “failure,” calling for more U.S. Special Operations forces and advisers, more weapons and redoubling the effort to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad while taking on his enemy the Islamic State at the same time. She called for enforcing a “no-fly zone,” presumably against Russian and Syrian planes, which the president scorned as a “half-baked” idea.
Sanders is not a pacifist. He supported U.S. use of force in the Balkans under Bill Clinton, and the original Afghanistan intervention to get Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda after Sept. 11, 2001. But like Obama, he opposed the war in Iraq and was a skeptic about regime change in Libya and Syria. Clinton harshly criticized him when he called for building on the Iran nuclear deal to improve relations with Iran, putting regime change in Syria on hold and engaging the Russians and Iranians in a coordinated effort to take out the Islamic State. Now, thanks to the efforts of Clinton’s successor John F. Kerry, the administration has forged a fragile cease-fire in the civil war in Syria. If it holds, it will free up the Russians and the Syrian army to escalate the attacks on the Islamic State in Syria, while the Iranian-influenced Iraqi military does the same in Iraq.
Obama, too, is far from a pacifist or non-interventionist. He has expanded the use of drones far beyond the Bush administration. He has asserted the right of the president to order the assassination even of American citizens in the war on terrorism. While he has consistently been a skeptical warrior, he will end his administration with the U.S. military engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and indirectly in Syria.
In the spring of 2013, Obama spoke at the National Defense University on the war on terrorism. He argued that “we must define the nature and scope of this struggle or else it will define us,” invoking James Madison’s warning that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” He called for new limits on our use of force. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” Clinton would not have delivered those remarks. Sanders would.
After she left office, Clinton criticized Obama’s quip that a central principle of his foreign policy was “don’t do stupid s---,” saying that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Maybe so, but it reflects a common sense that Sanders and Obama exhibit, and Clinton consistently does not.