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Hillary Might Disappoint Her Hawkish Boosters
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Hillary Might Disappoint Her Hawkish Boosters
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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The speech was chock-full of red meat for her fans and for her detractors. Speaking before an audience of U.S. military veterans at last week’s American Legion National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at length about the possibilities -- and responsibilities -- of American power in the 21st century.

“If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation,” said Clinton. “I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.”

Clinton’s remarks fueled an ongoing debate among foreign policy wonks and writers about what has been described as the former secretary of state’s “bias toward action,” and her tendency to echo a U.S. foreign policy establishment that, according to many critics, lends itself to ill-defined and often disastrous military campaigns abroad.

Her Republican opponent, real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump, has been quick at times to pounce on this perception of Mrs. Clinton as too hawkish.

"Sometimes it seemed that there wasn't a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn't want to invade, intervene in, or topple," Trump said during a Wednesday evening election forum hosted by NBC News. "She's trigger-happy and very unstable."

The seeming assembly line of endorsements from neoconservative scholars like Robert Kagan hasn’t helped Clinton avoid the perception, and at a time when more and more Americans are increasingly looking inward, the Clinton campaign increasingly looks like the last outpost for an outmoded way of looking at the world -- and America’s role in it.

That Clinton is the obvious candidate of the foreign policy establishment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, and there is little doubt that she possesses the knowledge and the staff to deal with the complex challenges facing the United States around the world, and in the Middle East in particular.

“I was very impressed with how attuned she was to every detail of the situation [in Syria],” said one Syrian human rights activist in an interview with NOW News, adding that she has “a tremendous foreign policy operation, almost like an actual government.”

Indeed, Mrs. Clinton’s reputation for preparedness -- her ability to digest complex counterterrorism manuals and indulge lengthy military briefings -- has by now been well documented, and has also been the subject of numerous news stories and in-depth reports on her foreign policy merits and missteps. Those missteps however provoke considerable worry among critics who suspect that Mrs. Clinton -- far from being the “unstable” figure that her election opponent claims -- is at times slavishly devoted to the pursuit of intangible commodities such as “credibility” and “leverage.”

“It is forgotten today that a primary justification she offered for the U.S. military role in Libya was to pay back allies for Afghanistan,” wrote Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations in a scathing critique of Clinton’s foreign policy resume. And while Clinton, according to reports, was at first reluctant to commit the United States to France’s “shitty war” in Libya, the then-secretary of state eventually became one of the leading advocates for American involvement in the campaign.

Moreover, if her Republican opponent is offering unorthodox and at times wildly inconsistent solutions to Mideast policy challenges, Mrs. Clinton appears to be offering more of the same. And while Clinton has quietly critiqued President Obama’s handling of the civil war in Syria, recent comments suggest that Mrs. Clinton would likely hew closely to the Obama administration’s current policies in the region.

"We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we're not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops,” declared Clinton during Wednesday night’s NBC News forum.  

A caged hawk?

Clinton’s equivocation on Syria and the broader regional challenge posed by Islamic State paints a somewhat murkier picture of her intentions for a region now caught in the fading wake of the Arab Spring. Although she has advocated for more aggressive support for anti-government forces in war-torn Syria, she also, as secretary of state, advised caution against hastily abandoning Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Her State Department’s handling of the uprising in Bahrain that same year, during which the country’s Sunni monarchy brutalized and jailed peaceful protesters, also suggests that Clinton is less than eager to embrace the forces of democracy and liberty across the region.

The Democratic nominee faces another dilemma in the Middle East, but one that is rooted closer to home. President Obama largely enjoyed the support of the American public for his policies upon taking office in 2008. The same cannot be said for a would-be President Clinton. With a likely unfriendly Congress determined to push back against Obama’s signature policy achievement in the region, last year’s nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, Clinton would probably be a president locked in by the decisions of her predecessors and by an American public with little appetite for more costly foreign adventures in the Middle East.

“It’s an open question how well Clinton’s hawkish instincts match the country’s mood. Americans are weary of war and remain suspicious of foreign entanglements,” writes the New York Times’ Mark Landler, whose recent book, “Alter Egos,” examines the relationship between Obama and Clinton. “And yet, after the retrenchment of the Obama years, there is polling evidence that they are equally dissatisfied with a portrait of their country as a spent force, managing its decline amid a world of rising powers like China, resurgent empires like Vladimir Putin’s Russia and lethal new forces like the Islamic State.”

Judging from her past policy decisions and statements, this is a trend that Hillary Clinton hopes to reverse if given the opportunity as president. But while she would undoubtedly be one of the most informed and prepared candidates to take office in recent history, what exactly she is prepared to do in an ever-fluid Middle East remains uncertain.

More on this:

Is There a Hillary Doctrine? -- The Atlantic

Hillary the Hawk: A History -- Foreign Policy

Why Neoconservatives Are Flocking to Clinton -- Vox

Donald Trump’s Mideast Myopia -- RealClearWorld

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