For four years she was Obama’s loyal secretary of state. Her critics call her an interventionist, her admirers tough-minded. What kind of president would she be?
On Jan. 13, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave what turned out to be a remarkably prescient speech in Doha, Qatar. “The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” she warned. If you do not manage to “build a future that your young people will believe in,” she told the Arab heads of state in the audience, the status quo they had long defended would collapse. The very next day, Tunisia’s dictator was forced to flee the country. Almost two weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding that then-President Hosni Mubarak step down. Over the following week, Clinton and her colleagues in the Barack Obama administration engaged in an intense debate over how to respond to this astonishing turn of events. Should they side with the young people in the streets demanding an immediate end to the deadening hand of autocratic rule, or with the rulers whom Clinton had admonished, but who nevertheless represented a stable order underpinned by American power and diplomacy?
The young national security aides whom Obama depended on heavily for advice, including Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, and Samantha Power, saw the Arab Spring as a supreme opportunity for a president who had often spoken about “the arc of history” to align himself with the forces of change.
Secretary Clinton thought they were naive. She told her deputy, James Steinberg, that she saw no reason to believe that the Tahrir crowd would or could govern Egypt in Mubarak’s absence. She was close to the Mubaraks, and especially to the president’s wife, Suzanne. And, most decisively, recalls Dennis Ross, then the National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, “Her feeling was that Mubarak has been a friend for 30 years, and if you walk away from your friends, every other ally in the region is going to doubt your word.” Even Ross, a hard-headed realist, thought Clinton was putting too much stock in her old friends. Mubarak, he told her, “is blind to what’s going on, and it’s going to get worse.”
On Jan. 28, at a national security meeting in the White House Situation Room, Clinton pushed back against those who urged Obama to put himself on the right side of history. Two days later, she went on NBC’s Meet the Press to make her case to the public, commending Mubarak as a source of regional stability and calling for an “orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy.”
The debate pitted hope against caution and young against old: then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden sided with Clinton. The president chose hope. On Feb. 1, he stated publicly that the “orderly transition” of which his secretary had spoken “must begin now.” Several days later, Egypt’s military deposed Mubarak, ushering in a brief era of euphoria in the Arab world — and in the White House.
This episode matters today, of course, because Hillary Clinton is seeking to become the first secretary of state since James Buchanan to ascend to the presidency. Several different narratives about her tenure have begun to cohere. Among Republicans prepared to say anything to discredit her, the most salient event from her time in office is the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which allegedly demonstrates that she was asleep at the switch, self-absorbed, indifferent to the welfare of her own diplomats, and so on. One investigation after another has shown that these claims are preposterous. The far more serious claim, advanced most recently by, of all people, Vice President Joe Biden, is that Clinton was an ”interventionist” — all too inclined to believe that “we just have to do something when bad people do bad things.”
A President Hillary Clinton would almost certainly be more confident about the utility of force than President Obama has been (or a President Biden would have been). She was the most enthusiastic of all of Obama’s senior civilian advisors about the counterinsurgency plan his generals proposed for Afghanistan in 2009; she helped persuade a very reluctant commander in chief to bomb Libya to prevent atrocities there. Clinton is a Cold War-era patriot who believes unambiguously that America is a force for good in the world. At the same time, it’s clear from conversations I had this summer with most of her senior staff members, as well as White House officials and outside advisors, that Clinton is a cautious figure who distrusts grandiose rhetorical formulations, is deeply grounded in the harsh realities of politics, and prefers small steps to large ones. Her belief in the use of American power has less to do with the humanitarian impulse to prevent injustice abroad than with the belief that only coercion works with refractory nations and leaders.
Is that good or bad? Perhaps that depends on how one thinks about how the Arab Spring turned out. Clinton is proud of her role — she tells the story in her memoirs at great length — because she thinks history has vindicated her judgments. Egypt quickly spun into a maelstrom of confusion and political incompetence, and has now emerged as a harsher dictatorship than it was in 2011. The hope that Obama offered, above all in his first year in office, often seemed untethered to the grim realities of the world, putting his rhetoric at odds with his actions. Clinton’s optimistic vision is less soaring, less idealistic, less transformative in its goals. Perhaps that will turn out to be well suited to our own diminished expectations of America’s ability to shape the world beyond its borders.
The politics of preconditions
On one of her first trips abroad, in April 2009, Clinton went to London with Obama for the meeting of the G20 group of nations. Obama was about to hold his first meeting with Hu Jintao, then China’s president, and he informed Clinton that he was going to tell Mr. Hu that he was prepared to visit China that fall for a state visit on the margins of the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Clinton suggested he withhold the offer. The president then turned to Jeffrey Bader, then his chief national security aide for Asia, who urged him to do just as he planned — which Obama then proceeded to do. Afterwards, Bader told me, Clinton pulled him aside — in order, he assumed, to instruct him never again to contradict her before the president. In fact, she said, “I just want to explain my thinking to you,” Bader says. “The essence of it was leverage to her mind. A presidential visit is a big deal, and you don’t give it away lightly.”
Bader had supported Obama during the campaign, and he subscribed to the collective view of the Obama camp that Clinton was petty and vindictive. He was startled to find, as many people are when they meet Clinton privately, that she was considerate and warm. He also realized that she thought about diplomacy largely in transactional terms. “She’s an immensely pragmatic person,” Bader says. “She is not an ideological person. She’s a deal-maker. Her attitude is: How can we get this done?”
Virtually everyone I spoke with who has worked closely with Clinton speaks of her this way. Philip Gordon, Clinton’s former assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia and later a national security advisor to Obama, says, “Obama is, instinctively, not liberal, but almost revolutionary. Clinton is instinctively more conservative.” He uses the example of America’s relationship with Russia. Clinton was always on the bleak side of the spectrum of opinion about what could be gained from the “reset,” though she was eager to explore the possibilities. The corollary of the reset was the need to reassure Eastern European allies and preserve NATO solidarity. Clinton, as Gordon puts it, “was quite happy to be the guardian of the corollary.”
The temperamental difference between the president and his secretary of state was foreshadowed in a famous exchange during a campaign debate in July 2007. They were asked whether as president they would be prepared to meet “without preconditions” with the leaders of rival states including Iran and North Korea. “I would” said Obama. Clinton said that she would not; the next day, she called Obama’s answer “irresponsible and frankly naive.” As I reported at the time, the Obama team found the exchange “orienting.” He was a different kind of Democrat, free from Cold War protocols and prepared to take the first step to break the paralytic grip of rivalry. Yet it turned out to be telling for Clinton as well. For her, there was nothing artificial about state rivalry, nothing that could be overcome by acts of mutual understanding. Rivalry was to be managed, not transcended.
And yet this presents an incomplete picture. Bruce Jentleson, a political scientist who worked as a senior advisor to the State Department’s Policy Planning director from 2009 to 2011, says that in Clinton, “you see elements of 20th century thinking and 21st century thinking.” Clinton sought to consistently redefine America’s national interest to include not just classic geopolitical calculations but the economic and institutional development of other states. She made the status of women a central concern of her tenure. She sought to transcend the simple-minded distinction between “hard” and “soft” power by adopting the term “smart power,” to describe a form of statecraft that combined development, diplomacy, public-private partnerships and, yes, military power. One of her signal initiatives was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, an effort to re-think the organization of the State Department in order to harmonize all of these elements. The exercise generated a great deal of noise and a few modest outcomes: State now has officials directly responsible for “cross-cutting” issues including energy, women’s rights, and information technology.
It’s an unusual combination. Clinton thinks about the relationship between states pretty much the way Henry Kissinger does. But she thinks about America’s global agenda pretty much the way Barack Obama does. This sounds like a contradiction, but could also be regarded as an adaptation to a world in which the United States faces both rival states, as it long has, and a new class of problems without borders.
When I asked current and former administration officials to talk about Clinton’s accomplishments as secretary of state, they tended to discuss her restoration of America’s image abroad after eight years of President George W. Bush, her strong sense of teamwork inside the department, her emphasis on non-traditional issues, her faith in diplomacy. I heard less about specific accomplishments in specific places. This has something to do with being secretary of state at a time when control over foreign policy is centered overwhelmingly in the White House, and something to do with her own choices. Her successor, John Kerry, has succeeded greatly, in Iran, and failed greatly, in Syria and Iraq. Kerry believes he can accomplish great things; he’s often, though not always, wrong. Clinton shied away from the high-dive board.
One policy achievement for which Clinton can plausibly claim credit is the “pivot” to Asia. It is telling that her greatest successes came in a region of stable states requiring traditional diplomacy, rather than in the maelstrom of the Middle East, which has sucked up so much brave diplomacy, including Kerry’s. It was Clinton who popularized the idea of the pivot, a blunt term later euphemized as “rebalance.” In a speech delivered in Hawaii in late 2011 (adapted from an article in this magazine), Clinton asserted that “the 21st Century will be America’s Pacific century.” Clinton vowed to build with Asia the kind of institutional bridges the United States had constructed with Europe after World War II. And after laying out plans to strengthen ties with allies, Clinton pointedly observed that “a thriving China … is good for America.” The unspoken theme of the speech was that Asia represented the future, and thus that by looking westward the United States could preserve its status as the world’s great power.
Clinton assembled a strong Asia team, including Kurt Campbell, then-assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, and worked closely with then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other cabinet officials to form what her deputy, James Steinberg, called a “whole-of-government” approach to the region. She took her first foreign trip to Asia; the last secretary of state to have done so was Dean Rusk, in 1961. Clinton made a point of attending regional meetings that her predecessors had generally avoided on the perfectly valid grounds that they were largely empty rituals. This was an exercise in what former Secretary of State George Shultz used to call “tending the garden,” cultivating relationships that could be drawn on later, when they are needed.
Clinton initially appeared to belong to the “realist” camp prepared to accommodate Beijing’s contempt for political rights. On her initial visit to the country, in February 2009, she told reporters that concern over China’s human rights practices “can’t interfere” with progress on major issues. This was a very different Hillary Clinton from the first lady who had lectured Chinese officials on women’s rights in 1995. The off-hand comment, and the obvious contrast with the past, made headlines back home that would haunt Clinton for several years. Nevertheless, working with Geithner, Clinton established a “strategic and economic dialogue” with China in order to focus on areas of overlapping interest. China cooperated with Washington on key issues, including sanctions on Iran and the intervention in Libya.
Hopes of a larger convergence with China, however, proved vain. An increasingly confident China was plainly rethinking the long-time policy of a “peaceful rise” in favor of a new and troubling willingness to court conflict. The most dangerous instance of the new mood was China’s claim that long-contested sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and near Japan constituted a “core interest,” like reunification with Taiwan. The Obama administration was divided between officials who wanted to confront China, and thus reassure anxious neighbors like Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and those who feared that doing so would jeopardize cooperation on a range of crucial issues. Clinton sided with the former. At the annual ASEAN meeting in July 2010, she delivered a speech stating that while the United States took no side in territorial disputes, it considered an open South China Sea a matter of “national interest” — an unmistakable echo of China’s own language — and was prepared to mediate multilateral talks on the subject. As Clinton knew very well, Beijing considered the island dispute a matter for bilateral diplomacy, and one only between itself and its Asian neighbors, not Washington. The Chinese delegation was, predictably, enraged: then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi admonished his colleagues: “China is a big country. Bigger than any other countries here.”
Clinton’s speech effectively ended the debate inside the administration on how to calibrate relations with China. The new policy helped stiffen the spine of Asian states intimidated by China’s swagger, and put Beijing on notice that Washington would not accept its unilateral definition of its sphere of interest. It demonstrated something about Clinton: She worried less than others, possibly including President Obama, about the consequences of confrontation. The speech also demonstrated the virtues of what Clinton calls “shoe-leather diplomacy”: her willingness to attend earlier summits had gained her the kind of regional support that made states more inclined to rally to the American side in the stare-down with China.
The hallmark of Clinton’s Asia strategy was the fine calibration of inherently conflicting interests. On April 25, 2012, as she was about to leave for Beijing for the latest installment of the strategic and economic dialogue, Clinton learned that Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident, had dramatically escaped his home arrest and fled to Beijing to seek asylum at the U.S. Embassy. This had the makings of a diplomatic calamity. Kurt Campbell, then in China, warned Clinton that helping Chen could jeopardize the talks. Clinton demurred. According to Jeffrey Bader, “her attitude was, `If the relationship has to suffer, we’re going to take the hit. I’ve faced tougher situations than this.'” She instructed Campbell to make it clear that Washington was siding with Chen.
By the time Clinton reached China a week later, American diplomats had struck a deal whereby the blind dissident would remain in China as a student for at least two years; then Chen provoked a new crisis by changing his mind and demanding immediate extradition to the United States. Now, Clinton truly seemed to face a zero-sum choice between human rights and bilateral relations. Instead, she chose both. Clinton forged ahead with discussions on economic and political issues, saying little about Chen, while directing frantic secret negotiations to work out a new deal on the dissident — still holed up in the U.S. Embassy. She and her team finally reached an arrangement, sufficiently face-saving for the Chinese, whereby Chen would leave in order to enroll at New York University.
Clinton had worked the deal under tremendous pressure, without flinching. William Burns, who replaced Steinberg as deputy secretary of state in 2011 and who was by his boss’s side throughout the China trip, says that while everyone around Clinton worried that the talks would fail, “the steady tone she set helped establish an atmosphere” of calm. What’s more, Clinton had operated under the belief that she could anger the Chinese without provoking a ruinous reaction; a premise she had already tested in her 2010 ASEAN speech. “The test of a strategic dialogue,” Burns notes, “is how it can weather unexpected events.” The fact that the Chinese chose not to blow up the talks was itself a vindication of Clinton’s tactics.
The Chen drama also illustrated Clinton’s distinctive approach to human rights. Michael Posner, who served as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and who accompanied Clinton on the 2012 China trip, says, “She’ll take tough positions in private conversations. She may be less likely to be rhetorically strong but she’s more aggressive, more resilient, in face-to-face encounters.” Posner cites the example of a 2010 trip to Uzbekistan, which the United States was then using to bring supplies into and out of Afghanistan. Prior to Clinton’s meeting with Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, Posner had asked her to seek the release from prison of Uzbek poet Yusuf Juma. Clinton waited until the end of a long meeting which stretched well into the night to raise the subject. Karimov, says Posner, “turned bright red. He was furious. He pointed at me and said, `This is beneath you. This guy put you up to it.'”
Clinton, recalls Posner, said, “No, it is not beneath me. It is every bit as important as what we talked about for the last two hours.” After months of haggling, Juma was released from prison and reunited with his wife in the United States. Clinton said nothing to the press about Juma either before or after her talk with Karimov, thus making it easier for the Uzbek dictator to do the right thing. Of course, in helping this one very worthy person, Clinton did nothing to change Karimov’s appalling behavior to his other citizens.
Clinton had voted for the war in Iraq, and Obama had opposed it. Was that simply a political calculation on her part, or did it speak to larger differences in their view of the use of military power? The answer would come soon enough, because in his first year in office the president was consumed with the question of how to respond to the rising tide of Taliban violence in Afghanistan. After Obama ordered 17,000 additional troops into the theater in March 2009, both Stanley McChrystal, his senior officer in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus, his regional commander, recommended that he add tens of thousands more troops and adopt an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy to shore up Afghan governance. It would be a huge gamble for a president who had run against reckless military engagement, and who now faced a public fatigued with war and angry at the recession at home.
The debate had not two sides but three. Vice President Joe Biden made the case for shifting to a narrow counterterror strategy that would largely ignore the Taliban in order to concentrate resources on al Qaeda militants hiding out in the mountain fastnesses of Pakistan. Inside the State Department, Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), favored the civilian surge that Biden opposed, but opposed the military increase the generals wanted, arguing that the war would only end when Afghans themselves, pressed by the United States and neighboring states, reached a political solution that accommodated all parties. Clinton disagreed with both, and stood with the generals. In her memoir she says that she told Holbrooke that the Taliban would never negotiate so long as they believed they were winning.
As the debate proceeded, it became plain that the president was deeply skeptical that an American counterinsurgency program, or COIN, would alter Afghanistan’s backwardness, corruption, and misrule; he encouraged Biden to fire skeptical questions at advocates of the program. The secretary of state, however, did not waver. Indeed, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in Duty, his memoir, that while he was prepared to authorize 30,000 additional troops, Clinton favored the full 40,000 that McChrystal wanted. Clinton says that her one reservation about the policy Obama ultimately adopted was his promise to begin withdrawing troops in 18 months; she thought “there was benefit in playing our cards closer to our chest.” Clinton considered the political effort Holbrooke advocated as an issue for the future. One former member of the SRAP team said that whenever he drew up a memo advocating talks with the Taliban, Holbrooke would tell him, “You’ll never get this past Hillary.”
It is safe to say, in retrospect, that the generals wildly overestimated America’s capacity to make Afghanistan self-sustaining, either militarily or politically. Obama’s instincts were right, as they had been in Iraq. Clinton was wrong — as she had been in Iraq. Many experts and officials, it is true, put too much stock in COIN. And both Biden’s and Holbrooke’s alternatives had grave flaws of their own. Still, the fact that Clinton never seriously questioned the generals’ claims even while so many around her did requires an explanation. She may have feared that as a woman with a liberal reputation she had to prove her bona fides in the first big national security debate of her tenure. Obama, however, faced an equally tricky political calculus — he had opposed the Iraq war, after all — and he nevertheless narrowed the compass of McChrystal’s plans about as far as he could by limiting the time and the scope of the operation. At bottom, Clinton was a reflexive advocate of the military, as Obama was not.
Clinton is a late-comer to military policy. As a lawyer and activist, the focus of her thinking and her work was on domestic issues. Even as first lady, her interest in foreign policy was largely limited to development and human rights. Her real education on national security affairs began when she served on the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2003 to 2009. “Her foreign policy education on the geopolitical side was shaped by her experience on the Armed Services Committee,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as Clinton’s head of policy planning from 2009 to 2011. Clinton spent long hours meeting with generals outside of the committee room; she traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq. Whether as a matter of political prudence or genuine conviction, Clinton always treated military officers with great deference, and never grilled them as she did, say, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
As secretary of state, Clinton seemed to take her cues from Robert Gates. Michèle Flournoy, Gates’s former undersecretary of defense for policy, says, “I’d have to rack my brains to come up with an issue on which she and Gates differed.” (In fact, they disagreed sharply on the 2011 air war in Libya, but more on that later.) Gates often called for coercive measures in the face of threats; Clinton was with him. When, for example, national security principals met in a flurry of meetings in 2010 to figure out how to respond to North Korean provocations, Gates and Clinton almost always favored tougher measures, including sending an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea. Both advocated, not so much the efficacy of force, as the need to confront bad actors with the threat of force.
In his book Maximalist, the former U.S. official and professor Stephen Sestanovich describes a perpetual oscillation between engagement and retrenchment on national security affairs. Obama, he writes perhaps a bit hyperbolically, is a “minimalist,” seeking to diminish the size of America’s military footprint. “Of all those who shaped the Obama administration’s national strategy,” Sestanovich offers, “the secretary of state was most comfortable with the precepts of a traditional maximalism.”
At the core of Clinton’s version of maximalism is less a willingness to use force than an undimmed, unironic faith in American global leadership. Derek Chollet, then one of Clinton’s aides at State’s Policy Planning department, suggested that a talk she gave to the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2010 offered important clues to her worldview. Obama had just delivered a speech announcing the withdrawal of the last troops from Iraq and promising to focus his energies on the home front. “It was such a downer,” he said. “She wanted more life, she wanted more hope.” Clinton said, Chollet recalls, “‘Let’s not be so negative.’” Clinton used her speech to make the case for a new “global architecture” of formal institutions as well as informal ones like her strategic dialogue; for “good old-fashioned diplomacy” to restore frayed alliances; for a smart power approach in which development played a role equal to mutual defense agreements.
What was distinctive about the speech was Clinton’s tone. New global problems, she argued, have made American leadership not less central, but more so. “I see it,” she said, “on the faces of the people I meet as I travel — not just the young people who still dream about America’s promise of opportunity and equality, but also seasoned diplomats and political leaders who, whether or not they admit it, see the principled commitment and can-do spirit that comes with American engagement. And they do look to America — not just to engage, but to lead.” She quickly returned to that thought: “And now, after years of war and uncertainty, people are wondering what the future holds at home and abroad. So let me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.”
Obama had used the word “engagement” to describe his own foreign policy; Clinton had pointedly noted that engagement, by itself, was not enough. And she had bluntly answered both those who believed that the United States must accept a more modest role in an increasingly multipolar world, and those, at home and abroad, who simply wished that it would do so. As James Mann notes in The Obamians, “Clinton’s speech was a throwback, a revival of the themes of past administrations and past American leaders dating back to the World War II era.”
A willingness to use force plainly does inform Clinton’s revivalist rhetoric about American global leadership; but to what extent? In June 2014, Robert Kagan, the foreign-policy analyst widely regarded as the leading voice of neoconservatism (he prefers the term “liberal interventionism”) told the New York Times that he feels “comfortable” with Clinton’s foreign policy. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” he said, “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.” In 2011 Clinton put Kagan on the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, a standing group of outside advisors to the secretary.
Would a President Hillary Clinton practice a more enlightened version of George W. Bush’s bellicosity, rather than a more hard-nosed version of Barack Obama’s skeptical restraint? The very question exaggerates the difference between the two on the use of military power, since Obama has committed American forces across the globe and has made far more extensive use of drones that George W. Bush ever did. Nevertheless, a hawkish Clinton is a real hope for the likes of Kagan, and a real fear for liberal Democrats who want to do less abroad. Those voters have gravitated to Bernie Sanders, who rarely even discusses foreign policy, but opposed the war in Iraq, the war in Libya, and President Obama’s request for a new authorization to use force against Islamic terrorists. The best answer appears to be, as one of Clinton’s former senior aides puts it, “She is more Kaganesque than the president, but that’s a far cry from being Kaganesque.”
Afghanistan produces evidence of this as well. Clinton had always been open to Holbrooke’s case for diplomacy, but believed that it could not work until military force brought the Taliban to the negotiating table. By late 2010, Clinton believed that the time was ripe to pursue diplomacy. In December, however, Holbrooke died abruptly of a torn aorta. Both as a matter of conviction and as a torch-bearing tribute to her dear friend, Clinton became a vocal advocate for opening a new political front in Afghanistan. In a speech at the Asia Society in February 2011, Clinton said that the success of the military and civilian surge had set the stage for a new diplomatic surge and, crucially, accepted that the demand that the Taliban renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda, and acknowledge the Afghan constitution were not preconditions but “necessary outcomes” of negotiation. This helped provoke a flurry of diplomatic activity, all of it ultimately stillborn.
By 2011, in fact, Clinton and Obama had, in effect, reversed positions on Afghanistan, with the secretary lobbying for diplomacy and the president — though increasingly disillusioned about the effectiveness of COIN — authorizing ever more targeted killings by drones and special operations forces. Over the next two years, Clinton would often find herself blocked by a White House apparently in thrall to a counterterror approach to the fight against extremism. In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, a leading scholar of international relations who served on Holbrooke’s staff, argues that Obama’s protectors in the White House feared that Obama would be seen as “soft” if he chose a political rather than a military solution in Afghanistan and elsewhere, leaving Clinton as “the lone voice making the case for diplomacy.” Many former Clinton officials consider the argument somewhat overdrawn—key White House officials were quite sympathetic to the call for talks — but fundamentally accurate. Clinton never did fully succeed in persuading Petraeus that the time had come to pursue peace talks. “It too often became surge surge surge, drone drone drone,” says Harold Koh, Clinton’s former legal advisor. Clintonism properly understood, he asserts, is “nesting a hard-power approach into a broader smart-power strategy — development, diplomacy, public-private partnerships, rule of law.”
If that’s neoconservatism, then neoconservatism has changed unrecognizably since the Iraq war.
Hillary Clinton also served as the Obama administration’s guardian of the corollary on Iran. The secretary of state almost invariably took a hard line on Iran during national security meetings. According to a recent article in Politico, Clinton pushed for “detailed contingency planning in the event diplomacy failed” and was prepared to “consider granting Israel approval to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites,” which would have destroyed any chance of a nuclear deal. Clinton favored a deal, but considered it less likely than the president did. Jake Sullivan, who succeeded Anne-Marie Slaughter as head of Policy Planning and now serves as Clinton’s chief advisor on foreign policy, says, “The president and the secretary were aligned on a two-track strategy, but the president probably put more emphasis on diplomacy and the secretary of state put more emphasis on pressure.”
That, however, doesn’t fully capture the difference between them. Obama believed, or perhaps intuitively felt, that differences among states, as among people, often stemmed from misunderstanding, mistrust, tangled history, and the like, and thus that agreement could not be reached absent some kind of effort of mutual recognition. As Dennis Ross observes, “President Obama’s view was that we had to work with our adversaries and seek to change their behavior by looking at their grievances. I think that Hillary looks at adversaries through the lens of how they define their interests. A focus on interests means recognizing the reality of power relationships, and the need to use power in defense of your interests.” For Clinton, rivalry with Iran — or Russia, or China—was a given, not to be softened by New Year’s messages or admissions of past guilt.
Clinton’s views scarcely mattered at the time, because Iran was not prepared to seriously negotiate the nuclear issue until Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2013. Perhaps a President Clinton would have driven a harder bargain than President Obama did. What is far more likely, though, is that Clinton’s harsh critique would not have afforded Rouhani the political space he needed at home to justify the painful concessions he had to make. As one of Clinton’s former senior officials told me, “It was much more of an Obama risk and initiative than a Hillary one. He was willing to help Iran save face, because he understood the need for that. He understands that they also have politics and a history, and therefore he’s skeptical that they’ll just give in because we talk tough.”
Clinton has staked out a position on Iran somewhere between loyalist and wary skeptic. In an interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, she pointedly observed that “there is no such thing as a right to enrich.” Her own preference, she said, was that Iran retain no capacity to enrich uranium; whatever minimal capacity the Iranians were permitted to retain should prevent them from reaching “breakout capability” for more than a year. Though no deal had been signed at the time, Clinton knew very well that her former colleagues were prepared to leave Iran enough nuclear capacity so that they could not breakout in less than a year. She declined to acknowledge that she was taking a harder line than the administration, but instead accused Iran of taking a “maximalist position.” When the deal was finally concluded this past July, Clinton endorsed it as “the most effective path of all the alternatives available to the U.S. and our partners to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
There is a widespread sense, which she is quite happy to encourage, that Clinton would be tougher than Obama on Iranian compliance with the terms of the deal. She has artfully positioned herself so that she can defend the nuclear deal without succumbing to Republican claims that she is so invested in the agreement that she cannot be trusted to police its terms.
The change from hope
Clinton’s skepticism about big breakthroughs was most clearly in evidence in her approach to the most neuralgic of all issues, Israel/Palestine. She came into office believing that “the time was not ripe” for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, as one former aide puts it. The hard-liner Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just returned to power, and Israel had just fought a devastating war in Gaza. Obama, however, believed, as all presidents seem to persuade themselves, that he might be able to break the endless deadlock. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, held that Israel could persuade the Palestinians of their sincere commitment to a peaceful resolution only if they agreed to completely halt the building of settlements in occupied territory. Clinton repeated this unambiguous formulation both publicly and privately, to the Israelis. Nevertheless, by all accounts, she thought that it was a mistake to make a public demand that Israel would not accept. “She thought that would put us up a tree,” as one of her aides puts it. When I asked if that was a sign of her caution, he said, “That’s like saying I’m cautious because I don’t want to jump off the Triborough Bridge.”
At the same time, Clinton was careful not to throw herself (as Kerry since has) into what she considered a hopeless enterprise. Perhaps she was already thinking of her presidential ambitions, and concluded that prudence would serve her own interests better than derring-do; perhaps she just made a sober, and highly defensible, calculation that her efforts were better spent elsewhere. She appointed George Mitchell, a former senator and the successful mediator of peace talks between England and Northern Ireland, as her special envoy to the region. Mitchell shuttled back and forth between capitals trying to bring the two sides together; Clinton entered the process chiefly to prevent the talks from collapsing completely. That, however, is precisely what happened. In the fall of 2010, Clinton tried to persuade Netanyahu to agree to a further three-month moratorium on settlement-building. The Israeli prime minister responded by piling one exorbitant demand on top of another, including $2.75 billion to pay for 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Obama concluded that he was being taken for a ride, and instructed Clinton to scotch the deal.
Clinton is tougher on the Palestinians than Obama was and is, just as she is tougher on the Iranians. These are can’t-lose political postures, though both are consistent with her overall views. She told Jeffrey Goldberg that the Palestinians had consistently walked away from credible Israeli peace offers, gave Netanyahu credit for sincerely embracing a two-state solution, and sympathized with Israel’s unwillingness to yield control over security in the West Bank as a condition for peace. Thanks to her views, and to her generally sympathetic exchanges with Netanyahu, she remains far more popular in Israel than Obama — which is, admittedly, not saying a great deal. One senior Israeli diplomat told me that, in comparison to Obama and many White House officials, “Hillary reflects a much more centrist kind of Democrat, in the sense that in Israeli eyes she has a keener focus on the nature of the threats Israel faces in the region and a greater willingness to resort to force and to confront adversaries of moderate Arab States” — i.e., Iran. On the other hand, he notes, Israel would still prefer a Republican. Any Republican would do — perhaps even Donald Trump.
By the beginning of 2011, the question of Middle East peace had given way to the issue of managing Middle East turmoil. The Arab Spring produced regime change in Tunisia and Egypt, but violent confrontation elsewhere. In March 2011, forces under then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi appeared to be preparing to massacre tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians who had sought refuge in the eastern city of Benghazi. Susan Rice, then Obama’s U.N. ambassador, and Samantha Power, a national security director, were passionate advocates of the principle known as the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, which stipulates that states have an obligation to try to prevent mass atrocities both within and beyond their own borders. Both argued that just such mass violence was impending in Libya, and urged the president to organize a military response there.
Gates, Biden, and others opposed American military involvement, since even a mass killing would not seriously impinge on national interests. Clinton, like Obama himself, was in the middle. She was coming under great pressure from France and Britain, both of which favored an aerial campaign to stop Qaddafi from taking Benghazi. Only when she won agreement from the Arab League to support and engage in such an effort, which would include Arab as well as European fighter planes, did Clinton join the advocates. Even then, says a former aide, “It’s not as if she had the bit in her teeth. On balance, she was for it, rather than against it.” The Arab League involvement not only precluded any claim that the West was invading yet another Muslim country but also gave the United States an interest in supporting Arab allies. Clinton was more comfortable explaining her decision on national-security grounds than moral ones. Nevertheless, Gates and Biden may have been right that the national security argument for the war was weak. Clinton will go to great lengths not to appear “soft,” and so prefers hard-headed rationales.
Libya is, of course, burning ground for Clinton. Congressional Republicans have relentlessly insisted that she is personally responsible for the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. Though repeated investigations have turned up scant evidence of any such malfeasance, Republicans have been able to muddy the waters by dragging in the issue of Clinton’s private email account, alleging that evidence of her misdeeds may be found among emails not yet turned over to investigators. In late October, Clinton spent 11 hours testifying before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, answering far more questions about her emails than she did about security arrangements at American embassies. The emails are a self-inflicted wound; Benghazi, however, is a witch-hunt. Clinton has to hope that by the end the Republicans will have done more damage to themselves than to her.
Yet a more compelling case could be made that Clinton fell down on Libya. Though the air war averted whatever atrocities Qaddafi might have committed, Libya has descended into a Hobbesian war of all against all that threatens regional stability in a way that Qaddafi himself — for all his murderous excesses — never allowed to take root. How could an administration so deeply aware of George W. Bush’s calamitous decision to invade Iraq without preparing for the aftermath have virtually replicated that mistake? The furor over Ambassador Stevens’ death made it very difficult to argue for further engagement in Libya. Nevertheless, there was no real plan to do so. This raises a fundamental problem. Realists like Biden argue that the American role in states wracked by Islamic extremism should be limited to counterterrorism. Neoconservatives, by contrast, are fully prepared to accept the consequences of an interventionist policy, including troops and long-term commitments. What about those, like Clinton, who fall between those camps? She appears to share the Obama administration’s skepticism about large-scale endeavors in nation-building. What, then, is one to do in the aftermath of an intervention like Libya? “We helped break the country,” as one of Clinton’s former senior aides concedes, “but we weren’t taking ownership. No one could say that there was a well-sketched plan for what we would do or how the assistance would flow.”
Clinton was a more resolute interventionist in Syria. In June 2012, with rebels having taken up arms against the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad, then-U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned from Damascus and told Clinton that Washington had to help the moderate opposition. Ford knew that the White House had no stomach for another messy conflict in the Middle East. He didn’t expect a swift decision. “It took a day,” he told me. “She totally understood the strategic issues” — the danger that spreading warfare and a tide of refugees could destabilize Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq — “and she totally understood the utility of having influence with the armed groups.”
The plan Ford and military and intelligence officials devised called for supplying the rebels with small arms and ammunition, communications gear, and money for recruits. It won the support of Clinton, Petraeus, and Leon Panetta, then the new secretary of defense. For Clinton, the goal was not to topple Assad but to force him to negotiate his departure, just as she had hoped that military victories in Afghanistan could bring the Taliban to peace talks. Force was a tool of diplomacy. As Jake Sullivan says, “the U.S. had to do something to stop the killing, but she also felt that this represented a real opportunity to deliver a serious blow to Iran and Hezbollah” — Assad’s chief military source of support. Obama, by contrast, feared that helping the rebels would only make the situation worse.
Obama ruled against Clinton and the others, and then watched as many of the consequences he feared — and some he never could have imagined — occurred in the absence of American action. Ambassador Ford ultimately quit in protest. One of Obama’s lowest moments came when he threatened to bomb Assad’s forces if they used chemical weapons — and then failed to respond once the Syrians did, in fact, kill civilians with chemical weapons. Instead, he accepted an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin to help ship those weapons out of Syria. Rather than making either Assad or Putin more compliant, Russia is now supporting Syria by bombing the very rebels whom the United States has half-heartedly supported.
When the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg asked Clinton if American action in 2012 could have prevented or muted the rise of the Islamic State, she said that, while that could never be known, “I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” It is hard to imagine that a President Hillary Clinton would have drawn a “red line,” as Obama did, on the use of chemical arms, and then failed to make good on her threat once Assad crossed that line. She would have understood the cost to American credibility of walking back such a threat.
Would the United States of 2017 be well served by a President Hillary Clinton? That question, of course, begs another question: Compared to whom?
None of the Republican candidates for president know the world remotely as well as Clinton does. The two front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, seem to know less about the subject than the average newspaper reader. Asked whom he looks to for foreign policy advice, Trump famously responded: “I really watch the shows.” Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s only serious rival for the Democratic nomination, almost never discusses the world beyond America’s borders, though on his website he notes that he favors more diplomacy and less military action, and considers his vote against the war in Iraq “one of the most important he has cast.” Of the more substantive Republican candidates, Rand Paul would reduce American engagements abroad, while Marco Rubio would serve far more as commander in chief than as diplomat in chief, wielding the great American military hammer to address problems that bear very little resemblance to a nail. Jeb Bush might be somewhat less bellicose. But both Rubio and Bush would seek to roll back the nuclear agreement with Iran, to impose greater restraints on Russia, to get tough on China, and reverse Obama’s opening to Cuba. They would presumably give short shrift to such global issues as climate change. Would they be preferable to a President Clinton? Only if America’s chief problem in the world is that it is, to use Donald Trump’s favorite word, “weak.”
It’s a harder question to answer if we compare Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. The president deserves high marks for his relentless focus on global problems, above all nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. He showed both courage and imagination in guiding relations with Iran over six turbulent years in order to reach a nuclear deal that, while unavoidably limited, curbs a grave threat to world peace. He adapted to a violent and chaotic world by authorizing the use of force far more often than he ever would have expected to, or would have wanted. At the same time, Obama often gave the impression that traditional geopolitics, like traditional congressional politics, bored him. He seems to have been taken by surprise by the level of state-to-state competition the United States faced, whether from rivals like Russia or China or allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. What’s more, Obama absorbed something of the fatigue and self-absorption of the American people, at times catering to their surly mood by readily accepting a diminished role for the United States in world affairs.
A President Clinton would face a very different world from the one Obama inherited. Geopolitical competition is now an unarguable fact of life. Precisely because Clinton is a more traditional figure than Obama, this may be a world to which she is more naturally adapted. Obama did not apply much of his mind to making perpetual adjustments in the dial of bilateral relations; Clinton applied all of hers, and would surely do so as president. The single most barbed thing Clinton said in her Atlantic interview was, “Great nations need organizing principles, and `Don’t do stupid stuff'” — a PG-rated version of a phrase for which Obama was much mocked — “is not an organizing principle.” Clinton has spent so many years thriving despite adversity that the toxic combination of recalcitrant rivals, an implacably hostile Congress, and an isolationist public may not daunt her as it did Obama. Conflict is her natural milieu.
Hillary Clinton will not put a new face on America, as Obama did; there is hardly a face more familiar than hers. But America is no longer in recovery from George W. Bush, and it is no longer in urgent need of a new face. What it needs is a fresh source of inspiration, a sense that the world matters and that American leadership matters, a recognition that power is not a bad thing so long as it is accompanied by humility and restraint. The pendulum of American action in the world swung very sharply from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Perhaps it now needs to swing in a more modest arc from Obama to Hillary Clinton.