Archive | February, 2016

Hillary’s Hawkishness

1 Feb

In the midst of the primary rat race, it can be easy to get bogged down by ultimately meaningless campaign proposals and detailed debates of those proposals. Most of them are unlikely to be enacted even if their creator wins the election. Moreover, the candidate elected President will serve for either four or eight years, and a lot changes in that period. Simply, there is a lot that no one can foresee. That’s why Presidential elections and primaries are mostly about selecting a vision for America. Now on the whole, American could do a lot worse than Hillary Clinton, but on foreign policy, her vision is terrifyingly hawkish. Her Presidency would likely ratchet up the War on Terror, overlook crucial diplomatic endeavors, and risk the intensification of various civil wars.

Hillary’s basic concept of how to conduct foreign policy is encapsulated in the term “smart power”, which means using diplomacy and military force in tandem to achieve objectives. While Hillary sees smart power as a revelatory doctrine, it is simply the corporate re-packaging of the basic elements of statecraft. In practice, smart power overestimates the power and suitability of military tactics. This trend can be seen throughout her career. She notoriously supported the Iraq War, pushed hard for airstrikes in Libya, and continues to support some combination of a no fly zone, bombing ISIS, and arming the opposition in Syria.

I’ll take those one by one. Iraq, was of course, a disaster in the end, and while she should get some points for admitting her mistake, it’s worth thinking about what this means for a Hillary presidency. If a major Islamic State attack did target America, would there be a third Gulf War? Is that a risk worth taking? In Libya, which she touts as a foreign policy success, she vigorously supported air strikes against the Qaddafi regime. Now some argue that without those airstrikes Libya would be another Syria, but considering the mess Libya is today and the untold number of casualties (probably numbering in the mid to high five figures), airstrikes prompting regime change cannot be a template for future strategies.

Finally, Hillary’s policy on Syria is simply egregious. A no fly zone would bring the US into direct conflict with the Syrian government, and by extension Russia. Bombing ISIS is simply a massive failure. Beyond the civilian casualties it’s causing, it has not met its stated military objectives. Even though the Pentagon has begun using the dubious metric of body counts to mark its own success, there has been no progress. Even though the campaign has allegedly killed 25,000 ISIS members, there has been no change in the overall number of ISIS fighters. In other words, the group is replacing its members as fast as the US can kill them, perhaps due to the propaganda value of the US bombing a caliphate. Then there’s arming the rebels, which she supports despite an incredibly expensive program that only trained a handful of fighters. Arming Syrian rebels rests on two assumptions: 1) the United States has the capacity to identify and train moderate rebels and 2) these rebels will follow American plans. As for the first part, it seems fairly obvious that is not the case, while for the second, US-trained rebels giving equipment to Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate is pretty damning evidence to the contrary.

Hillary’s support of arming Syrian rebels is a fairly accurate portrayal of the problems with her worldview. She sees the United States as a power with the capacity to successfully intervene militarily in foreign wars. If there is one lesson of the War on Terror, it’s that American military power is not particularly good at engaging with violent non-state actors or eliminating terrorism. When the overwhelming evidence suggests that foreign intervention in civil wars lengthens and intensifies them, believing that using even the world’s most powerful military to fight the good fight is, to turn a phrase around on her, naive.

A few months ago, I read Anand Gopal’s immensely powerful book No Good Men Among the Living, which chronicles the effects of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The most arresting point he makes is that, two weeks into the war, the Taliban was essentially defeated. Its leaders had fled to Pakistan and its foot soldiers had returned to their villages. America, however, was not satisfied that those that aided the 9/11 hijackers could be beaten so easily, so they continued their search for the Taliban. Local warlords took advantage of the Americans’ willing violence to settle scores with local rivals. It was only after the US allied itself with brutal warlords and committed appalling violence against innocent Afghans did a renewed Taliban insurgency begin. Now, if Hillary were President during a military intervention in which it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe, is there anything about her record or worldview the indicates that she would not make the same mistakes as George Bush? That she would privilege the political dynamics of the situation on the ground over the political incentives to kill “terrorists”? I do not believe so.

The US, and the world, is in desperate need of a better foreign policy that privileges diplomacy and non-military options. Now up to this point, Bernie Sanders has largely shied away from talking foreign policy, but he has some promising positions. He supports normalizing relations with Iran and encouraging rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and (our appalling ally) Saudi Arabia, which would address tensions that are tearing apart the Middle East. He has also voiced concern over US-sponsored regime change and intervention in general. He still supports drone strikes and a military-centric approach to counterterrorism, but there’s almost no politician out there with reasonable views on the subject (why I was briefly Feeling the Chafe). At least with Bernie, there’s the possibility that the United States will pursue a foreign policy that values diplomacy and aid over military strategies that stoke costly wars. It’s not about being an expert, but having the sense to avoid the most harmful policies.