Clinton’s Foreign Policy Paradox

Hillary Clinton gave a much touted speech to establish her foreign policy credentials on June 2 in San Diego. The speech was disappointing because it did little to explain her vision of America’s role in the world or specific policies to address the various crises. The speech was mostly devoted to attacking Donald Trump and launching her campaign theme: “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different,” she said on June 2, “they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.”

Perhaps it was not surprising that she did not talk much about her record as secretary of state, which is one of the least distinguished in recent decades. Former secretary James Baker may have hit it on the head when he said, “Hillary Clinton was never given anything to do. She was just there to run for president.”

Baker is partisan, but he is not the first person to make this observation. Obama’s Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, for example, said that both he and Clinton were ignored. “She’s coming away with a stellar reputation that seems to have put her almost above criticism,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime US peace negotiator. “But you can’t say that she’s really led on any of the big issues for this administration or made a major mark on high strategy.”

Ironically, Obama’s foreign policy has one thing in common with Trump’s and that is both believe they are their own advisers. According to his first secretary of defense, Robert Gates, Obama always believes he is the smartest guy in the room and has trouble developing and implementing strategy.

Obama definitely believed he knew more than Clinton and therefore had no reason to consult her. For example, on Syria, there was a serious rift according to Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast. “Throughout 2011 and well into 2012, President Obama’s White House barred Hillary Clinton’s State Department from even talking directly to the moderate Syrian rebels. This was only one of several ways the Obama team kept the Clinton team from doing more in Syria, back before the revolution was hijacked by ISIS and spread into Iraq.” After Clinton left office, she criticized the president’s Syria policy, which prompted Obama to call criticism of that policy “horseshit.”

So, here’s the paradox: If Hillary was ignored, she can neither be blamed nor applauded for policies on her watch. That’s not a very impressive record. If she insists that she was a “player,” then she has to explain why Obama’s Middle East policies have been so catastrophic. Republicans may still debate what responsibility she had for the Benghazi debacle, but there is no question that she was a leading advocate of the bombing campaign in Libya and subsequent decision to fiddle while the country burned.

Clinton was also responsible for overseeing Obama’s hostile policy toward Israel and his abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Combined, these reversals of longstanding US policy had a devastating impact on American credibility and provoked longtime friends to doubt we could be trusted to stand by them.

One person who witnessed Clinton up close was longtime peace negotiator Dennis Ross. “Her worldview is different from the president’s in some important respects,” according to Ross. “She has a tendency to see power as having real continuing relevance in a way that the president tends to look at power as a kind of throwback, as inevitably bound to fail. He wants to see much more emphasis put on global norms.” Vice President Joe Biden said that Clinton is an “interventionist” who believes that “we just have to do something when bad people do bad things.”

With respect to Israel, Ross notes that “Hillary’s instinct in approaching the Israelis is a little bit different from the president’s, or maybe more than a little bit. Obama came in with a very strong feeling that the Bush administration had been too close to Israel for eight years and that that actually had added to our problems in the region.”

By contrast, Ross believes Hillary agrees with his view that “when you create gaps with Israel, it makes it less likely that the Israelis will feel they have the level of confidence and security to move, but it also may send a signal to the other side that they don’t have to do anything.”

Clinton put distance between herself and Obama’s policy toward Israel. It was Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who James Traub of Foreign Policy says convinced the president to demand a settlement freeze. This was the focal point of Obama’s foreign policy at that point and yet Clinton had no influence over the decision. She opposed the idea because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would never accept a settlement freeze. She was wrong about that, but correct in her assessment that putting pressure on Israel would not advance the peace process.

Unlike her successor, Clinton never showed much determination in pressing Israel or the Palestinians. She did not engage in constant shuttles between the leaders; instead, she gave this thankless task to George Mitchell. He was a reasonable choice for an envoy; however, the Israelis don’t treat intermediaries seriously. Secretaries of state often don’t fare much better unless they have the gravitas and influence of a Henry Kissinger, and Clinton was no Kissinger. When it comes to peace and security, Israelis expect to speak directly to the president.

Clinton has given Netanyahu credit for embracing a two-state solution and sympathizes with their security concerns. She also is far more critical of the Palestinians because of their intransigence regarding negotiations as well their incitement and failure to stop terrorism. She also has heard Bill say “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state,” but they turned it down.

Clinton was prescient when it came to the Arab Spring and the upheaval in Egypt. According to Ross, she was close to the Mubaraks, and especially to the president’s wife, Suzanne. “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.” She did not believe the protestors in the streets of Cairo could govern Egypt.

The president overruled Clinton (and Gates and Vice President Joe Biden) and decided to throw Mubarak under the bus, a disastrous decision that, as Clinton predicted, angered our allies. It also led to the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.

According to Traub, officials who worked with and under Clinton credit her with the “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.”

I’m not sure about America’s image improving since the Arabs now distrusted Obama more than Bush, our key allies in the Middle East were angry, and even European leaders showed little respect for Obama. The one thing that you did hear about her tenure was that she improved morale at Foggy Bottom and that she did some good work on women’s issues. Faint praise for a secretary of state.

Most, but not all, of the disastrous negotiations with Iran took place after she left office. Clinton took a tougher line than Obama, arguing that a contingency plan was needed if diplomacy failed; she was even willing to “consider granting Israel approval to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.” In yet another sign of her powerlessness, Obama rejected her ideas. While in office, Clinton had less faith than Obama in the prospect for a diplomatic result from talks with Iran. Nevertheless, when Obama was fighting to win approval from Congress for the deal, Clinton endorsed it. The question now is how President Clinton would enforce what many, including Israel’s prime minister and opposition leader, view as a catastrophic deal.

One of the few positions she laid out in her speech related to ISIS, Iraq, Syria and terrorism. She said:

We need to take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground. We need to keep pursuing diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide, because those conflicts are keeping ISIS alive. We need to lash up with our allies, and ensure our intelligence services are working hand-in-hand to dismantle the global network that supplies money, arms, propaganda and fighters to the terrorists. We need to win the battle in cyberspace.

This plan raises serious questions: Is there any evidence an air campaign will defeat ISIS? Diplomacy in Syria has been a failure that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and refugees. How will she close Iraq’s sectarian divide, a task as daunting as eliminating the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians?

Clinton justifiably contrasted her experience in working with world leaders and Trump’s almost total inexperience. But, in extolling her negotiations with Russia, she doesn’t mention how Putin outfoxed the Obama administration around the world, from talking Obama out of a missile defense shield for Eastern Europe, to acquiescing in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria. In addition, by alienating our Middle East allies, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have turned to Russia for arms, undoing decades of American policy devoted to keeping the Russians out of the region.

Ross distinguished their world view this way: 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.”

Still, the paradox exists. Was she a foreign policy maker or primarily a bystander? If the former, she has to take responsibility for Obama’s policies. If the latter, her experience as secretary of state did not give her the standing to portray herself as someone prepared to be commander-in-chief.

This analysis may have little relevance to the election because it does not negate her criticism of Trump and the questions raised about his incoherent foreign policy.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.