Steven Horowitz

Obama’s Legacy, Hillary’s Dilemma

For all intents and purposes, the US election has all but wrapped up and Hillary Clinton will become the next president. The chance of the Republican nominee succeeding is now rated by Las Vegas odds makers at somewhere near five percent. Exit Donald J. Trump — which on one level only is a shame, because for whatever reason (probably because he owes tens of millions of dollars to Russian creditors), he would at least contemplate a durable peace with Putin and the Kremlin.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, seems to be a neo-con dressed up as a progressive. And for America’s left progressives, the country with whom they are most enthralled is definitely Iran. For to them (progressives) the Iran nuclear deal represents the very pinnacle of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. In their mind set, the deal represents a strange dichotomy whereby a withdrawal of US leadership from Iraq, and the total lack of any kind of policy in Syria, have become non-priorities when juxtaposed against an interim Iran nuclear deal. It matters little to them that the deal will essentially expire sometime in the next decade. In other words, for progressives, so-called “peace” in the Middle East’s nuclear sphere (however temporary) was attained at the steep price of the advancement of Iranian and Russian hegemony throughout Syria and Iraq. Perhaps such an outcome suits their true desires.

Now, however, Hillary has been exposed as the liberal hawk (a variety of neo-con) that she has at times chosen to deride. Moscow has hacked into Democratic Party e-mails, and Julian Assange and his Wiki-Leaks organization have distributed those e-mails to the global media. The Clinton campaign, in conjunction with US intelligence, has tagged the Russians with an attempt to influence the US election. In the process, Clinton accused Trump of being super soft on Putin; she also began to sound extremely hawkish with respect to the Russian push-back in the Ukraine and Syria. Even though this particular foreign policy tack won her a slew of independent centrist votes, and perhaps even the election, it also diverged from Bernie Sanders progressive wing of the Democratic Party and its isolationist bent on US foreign policy.

The dilemma for Hillary is how to straddle her hawkishness with Obama’s legacy of cautious non-involvement. But the problem with Obama is that he never knew what it was he wanted to be. Was America to continue to be the world’s policeman, or would it establish itself in some other role? Obama totally compartmentalized each and every crisis. He was like the policeman who rarely left the station house. For all his talk of global nuclear disarmament, he never envisioned an alternative conventional weapons reality for Europe and East Asia.

In the Middle East, he became the president who either led from behind, or didn’t lead at all. Iran’s nuclear program became separate from Iran’s regional ambition, and in the process Obama opened himself up to be blackmailed on Syria. Instead of attacking Assad’s forces in the aftermath of their use of chemical weapons, Obama hesitated when back-channel communications from Tehran warned him that such action would risk the end of nuclear negotiations. Hence the blackmail.

Obama’s confusion, between the parts of policy he wished to address and the effect such action would have on the whole of America’s global commitment, will soon become Hillary’s dilemma. This is especially true with regard to Syria and its relation to NATO expansion. If the US was not going to be the world’s global policeman, then other lawmen were certain to attempt to fill regional roles. The vacuum created by Obama’s legacy in the Middle East became the Russian lever in events on the European continent. Obama compartmentalized Europe by attempting to expand US and EU influence into the Ukraine, thereby posing a direct threat on Russia’s doorstep. These moves were met by Moscow with extreme hostility. Crimea was annexed, eastern Ukrainian provinces were invaded, relations with the Chinese were maximized, and eventually Syria became a Russian-only airspace. Putin, unlike Obama, understood that the game of geopolitics can be played simultaneously across the entire planet.

On January 20th, Hillary Clinton will be expected to continue the Obama legacy, or alter it in places where it has created a vacuum (the tough neo-con approach), or create an entire new policy such as an alternative outside-the-box peace agenda. Her choice will not be politically easy. If she chooses to continue with Obama’s hesitant policy in the Middle East, Russia and/or Iran will remain as dominant players. America’s Turkish, Israeli and Arab allies will therefore scramble to find the political coherency necessary to cobble together their own blocking formation. This might even be achieved — with a huge price to US interests — by Russian backing. Such a circumstance would open her up to a barrage of criticism across a swath of domestic opposition and severely weaken America’s alliance system across the globe.

If Clinton chooses the liberal hawkish-neo-con approach, she risks a war with Russia. Such ideas as no-fly zones in Syria, or troop escalations in the Baltics and Poland, might further damage US-Russian relations to the breaking point. After fifteen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US public is not about to hand Hillary the keys to another war. Like Obama at his moment of truth in Syria, the new president also risks the complete breakdown of the Iran nuclear deal. Clinton trumpets the Iran nuclear deal because she played a significant role at its embryonic stage. A tough policy on Syria could mean the end of the deal. Certainly the hardliners in Tehran would welcome such an American approach, especially with Iranian elections scheduled for next summer.

Furthermore, how could the US pay for such an aggressive policy? Hillary Clinton understands explicitly the monetary dangers of a guns-and-butter foreign and domestic policy. A hawkish Clinton approach risks not only a huge split within her own party, but also an inability to achieve the essential domestic agenda which she has proposed as an answer to the anemic economic growth of the Obama years. After all, the US economy has been a tepid growth machine since the end of the last Clinton administration in 2001. Hillary needs the progressive wing of her party. But she also must prove to her base and the Republican working class that she has answers to their economic hardship. A neo-con approach to the Russians might sound good as an election sound byte, but it will never fly politically once the actual ramifications of such a policy have begun to be digested by the American people.

The final alternative is the Global Grand Bargain. Putin wants to partner with the US; why not an out-of-the-box approach to peace in Europe and the Middle East? Clinton needs to get together with Germany, France, and Poland for a Yalta II style conference with the Russians over the future of European security. This approach seems far better than the other two alternatives. Why not a reset with Russia in the Middle East in coordination with a US-Russian reset toward Europe? Isn’t this what the Russian president has been aiming for with his aggressive push-back in Europe and Syria? No one wants war. And no one wants the status quo either, because it too is leading to war.

The Middle East is broken and will remain broken until the region becomes a part of a global whole in search of world peace. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are like the canaries in the coal mine. But the coal mine is the entire world. Without peace, humanity will never be able to transform itself to meet the challenges of the environmental and economic dilemmas we all face.

Unlike Obama’s legacy, global warming cannot be separated from all aspects of geopolitical reality, including conventional imbalance and its concomitant terrifying possibility of potential nuclear escalation. Hillary Clinton comes from a generation that remembers well the absurdity of being ten years old and “preparing” for nuclear war by innocently placing herself underneath her desk at elementary school. In terms of protection, nothing has changed since the 1950s. Thanks to the first and second Clinton Administrations (1993-2001) the Cold War in Europe never ended. Only the Soviet Union disappeared. NATO expansion was a huge mistake, and now the world is at the cusp of a serious US-Russia confrontation.

The next Clinton administration will be nothing like the first two under her husband. Now Hillary is a grandmother and about to become commander and chief of the United States of America. Hillary’s task will be far harder than Bill’s. For the US, the world is far more complicated now than it was in the 1990s. Old paradigms must surely die, or our children’s children and their children will have little in the way of a future. However, within such a context great opportunities exist for progress. It is possible that the first American female president could become one of her nation’s greatest.

If only Ms. Clinton will lead her country and its allies toward a global project of world peace, I am certain that the Divine Spirit will spread Her Grace upon her. For unlike most other armchair geopolitical practitioners, I do not believe in peace through strength, because the world has never really experienced anything even remotely resembling a lasting peace.

This moment is different. The nuclear age has now also merged with the age of global warming and the crisis of global debt. Without peace, the material effects of climate change in conjunction with the collapse of unsustainable capitalism will certainly lead to a dangerous war in a dystopia of potential nuclear winter. It has been the great hope of the Jewish People — from the time of the Prophets, through to the Kabbalah and into the modern creation of Messianic Zionism — that a true redemptive peace shall flourish upon earth. All Jews can only hope that America’s first female president will become a great leader and one of the agents of this new epoch in human history. We are all counting on her to reset the trajectory of our current path and avoid the horrendous geopolitical pathology of our unresolved nuclear age.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).