By Jonathan Power
We in the world outside the U.S. don’t have a vote in the U.S. presidential election in November. But that doesn’t stop most of us having a strong opinion on who should win. Very few non-Americans would vote Republican–and probably not 51 percent of Americans. After all, President Barack Obama won two elections and has not given the Democrats a bad name. Many of us are being pulled toward Senator Bernie Sanders, a social democrat, who is giving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a run for her money. But, to be honest, once the primaries in the southern states start to roll, he is likely to be marginalized by Clinton. She will probably win the election for president.
Like it or lump it, we’d better get used to a more right-wing and confrontational foreign policy.
Most of the time, she was a good and faithful servant to Obama as his secretary of state, but behind the scenes in internal White House discussions, she would often argue against the president’s instincts and policies.
She was against Obama’s support for the Arab Spring in Egypt, but Obama overruled her. Yet on another occasion, Vice President Joe Biden said of her that she was an “interventionist,” and too inclined to believe that “we just have to do something when bad people do bad things.” Hence, her determined and successful effort to win over Obama to bomb Gadhafi’s part of Libya, which turned out to be a disastrous policy–creating another ungovernable country similar to Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has admitted he was wrong. Clinton has not.
Her policies with China and Russia were equally flawed. At the G-20 meeting in London in April 2009, she tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Obama not to go ahead with an invitation to invite President Hu Jintao of China for a state visit. She argued that he should withhold the offer–you don’t give away a presidential visit lightly.
With Russia she was equally antagonistic. She never fully believed in the “reset.” She worried that it upset the Eastern European allies. Obama had a different view. “He was free from the prejudices of the Cold War and was prepared to take the first step in mending fences with Russia,” writes James Traub in Foreign Policy.
Traub also wrote that she “thinks about the relationship between states much the way that Henry Kissinger does.”
Critics have pointed out that it is hard to find specific accomplishments made by her. Compare her with her successor, John Kerry, who forged the Iran deal on renouncing a nuclear bomb program, and who hurtles around the globe in an attempt to win over both allies and antagonists to Obama’s more pacific leanings, despite bitter criticism at home from the Republicans and big parts of the media.
Given a chance, she often worked to toughen Obama’s policy when it fitted in with her own views. One example is the so-called “pivot,” whereby she pushed for more links with Asia.
This led to more realpolitik with China, not least playing down the issue of human rights. In February 2009, she told reporters that concern over China’s human rights practices “can’t interfere” with progress on major issues. This contrasted with the headline-winning lectures she gave on women’s rights in China in 1995.
The Obama administration has been divided between officials who wanted to confront China and those who feared that doing so would jeopardize cooperation on a wide range of issues. Clinton was in the first camp. She was happy to see China provoked as when she told Beijing she wanted to see multilateral negotiations over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese, the biggest players in the region, naturally want direct bilateral discussion with superpower America. Her speech was surely more confrontational than Obama wanted.
In Afghanistan, she stood with the generals in their campaign to see a significant increase in troop levels. Paradoxically later, in 2011, once Obama was committed to raising troop numbers, she was stressing the need for diplomacy. She found herself blocked by the White House, which had become committed for a while to a fully-fledged counterterror approach. Obama was worried about appearing “soft.” She wasn’t.
On Iran, she was “hard.” In the event that diplomacy failed, she was prepared to consider granting Israel approval to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. In the Palestine-Israel dispute, she was tougher on Palestine than Kerry has been. On Syria last year she argued for intervention.
For all her hard-line tendencies, she is far better informed than any of her Republican or Democratic rivals. But that will not mean she won’t make horrendous mistakes. Her past “hard” attitudes suggest she will.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Marc Nozell.]