Shadow Government

Time to Ask Hillary Clinton the Tough Questions

The media has been understandably preoccupied with how various Republican candidates for president have sought to explain their positions on Iraq circa 2002. That is a legitimate subject for attention, and it is not unreasonable to expect candidates for the role of commander-in-chief to be able to speak with nuance about the myriad different topics ...

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The media has been understandably preoccupied with how various Republican candidates for president have sought to explain their positions on Iraq circa 2002.

That is a legitimate subject for attention, and it is not unreasonable to expect candidates for the role of commander-in-chief to be able to speak with nuance about the myriad different topics buried in those retrospective questions:

1. Knowing only what was known when the decision had to be made, would you have decided as President George W. Bush did?

2. Knowing now what was NOT known then and was ONLY knowable because we invaded, would you nevertheless have decided as President Bush did (even though we know he did not know and could not know what we now know)?

Reasonable Republicans can answer those questions in different ways and reasonable Republicans can even pause and ask the reporter for clarification on the second one, the complexities of which few reporters seem willing to acknowledge. Republicans need not tie themselves in knots aiming for the appearance of consistency over the very distinct issues at the heart of this “controversy”: decision-making under conditions of uncertainty vs. decision-making under conditions of perfect knowledge.

But as for charting the future trajectory of American power and American foreign policy, I wonder if the debates inside the Democratic Party are not the more decisive ones. Consider just two: whether to embrace the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what to make of the remarkable unraveling of America’s position around the world.

President Obama, to his credit, has been forceful in arguing that the United States must secure a strong Asia trade deal in order to be properly positioned to meet the challenges in the Asian theater in the coming decades. He is right. Unfortunately, his own party is blocking his efforts to reach that deal. And, more ominously, the person best positioned to be the next Democratic president, his own former secretary of state, has repeatedly refused to help him make the case. Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to endorse a deal that is central to what her own advisors claim is her most important foreign policy legacy — the Asia pivot — speaks volumes about the foreign policy divisions within her party. As one sympathetic pundit put it, if Hillary Clinton will not be strong on trade when she is running effectively unopposed in a primary, she will not be strong on trade when she is president.

In other words, divisions within the Democratic Party on trade could well doom the TPP, and that would have profound implications for foreign policy.

Differing views within the Democratic Party on how dangerous to view the current global disorder could likewise prove consequential. Here, President Obama’s position is less praiseworthy. Whether dismissing the Islamic State as a “jayvee team” threat or insisting that it is on the defensive even as it retakes territory in Iraq or dismissing Putin as a playing a losing hand, the president has consistently downplayed the threats and challenges to America’s global position.

The Clinton faction within the party seems to be less willing to engage in happy talk, or at least that is the inference I draw from the recent announcement that the Center for New American Security’s (CNAS) annual conference topic will be “A World in Turmoil: Charting America’s Course.” When CNAS was founded, it was widely considered to be the “Clinton national security team in waiting,” but when Obama overtook Clinton, it proved to be the “Democratic national security team in waiting.” Most of the senior players in CNAS have served in the Obama administration in some capacity in the past six years and many are expected to serve in any new Clinton administration as well. (Full disclosure: I have published several pieces through CNAS and, at one time, was on their Board of Advisors. I am told I still am, though the website has forgotten me — temporarily, I hope!) CNAS is probably as good a window into the thinking of the Clinton national security team as we have.

And what it reveals is that Clinton’s would-be national security advisors believe they will be inheriting a “world in turmoil.” That sounds much closer to the Republican critique of Obama’s foreign policy legacy than it sounds like Obama’s defense of it.

The CNAS conference will be an important opportunity to assess whether the would-be next Democratic president has a more compelling strategy to confront global challenges than the current one. And it will surely be interesting to see whether Clinton’s national security advisors believe she is better off running toward or away from Obama’s legacy in this area.

Republicans need to up their game if they are going to win the voter’s confidence on national security and American foreign policy. But when Democrats are divided on such fundamental issues as free trade and America’s responsibility for confronting global turmoil, it suggests that Democrats may have to up their game, too.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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