From Haiti to Syria, the Democratic candidate’s long record suggests she’s looking forward to being a war president on day one.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
Whoever is elected on Nov. 8 will be a war president on day one, with the power and autonomy to undertake destabilizing shows of force, drone strikes, special operations raids and ever-deepening military interventions. Today, combat troop deployments are routinely made by executive branch spokespeople, decisions to back open-ended air wars in places like Yemen by “partners” like Saudi Arabia are announced via press release, and congressional oversight hearings largely boil down to legislators pleading with commanders to ask for more troops and looser rules of engagement.
And much of this probably suits Hillary Clinton just fine.
Unlike Donald Trump, who has wildly shifting positions and alleged “secret” plans to defeat the Islamic State, Clinton has an extensive track record upon which one can evaluate her likely positions. By any reasonable measure, Clinton qualifies as a hawk, if a nuanced one. Though she has opposed uses of force that she believed were a bad idea, she has consistently endorsed starting new wars and expanding others.
Consider seven prominent situations in which she has had to decide whether to support the use of American military force:
Haiti: In 1994, Clinton opposed intervening in Haiti to reinstate the Jean-Bertrand Aristide government. As historian Taylor Branch recounted in his diary of interviews with Bill Clinton: “I asked him what Hillary thought. He said the pell-mell rush to invade was crazy to her. Reacting against the pressure, the lack of options, and his sense of being trapped, she said he was badly served by his foreign policy staff.” This was an astute judgment by the then-first lady, as the options developed by the U.S. Southern Command and Joint Chiefs were poorly conceived and often logistically impossible to carry out. Fortunately, a 25,000 U.S. troop invasion was avoided after Jimmy Carter brokered a last-minute agreement with Raoul Cédras that assured he would step down from power.
Iraq: In 2002, as a senator for New York, Clinton voted for the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq. In her accompanying floor statement, she claimed it was to ensure President George W. Bush was “in the strongest possible position to lead our country in the United Nations or in war” and to show Saddam Hussein that the country was united. After initially defending the vote, she later adjusted, variously declaring she “thought it was a vote to put inspectors back in,” it was “based on the facts and assurances that I had at the time,” and ultimately “it was a mistake to trust Bush.” Clinton also justified the 2002 vote as simply one for compelling compliance, proclaiming, “I believe in coercive diplomacy,” in a January 2008 presidential debate. Regardless of the reasons or excuses behind her vote, the Iraq War was a foreign-policy and geopolitical disaster.
Pakistan: In 2007 and 2008, Clinton strongly disagreed with then-Sen. Barack Obama about striking al Qaeda targets inside of Pakistan. Obama called such attacks “just common sense” if there were “actionable intelligence.” Clinton referred to the 1998 cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan that failed to kill Osama bin Laden and warned that “we have to be very conscious of all the consequences,” particularly anything that would destabilize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Obama would go on to authorize 407 drone strikes in Pakistan, killing 3,089 people. Nearly 300 of these occurred while Clinton was secretary of state, during which time U.S. diplomats opposed only one or two of the strikes. Whatever hesitation Clinton once had in attacking militants in Pakistan vanished upon being confirmed as secretary of state.
Afghanistan: In 2009, Clinton supported three-quarters of the Afghanistan surge. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, requested four brigades of additional U.S. troops in the summer of 2009, Clinton endorsed deploying three of them (equaling roughly 30,000 troops). Reportedly, “Clinton usually favored sending even more [troops] than [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates did.” Obama eventually deployed 33,000 extra troops. It is hard to identify any enduring political or security gains in Afghanistan that have resulted from the surge. Moreover, more than three-quarters of all U.S. troop casualties in that country since 9/11 were killed or wounded in the four years after the surge was initiated.
Libya: In 2011, Clinton was a strong proponent of regime change in Libya (as was Trump). It is forgotten today that a primary justification she offered for the U.S. military role in Libya was to pay back allies for Afghanistan. As she stated in late March 2011: “We asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago. They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked.… When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest.” Academic research shows that great powers enjoy freedom of action to avoid becoming dragged into wars involving allies, but the Libya regime change intervention was, unfortunately, one that the Obama administration chose to fully support, despite misleading the American people at the time that it was not the goal. Obama correctly labeled not planning for the postwar scenario his “worst mistake” and correctly described Libya as a “mess.”
Osama bin Laden: In 2011, she endorsed the Navy SEAL raid into Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden, even while recognizing that it would likely poison diplomatic relations with Pakistan for a short time. According to Vice President Joe Biden — who opposed it — every other official (including Clinton) was “51-49” in supporting the raid. Before the news broke, Obama called Bill Clinton (who, as president, signed three covert findings authorizing bin Laden’s killing) to let him know the al Qaeda leader was finally dead. “I assume Hillary’s already told you,” Obama said to an unaware Clinton. As Hillary Clinton later wrote in her memoir: “They told me not to tell anyone, so I didn’t tell anyone. Bill later joked with me, ‘No one will ever doubt you can keep a secret!’”
Syria: In 2012, she reportedly proposed to the White House — along with CIA Director David Petraeus — a covert program (apparently larger than the one later authorized) to provide arms to vetted Syrian rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Obama opposed this proposal on the grounds that there could be no guarantees of where the weapons would ultimately end up and that CIA analysts determined they would not have “materially” hastened the removal of Assad from power. It is difficult to assess the CIA-led train-and-equip program’s effectiveness, compared to larger Defense Department-led efforts, but there remains no collection of U.S.-backed rebel groups that has threatened the existence of the Assad government, which is now backed by indiscriminate Russian air power.
Outside of specific interventions, Clinton also supported muscular shows of force as secretary of state. New York Times reporter Mark Landler describes a July 2010 White House debate about rerouting the USS George Washington aircraft carrier from its normal cruise into the Yellow Sea. Adm. Robert Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and Secretary of Defense Gates all agreed on this aggressive maneuver. “Clinton strongly seconded it. ‘We’ve got to run it up the gut!’ she had said to her aides a few days earlier,” Landler writes. But Obama refused the request, declaring, “I don’t call audibles with aircraft carriers.” It bears noting that determining the aggressiveness by which the United States conducts freedom of navigation operations in maritime waters claimed by China will be a consequential call for the next president.
Finally, Clinton has had an unusual exposure to the military from multiple civilian positions, which may make her far better prepared to serve as commander in chief than her husband was in 1993, when he had a notoriously difficult start leading the military. As first lady, Clinton was routinely exposed to military intervention debates among senior officials, including over Haiti, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, and later served six years on the Senate Armed Services Committee and four as secretary of state. She also has developed close relations with retired military officers like Gen. Jack Keane, who has rarely seen a country that cannot be improved with U.S. ground troops and airstrikes. As Bob Woodward wrote of a 2009 meeting between the two to discuss the Afghan surge: “Clinton greeted Keane with a bear hug, astonishing [U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard] Holbrooke because—and he should know—Hillary rarely bear-hugged anyone.”
I have spoken about Clinton with a handful of military officers, then stationed in Islamabad and Kabul, who were routinely involved in video teleconferences with her as secretary of state. They all described her as being, by far, the best-prepared senior participant in meetings and having read all the memos or briefing books that were sent as preparatory material. They relayed that Clinton has an intimate understanding of military doctrine, Pentagon acronyms, and military planning principles and was not afraid to press senior commanders to clarify the “courses of action” and the intended “end state” of any given military intervention.
Should Hillary Clinton win the White House, the United States, already at war for 15 years, would be led by a president deeply aware and comfortable with the military. It’s impossible to know which national security crises she would be forced to confront, of course. But those who vote for her should know that she will approach such crises with a long track record of being generally supportive of initiating U.S. military interventions and expanding them.
Photo credit: JILL M. DOUGHERTY/Getty Images