- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room., Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Over the past year, we have made our opposition to Republican nominee Donald Trump fairly clear (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and … well you get the idea). In sum, we consider Trump to be unfit for office: temperamentally unsound to wield the powers of the presidency, profoundly ignorant about the national security challenges we face, staggeringly wrong on many of the positions he has adopted, and unjustifiably confident in his own abilities. While we have made it clear we will not vote for Trump, we also will not vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Secretary Clinton’s candidacy has provoked considerable discussion among Republican foreign policy ranks. Quite a few of our friends in the foreign policy expert community have ridden their opposition to Trump all the way into Clinton’s camp, declaring they will vote for her bid for president. Some prominent Asia experts posted as much here on Shadow Government last week. We respect their reasoning and their position but want to explain why we arrive at a different conclusion.
But first there are two preliminary observations about the difficulty of taking the right stance during this extraordinary election that must be considered. We understand the reasoning that led some Republicans like Brent Scowcroft, Hank Paulson, Kori Schake, Steve Krasner, David Gordon, and Reuel Gerecht to endorse Clinton, just as we understand the reasoning that led others to decline adding their signatures to anti-Trump letters despite their misgivings about his candidacy. These are difficult times for Republican foreign policy specialists, and we believe there are good and principled reasons to land in any of the following three baskets of political positions on the 2016 presidential election: publicly oppose Trump, publicly support Clinton, or keep one’s powder dry.
One of the post-November priorities will be for Republicans to interpret this extraordinary election, particularly coming to terms with how the party could nominate such an inept candidate so manifestly unfit for the presidency. But we will not learn all the lessons that we need to learn if we arbitrarily excommunicate those who made different decisions from what we made.
Undoubtedly, the post-election period will bring a season of hard introspection and self-reflection for conservatives and Republicans about the future of our movement and our ideas. In the spirit of our party’s founding president, Abraham Lincoln, it is incumbent on us to be charitable toward all — especially if there is to be any hope of restoring unity and a forward-looking vision of conservative internationalism amid our many fractures.
We also understand the brutal math of elections. When Republicans like us declare we will not vote for the GOP nominee, an argument can be made that our refusal (inevitably, even if inadvertently) helps the principal alternative, which in this case is the Democratic nominee. While we intend to write in a different name on the ballot, it is with the understanding that this will likely nullify our presidential vote. In North Carolina, it’s already too late (and in Texas it is all but too late) to write in a tabulated vote for our favored candidate. Write-in candidates for president are essentially symbolic anyway, so this technical limitation only infinitesimally changes the material impact of our vote. More consequentially, we recognize that our public opposition to Trump has potentially helped the Clinton campaign simply by reinforcing her message that Trump is unfit to be commander in chief.
But we think there is an important rhetorical space between publicly opposing Trump and publicly supporting Clinton. We also believe that more people need to fill that space for three main reasons.
First, though we care deeply about foreign policy and national security, the rest of the presidential portfolio is also of great consequence. And it is here where we see ample reason to worry about a Clinton presidency. It is striking that her team is making such public outreach to disaffected Republicans without making even the tiniest symbolic concession to Republican concerns. The Clinton team is talking about the need for national unity in the face of a genuine political crisis, but its idea of unity seems to be for Republicans to abandon all of their policies and interests. This is not how other great leaders — think Lincoln or Winston Churchill — acted in times of crisis.
And such good-faith compromise is especially important this year because Clinton is running on a platform markedly to the left of Obama on domestic and economic policies. One indicator of her inclinations is that she won’t even promise to re-nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. The implication is obvious: While Garland is already far to the left of the kind of candidate Republicans would prefer to see fill the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia’s untimely demise, he is not the worst nominee they can imagine. By refusing to promise to re-nominate him, the Clinton team is preparing to exploit its likely new political clout post-election to appoint someone even further to the left of Garland.
Of course, to borrow from Thucydides, in politics the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. So we understand why the Democrats are keen to take advantage of the crisis, drive the courts further to the left, and thus do even more damage on issues many Republicans, including us, care deeply about. Democrats will share blame for this with those Republican primary voters who nominated an unelectable candidate. But understanding it does not justify supporting it.
Second, Republican and other surprising endorsers of Clinton will have a much harder time speaking candidly about her many liabilities. Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion that such supporters will mute their criticisms of the former secretary of state. For example, our friend and Shadow Government colleague Mike Green, one of the most respected Asia hands in either party, signed the recent letter in Shadow Government indicating he would vote for Clinton. He is a reluctant Clinton voter, evidenced by his forthcoming article that, among other things, critiques the candidate for her newfound opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and he has elsewhere called for a strong Republican Congress to help further the trade agenda. (The piece will be out here next week, and the full interview the week after that.)
Yet we note that the recent letter that was published in Shadow Government may have offered a persuasive critique of Trump’s policies, but its discussion of Clinton was less so. The letter did not say what the authors know well: Clinton’s opportunistic flip-flop on the TPP is deeply damaging to America’s Asia strategy, more damaging than Trump’s bombastic rhetoric on the TPP. Clinton’s opposition to the TPP has wrought serious harm to our relations with our Asian allies and has effectively nullified the one legitimate legacy item from her tenure as secretary of state: the way she and Obama tried to build upon and further the Bush-era strategic outreach to Asia. The most experienced Asia hands in both parties understand that without the TPP, this bipartisan policy is in trouble. Having the very person who most boasted about the pivot and the role of the TPP in that pivot cavalierly abandon that support because of pressure from the left has dispirited allies and partners throughout the region.
There are many other tough questions that we hope Clinton’s Republican voters will nonetheless hold her to account on, such as:
- Clinton’s opposition to the Iraq surge; opposition that, according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, was based on partisan political considerations.
- Her diplomatic failure to negotiate and implement an adequate post-2011 U.S. presence in Iraq that might have inhibited the rise of the Islamic State. As a recent Washington Post article documents in withering detail, the Obama administration fundamentally mishandled the Iraq file under Secretary Clinton’s tenure, and yet she has avoided acknowledging her role in the debacle. Referencing her memoir titled Hard Choices, the Post article has a pithy observation: “On the rest of what happened in Iraq during her tenure as America’s top diplomat, the 635-page book is silent.”
- Clinton’s opposition to the congressional sanctions on Iran that led to the tougher multilateral economic pressure that she boasts about securing.
- The former secretary of state’s silence on the ways the Iran deal and the Obama administration’s subsequent actions have fallen short of the promises her own team has made about how to confront Iran.
- Her manifest failure to plan for and resource post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction efforts after leading a regime change operation in Libya, contributing to tragedies like the Benghazi attacks, the proliferation of jihadi groups, and the country’s near-collapse into a failed state and terrorist safe haven.
- Clinton’s leading role in the Obama administration’s blinkered “reset” policy toward Russia and its failure to deter Putin’s aggression.
- The Obama administration’s failure to halt North Korea’s dangerous nuclear arms program — a failure, it must be said, that it shares with the Bush administration in which we served. There is plenty of blame to go around in both parties, yet what both current candidates lack is a persuasive account of how either would handle North Korea differently in the future.
The same argument applies to all the other scandals swirling around the candidate: the way she put personal interest above the public trust and placed highly classified information at the disposal of America’s adversaries through her illicit private computer server; the multiple apparent conflicts of interest between her public role as secretary of state and her family’s private role raising money from foreign individuals eager to curry favor with the State Department; the way the Obama administration let electoral politics drive national security in the run-up to the 2012 campaign; and her continued refusal to speak with candor and honesty on these and other issues. In short, it is quite reasonable to have concerns about a presidential candidate who in almost any other role would be denied a security clearance due to serial violations with sensitive information.
Overall, Clinton’s record on foreign policy is not nearly as strong as her backers say, a fact that gets obscured because Trump is himself so weak. Her tenure as secretary could be summed up thus: Where she was right on policy (for instance, the need to arm the Syrian rebels earlier) she was not very influential, and where she was influential (intervening in Libya) it did not turn out so well as a policy.
Because of Trump’s myriad deficiencies as a candidate, he has thus far shown himself unable to effectively put these and other questions to Clinton during the campaign. And because she was challenged only from the far left during the primaries, she avoided the tough questions then, too. That means she is on track to win — and perhaps to win big — without candidly addressing the many weaknesses in her foreign policy record and without presenting a persuasive account of how she could do better as commander in chief.
These are not mere “gotcha” questions. In every case, Clinton’s inability to answer the question satisfactorily raises doubts about how she would manage a related issue as president. How can she lead the country into a more strategic approach to cybersecurity if she cannot answer candidly her personal record on cybersecurity? How can she mobilize a wary public to support difficult military operations when her Iraq policies were dictated by political considerations? How can she forge a more promising policy on North Korea if she cannot acknowledge what went wrong on her watch? And so on.
Third, the country needs a strong Republican counterweight to the Democratic Party. Should the current forecasts hold and Clinton wins in a landslide, Republican control of the Senate and House would be in serious jeopardy. Without the checks and balances of divided government, we could be in for a very rocky time — perhaps less rocky than a hypothetical Trump presidency, but rocky enough to worry about.
From the point of view of defending American interests at home and abroad, the following conditions are markedly different. Condition A: President Clinton obliged to cut deals with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Condition B: President Clinton obliged to cut deals with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (himself obliged to cut deals with super-senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).
Republicans who oppose Trump are making Condition A more likely. Republicans who support Clinton without pointing out her liabilities that make split government desirable could be making Condition B more likely. We are quite confident that if Condition B arises, it will be much harder to forge the policies this country needs to deal with the mess the next president will inherit.
Thus, we are keen to strengthen the Republican voice in Congress, and to highlight those strong voices that are already having an impact. That is why on Election Day we will be writing in a vote for Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska for president. We do this mindful that Sasse has declined numerous entreaties to run for president and has disavowed any presidential campaign efforts, of the write-in, draft, or other varieties. Our support for him is merely a symbolic statement about the caliber of leader we would like to see in the Oval Office. Even though he is not a candidate, we believe Sasse reflects what is best about the Republican political bench — deeply principled, honorable, possessed of abundant professional experience across multiple sectors, well versed on policy, and savvy about new directions in political communication. He has taken a courageous position against Trump, and stands as an articulate voice for conservative internationalism. Leaders like Sasse represent the best future of the Republican Party, and we intend to cast our votes for that future now.
If Clinton wins, she would be our president, and as patriots we would do what we could from the cheap seats here on the opposition bench to help her administration develop and implement policies that advance American interests at home and abroad. But until that point, in this troubled political season we believe we can best serve our own party and our country, not by promising to vote for her, but rather by speaking these inconvenient truths and raising these hard questions.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images