Hillary Clinton talked tough as a candidate, but harsh realities at home and abroad would limit her choices as commander in chief.
Hillary Clinton appeared poised to win the presidency on Tuesday after a bitterly divisive campaign in which she vowed to take a tougher stand against Russia and other U.S. adversaries, while her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, seemed to embrace Moscow and questioned the underpinnings of modern American foreign policy.
But despite her hawkish inclinations, the country’s first female commander in chief will find her room for maneuver severely constrained by the legacy of caution left by her predecessor, broader global trends undermining Washington’s position, and growing skepticism at home of the internationalist ethos that has girded U.S. foreign policy since World War II.
“I think Clinton will feel a lot of pressure to at least look more hawkish,” said Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“But the reality is in a lot of cases — be it Syria, be it the South China Sea — there is no simple military gesture that will reassert American power overnight.”
National tracking polls and early-voting results suggested that Clinton held a slight lead ahead of Tuesday’s vote, though Donald Trump’s campaign pointed to recent gains in battleground states such as Florida and Ohio to insist it still has a path to victory, albeit a narrow one. Down ballot, Democrats are only slightly favored to wrest control of the Senate from the Republicans, with the outcome hinging on a few tight races.
As the top diplomat in President Barack Obama’s first term, Clinton often pushed for more forceful action but was sometimes overruled. In 2012, she and other members of the cabinet argued for providing weapons to moderate Syrian rebels, but Obama decided to hold off. In Libya, in 2011, Clinton urged prompt military intervention by the United States and its allies to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, persuading Obama to back a NATO-led coalition that eventually toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime.
Now, with an expected victory on Nov. 8, Clinton will finally have a chance to put her recipe — diplomacy backed by hard power — to the test. In many areas, that will simply translate into a continuation of Obama-era policies. She has endorsed the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the targeting of the group’s leaders, and efforts to counter its online propaganda. And like Obama, she has ruled out the possibility of deploying a large ground force to defeat the Islamic State.
In other areas — like how to face down Russia in Syria or give new life to NATO — Clinton has shown signs of her talons, compared with Obama’s more detached approach. But in the four years since Clinton stepped down as secretary of state, America’s influence and leverage have deteriorated abroad, from the Middle East to Europe to the South China Sea, complicating her ability to shape the world more in Washington’s favor.
Years of aloof policies from the Obama administration — from the ill-fated “red line” in Syria to halfhearted support for the so-called “pivot to Asia” — will sap the credibility of the next administration even before it is sworn into office. Russia and China have asserted themselves militarily and diplomatically, harking back to Cold War-era competition for influence in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia. Both countries have also modernized their armies, navies, and air forces, narrowing the technological edge upon which the U.S. military relies. And a populist wave of anger in the United States and around the world — hostile to migrants, free trade, and globalization — threatens to derail international efforts to tackle an unprecedented refugee crisis, sluggish economic growth, and climate change.
Washington has steadily lost leverage in the Syrian civil war since Obama’s about-face in August 2013. After declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians would represent a “red line,” Obama then declined to take military action against President Bashar al-Assad after he gassed his own people in the suburbs of Damascus.
That moment, which left U.S. allies bewildered and outraged, has come to define Obama’s handling of the Syrian war. Critics on the left and right say U.S. credibility writ large has been seriously damaged by the episode.
“Rightly or wrongly, that decision not to act when a presidential ‘red line’ had been crossed is seen elsewhere as a sign of U.S. weakness and/or isolationism,” said Peter Westmacott, who served as British ambassador to the United States until last January.
“So the next president, whoever it is, will have to think about restoring perceptions of U.S. leadership, both to reassure nervous allies and to show tyrants they can’t do as they please,” he told Foreign Policy.
And the “red line,” experts and foreign diplomats say, has echoes in other foreign-policy setbacks, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine to unchecked Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
Dwindling U.S. credibility extends to other issues that promise to complicate Clinton’s agenda. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a 12-nation trade deal between the United States and big Asian and Latin American economies — had for years been billed as the crown jewel of the U.S. “rebalance” to Asia. But bipartisan opposition to the agreement in Washington — including from Clinton herself, a onetime champion of the TPP — has doomed the deal.
The likely demise of the TPP, following years of painstaking negotiations, has dealt a blow to America’s reputation among allies in Asia — and opens the door for China to ink a regional trade pact of its own. Clinton helped lay the groundwork for the trade agreement but withdrew her support in the face of strong opposition within her own party, led by her opponent in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and later by her Republican rival.
The erosion of U.S. credibility comes as the world has been radically transformed since Clinton left the State Department, let alone since her last stint in the White House. A more muscular Russia and China are carving out global roles for themselves, the Middle East is riven by a violent sectarian rivalry, Europe is weak and divided, and once steady U.S. allies, like the Philippines, are now courting Beijing.
In Syria, thanks to a largely hands-off approach to rebels fighting the Syrian regime, the United States now has little influence over opposition fighters battling Damascus and few viable options to strengthen them. And North Korea seems to have found the way to pair nuclear weapons with long-range missiles, potentially putting U.S. territories — and not just American allies — at risk.
Clinton has proffered hawkish prescriptions for years. In the Senate, she voted for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and as the top U.S. diplomat, she backed sending more troops to Afghanistan, keeping U.S. forces in Iraq, arming rebel forces in Syria, and bombing forces loyal to Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.
Some of her critics say her outlook is outdated and fails to take into account the limits of America’s influence and the rise of new powers.
“She’s stuck in the 1990s,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of international relations and history at Boston University. “She appears to think that the United States is the ‘sole superpower’ and the ‘indispensable nation,’ tropes that no longer describe reality.”
That new reality means military options are often less palatable and, in some cases, almost unworkable.
In Syria, for instance, Clinton has often spoken of a “no-fly zone” that could shield civilians. At the final presidential debate last month, Clinton said it would offer a way to stem the flow of refugees and “frankly gain some leverage on both the Syrian government and the Russians so that perhaps we can have the kind of serious negotiation necessary to bring the conflict to an end and go forward on a political track.”
But she has never explained in detail precisely what she has in mind or what she is prepared to do to safeguard Syrian civilians from the regime’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons or the missiles of Russian fighter jets. Nor has she addressed the possibility that a no-fly zone could gradually morph into an all-out military assault on the Syrian regime, as NATO’s 2011 intervention did in Libya.
And with Russian warplanes based in Syria bombing rebels and civilians in Aleppo, and advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles deployed across government-held territory, Clinton’s pledge to create such a zone could prove impossible — unless the next president is ready to risk a direct conflict with Russia.
She could arm Syrian rebel forces more aggressively than the Obama administration, which has been wary of indirectly equipping extremists. And some foreign-policy experts and former U.S. officials have called for launching limited missile strikes or airstrikes on the Syrian regime’s bases if Damascus violates cease-fire agreements.
But confronting the Syrian regime carries the risk of dangerous unintended consequences, by either triggering a shooting war with Russia or giving aid to al Qaeda-linked extremists.
And Syria is not the only place Russia is testing the United States. Moscow’s nuclear saber rattling, its armed intervention in Ukraine, its cyber-interference in the U.S. election, and its aggressive posture toward European neighbors have all sparked greater tensions with Washington.
Early in the next administration, the new president have to weigh the risks and rewards of retaliating against Russia for its efforts to disrupt the American election by hacking the Democratic National Committee and her campaign. Even before U.S. intelligence agencies announced in October that Russia was behind the hacks, Clinton told the American Legion that as president, she would treat such cyber-espionage “like any other attack.”
“We will be ready with serious political, economic, and military responses,” she said.
Clinton’s options for hard power in Asia aren’t much more appealing. As secretary of state, Clinton traveled frequently to Asia and rebuked China over its human rights record and its coercive tactics in the South China Sea. But translating that tougher posture into a more hawkish approach is fraught with peril, too.
Clinton could try to reassert U.S. power by backing more frequent and more aggressive “freedom of navigation” patrols by U.S. ships and aircraft in the South China Sea. That is something Obama’s White House was often reluctant to do to avoid upsetting Beijing and endangering other big-ticket bilateral diplomatic initiatives, from curbing North Korea’s nuclear program to battling climate change.
But the U.S. military position in Asia has been thrown for a loop by the election of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, an upstart populist nursing a longtime grudge against U.S. influence in his country. If Duterte succeeds in curtailing defense cooperation with Washington, limiting U.S. forces’ access to air and naval bases near the South China Sea, that will further complicate U.S. efforts to push back against Beijing.
The vocal U.S. opposition to the TPP underscores the challenges Clinton will face in trying to advance a more interventionist and engaged foreign-policy agenda while being bogged down by a toxic domestic political climate. The next president will be faced with the daunting challenge of trying to reassure Americans their country’s political system is not dysfunctional — and foreign partners that U.S. democracy is not in decline. The election has called into question not just the health and legitimacy of U.S. democracy but a decades-old consensus about the broad outlines of America’s place in the world.
Apparently sick of an expansive — and expensive — role as the world’s police, most Americans now oppose military adventurism abroad and favor redirecting resources to domestic priorities.
A source close to the Clinton campaign acknowledged to FP late on Monday that she would face constraints on foreign policy, but argued the former secretary of state would be well-positioned to navigate those challenges.
“Part of her task going in will be addressing an American public that has also lived through this election campaign where the basic tenets of American foreign policy over the last several decades have been questioned,” he said, adding that the case for American leadership in the world “has not been celebrated or discussed in the ways that you want it to over the course of this campaign.”
It remains unclear to what degree Clinton will be able to even focus on foreign policy, given the divisive political atmosphere and the pressing need to address Americans’ economic anxieties. Philosophically more in tune with many Republican lawmakers on some questions of national security, Clinton will have an uphill battle trying to find common ground. Even those who opposed Trump have cause to fear a backlash in conservative districts if they are seen to be cooperating with a new president who is deeply disliked by most Republican voters.
Making matters worse, Clinton cannot bank on full-throated support from her own party, either. Some Democrats in Congress gave her calls for a no-fly zone in Syria a lukewarm response. And if Democrats manage to defeat some hawkish GOP incumbents — such as in Wisconsin or North Carolina — to retake a majority in the Senate, Clinton could actually find herself with fewer potential foreign-policy allies.
Ultimately, events could waylay the best-laid of plans, hawkish or otherwise. Syrian and Russian forces are gearing up to finish off rebel fighters in Aleppo and secure control over the city before the next president takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, delivering a troubling fait accompli that could hamstring the president-elect.
“You may have a situation,” Gowan said, “where the first test will be to essentially manage defeat.”
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