Shadow Government

Hillary Clinton’s Unexplored and Underwhelming Middle East Record

Why isn't the former secretary of state talking about her foreign policy chops?


Will foreign policy really matter in the upcoming presidential election? Folks like me (and many FP readers) who work on this stuff for a living would like to think that it is always a top tier concern, though oftentimes the interests of average American voters are much more about pocketbook issues closer to home. Yet there are some early signs that national security policy could be a significant factor in the 2016 presidential race. The state of the world has much to do with this, with voters being regularly inundated by headlines of international turbulence ranging from the Islamic State depredations to the Iranian nuclear negotiations to Russian aggression to Chinese assertiveness. To many Americans, the world really does feel chaotic, unstable, and dangerous.

Then there’s also the fact that much of the early back and forth between leading Republican candidates and (with apologies to the growing legions of Bernie Sanders fans) presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has been not on Obamacare, not on the anemic economic recovery, not on social issues, but on foreign policy. So while the average American voter won’t begin tuning in to presidential politics for a few more months, some of the early contours of the presidential contest are starting to take shape, and foreign policy will likely be a prominent feature.

Hillary Clinton is the only major candidate of either party to have held an executive branch cabinet position on foreign policy. One would think this might be an asset for her. But the way she and her campaign are acting — by barely mentioning her record as secretary of state, dodging questions about her Iraq decisions, and only talking about foreign policy by attacking the George W. Bush administration — it would seem that they privately regard her tenure as secretary of state as a liability.

In light of her record as secretary of state, that assessment is not surprising. She seems to be, paradoxically, one of the most-traveled and least-accomplished secretaries of state of modern times. Clinton herself inadvertently admitted this when she infamously couldn’t identify any major accomplishments in an interview. It is sad but revealing that the one thing most Americans can identify about her tenure as secretary of state is not a major diplomatic accomplishment but rather her unauthorized (and arguably illegal) private email server.

As an aside, for those who still wonder what the big fuss is about setting up a private server instead of using official State Department email, in a nutshell it is this: as dictated by law, policy, and plain good sense, all executive branch officials are subject to a basic mandate on official communications. That mandate is this: emails and other records are 1) to be protected and secured from foreign government surveillance, and 2) to be preserved so that at a later time and after appropriate declassification procedures they are the property of the American public for transparency, accountability, and scholarship. Clinton, perversely, twisted and reversed this mandate. By setting up a private server and account, she made her emails accessible and subject to exploitation by hostile foreign governments, yet kept her emails secret from the American people. This would have been deeply problematic even if her emails did not contain any technically classified information; the fact that they did contain classified information is even more worrisome.

Given the ongoing debate over the deterioration in Iraq and rise of the Islamic State, it is noteworthy that Clinton is also the only major candidate of either party to have had any policy responsibility for all three major Iraq decisions of the last 12 years: the decision to go to war in 2003 (which she supported and voted to authorize as a U.S. senator), the surge decision of 2007 (which she fiercely opposed, also as a senator), and the decision to completely withdraw all U.S. troops in 2011 (which she supported as secretary of state). She has since repudiated her original support for the war, has since admitted that her opposition to the surge was politically-motivated, and now tries to evade questions about how the abandonment of Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of the Islamic State and the resurgence of Iranian influence (for a thorough treatment of this, see Peter Feaver’s excellent exploration here). In short, it is not an admirable record — she was wrong on all three major Iraq decisions (an infelicity eclipsed perhaps only by Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who thanks to their Senate votes against the 1991 Gulf War have been wrong on four major Iraq decisions).

The recent campaign skirmishes over Iraq have obscured Clinton’s larger record on the Middle East, which is also wanting. While a vocal advocate for and architect of the American military intervention in Libya that decapitated the Qaddafi regime, she failed to plan for the day after: the stabilization, reconstruction, and political reconciliation of Libya. Left behind instead is a failed state ravaged by competing militias, terrorist safe-havens, and an Islamic State outpost. Syria is an even bigger disaster, combining the humanitarian travesty of over 200,000 murdered Syrians with the proliferation of terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Nusra front, the ongoing use of chemical weapons, and the expansion of Iranian power.

Another signature Obama-Clinton initiative, the Russia “re-set,” as misguided as it was in its own right, also contributed to the systemic failures of their Middle East policy. Putin emerged early on as, along with Iran, one of Bashar al-Assad’s most fervent supporters. The ideological blinders that caused Obama and Clinton to eschew any support for the moderate Syrian rebels — remember that in 2011 Clinton had infamously described Assad as a “reformer” — also handcuffed them from taking any steps that might cause friction with Putin.

In short, it is not just the Obama administration’s abdication in Iraq that precipitated the explosive and catastrophic growth of the Islamic State since 2013. The Islamic State’s successes were also facilitated by the administration’s failures in Syria, and by its premature declarations of victory against terrorism. These blinded the administration to the rise of the Islamic State and the continuing appeal of violent jihadist ideology. In hindsight, 2011 may have been the year of Osama bin Laden’s demise, but it was also the tragically pivotal year when the Obama administration abandoned Iraq, neglected Syria, and essentially declared “mission accomplished” in the war on jihadist terrorism — and when the Islamic State took advantage of this opening to rise from the defeated ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton approved of, and in many ways helped author these decisions. (Yes, the Islamic State traces its organizational roots back to AQI’s roots in 2002, and yes AQI grew in strength in the chaotic aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq. But under the Bush administration, AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and the surge helped ensure that AQI was largely defeated by January 2009 when Obama and Clinton took office. The rise of the Islamic State four years later took place on their watch.)

Then there are America’s disaffected allies and partners. As disparate and diverse as they are, one thing that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates all have in common is a growing distance and distrust of the United States. This is most visibly a consequence of the Iran nuclear deal, but more broadly of America’s perceived weakness, vacillation, and passivity across the region.

In short, not only is the region as a whole in turmoil, there is arguably not a single Middle Eastern nation — with the perverse exception of Iran — where the United States has a stronger bilateral relationship now than we did when Obama and Clinton took office (and the improved Iran relationship comes at considerable cost to American interests). Given this record, it is sad but telling that at this juncture, rather than an honest accounting, Clinton’s surrogates are reduced to caricatured fear-mongering and evasive blame-shifting.

There is a possible alternative explanation for this litany of mistaken policies. Perhaps, in her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton advocated for vigorous American engagement with then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to secure a meaningful American troop presence in Iraq; perhaps she advocated early on for support to the moderate Syrian rebels (as we know she finally did 18 months later); perhaps she advocated for a substantial post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction effort in Libya after the bombing campaign decapitated the Qaddafi regime; perhaps she advocated for maintaining close ties of trust and cooperation between the U.S. and regional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE; perhaps she advocated for a stronger line on Iran that combined a credible threat of force, crippling sanctions, and tough diplomacy to negotiate the end of Iran’s nuclear program (rather than extending it, as the current deal does); perhaps….

If all of these “perhaps” were true, then Clinton would turn out to have been much more astute and correct on policies than her record seems to indicate. But it would also mean that she rivals the hapless Bill Rogers as one of the most ineffective Secretary of States in modern history, given that her president ignored or overruled her on every issue of consequence.

Since the Clinton presidential campaign faces a rather unappealing set of choices for discussing her tenure as secretary of state — either admit to costly policy errors or to manifest irrelevance — it is perhaps unsurprising that they keep trying to divert attention from her recent record. Yet Clinton also continues to struggle with potential voters on the “is she honest and trustworthy” question, as Chris Cillizza demonstrates. Of course much of that relates to the unfolding email controversy, for which she has much to answer. Perhaps one way to address this credibility problem will be to give a candid speech or interview in which she discusses her role in the Obama administration’s several deeply flawed Middle East policies, and describes how her possible presidency would correct these errors. Meanwhile, the lack of media scrutiny thus far on her policy record at the State Department is notable, and offers an opportunity for enterprising and thoughtful reporters to take up and explore. The story of her Middle East policy failures is a story waiting to be written.

[Disclosure: I support Gov. Jeb Bush’s candidacy and have contributed financially to his campaign.]

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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