Why Are We So Sure Hillary Will Be a Hawk?

It’s been widely speculated that if elected president, the former secretary of state will pursue more muscle-bound, interventionist policies than her predecessors. Except maybe she won’t.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waits to speak at the World Bank May 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Clinton and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim joined others to speak about women's rights. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waits to speak at the World Bank May 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Clinton and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim joined others to speak about women's rights. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

If she wins election in November, the conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton’s handling of foreign affairs will be less restrained than Barack Obama’s, and that she’d be more willing to use military force to advance U.S. objectives in various corners of the world. This belief is one reason die-hard supporters of Bernie Sanders have been reluctant to embrace her candidacy, and it is the assumption that prominent profiles of Clinton — such as Mark Landler’s “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” in the New York Times Magazine tend to reinforce. 

Unlike some of the things of which Clinton has been (bizarrely) accused, this particular claim isn’t without some basis. She did back the Iraq war in 2003, the Afghan “surge” in 2009, and the ill-fated intervention in Libya in 2011, and by all accounts she wanted the United States to do a lot more in Syria too. As I’ve observed, most of her close advisors are card-carrying liberal interventionists (or worse), which reinforces concerns that a future Clinton administration would be ready to repeat the same policies that have consistently disappointed in the past.

Add to that concern the familiar hypothesis that female leaders are inclined to act tougher than their male counterparts — you know, like Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, or Golda Meir — perhaps in order to compensate for perceptions that they might be “soft.” It’s easy to understand why some people fear a Clinton presidency would lead the United States back down the well-worn path to more quixotic quagmires.

But are such concerns about Clinton really justified? I’ve had my doubts, and I’m not alone. Indeed, if Clinton is smart and wants her presidency to succeed, the last thing she’ll do is embrace the failed strategy of “liberal hegemony” in anything more than a rhetorical sense. Instead, she’ll follow in Obama’s footsteps and focus U.S. military commitments overseas on places that really matter and where U.S. power is in fact needed (i.e., Asia), and she’ll tiptoe delicately away from all the potential quagmires that dot the global landscape. Here’s why:

For starters, both the Trump and Sanders campaigns have revealed that there is lot of anger and resentment in the United States right now, and precious little support for more U.S. military activity around the world. Instead, there are lot of people who believe (with some accuracy) that 1) the benefits of globalization have passed them by, 2) elites like Clinton (and Trump for that matter) have rigged the system, and 3) all this do-gooding around the world is keeping U.S. officials busy but isn’t making Americans safer or richer. They have a point.

If Clinton goes overboard with more globalization, expanded U.S. security guarantees, open-ended nation-building in distant lands, or even expensive acts of international philanthropy, all those skeptical people beguiled by Trump or Sanders will be even angrier. By contrast, if she can win over some of the people during her first term, her popularity will soar and re-election would be easy. The lesson? Clinton should focus on domestic reforms and not on international crusades. And as former State Department officials Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky suggest, that’s been her basic inclination all along.

As people like former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers have argued for some time, her best bet would be to launch a major national infrastructure program. This long-overdue step would put a lot of middle-class and blue-collar people back to work, boost the U.S. economy over the longer term, and pull some of those angry people away from con men like Trump and back into the Democratic fold. 

Of course, Republicans in the House or Senate may balk at this sensible initiative on purely partisan grounds, because they wouldn’t want a Democratic president to get the credit for actually helping Americans live better lives. The lesson? Once in office, Clinton’s team will need a sophisticated PR strategy to make sure Americans blame GOP obstructionists and not the White House if this initiative gets blocked, so that voters will toss the former out at the midterms.   

Clinton will curb her activist tendencies for another reason: Despite record-low interest rates, there isn’t a lot of slack in the federal budget or public tolerance for big increases in the national debt. A serious infrastructure program will cost several trillion dollars, and Clinton might even have to buy off GOP hard-liners by agreeing to some modest defense increases. Republicans are bound to resist significant tax reform too, so there won’t be a lot of new revenue to pay for her program. 

Well, if money is going to be hard to come by, the very last thing Clinton should do is authorize a lot of “overseas contingency operations,” even if she could get Congress to approve them. The bottom line: Acting like an unrepentant liberal hawk would derail her presidency before it gets started and probably guarantee that she’s a one-term president.

Most important of all, none of the places Clinton might be tempted to intervene look easy or appealing. George W. Bush took the nation into Iraq because foolish and cocky neocons convinced him it would be quick and cheap and generate all sorts of geopolitical benefits, and liberal sympathy for the unexpected “Arab spring” made intervening in Libya seem necessary and feasible at the time. But the record of the past 25 years should have taught us that social engineering of this sort rarely succeeds and often gets a lot of people killed. Even the Balkans, which remain liberal interventionism’s favorite “success story,” have been pretty disappointing.

Clinton may still believe the United States is the “indispensable” nation and that it is better to be “caught trying” than not to try at all, but even she is unlikely to be enthusiastic about making big commitments to fix any of the world’s major trouble spots. She’ll support diplomatic efforts, of course, and continue training missions and drone strikes and other limited measures in some places. But doing more than that won’t produce any quick victories, make Americans safer or richer, or earn her a lot of plaudits here at home. In short, there’s nothing in it for her.

It is also worth remembering that the original “pivot” toward Asia began when Clinton was secretary of state, and she was a vocal supporter of that process. Chinese ambitions show no signs of abating, and U.S. efforts to counter them (and to deal with other problems, such as North Korea) will require focus, skill, and sustained attention. Every minute the next president spends worrying about secondary issues — and that includes the Islamic State, by the way — is time diverted from the larger strategic issues. I’m sure Xi Jinping would be grateful if Washington continues to be distracted and diverted by events elsewhere, but that is one mistake entirely in Clinton’s power to avoid.

And don’t forget how her husband acted when he was in the Oval Office, and the advice he is likely to give her when it is her turn. Bill Clinton ran for office in 1992 under the mantra “it’s the economy, stupid,” and he told his first press secretary, George Stephanopoulos, that, “Americans are basically isolationist.” For this reason, he talked a lot about “expanding democracy” and “enlarging” the liberal order, but as president he proved extremely wary of sending U.S. forces in harm’s way. He pulled U.S. troops out of Somalia, refused to go into Rwanda, entered Bosnia with the greatest reluctance (and with a time limit), and refused to send ground troops during the Kosovo war despite pressure from U.S. military commanders. Clinton did take on a number of new security commitments in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf, but only because he naively believed these commitments would guarantee peace and would never have to be honored. Like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton preferred to manage trouble spots with low-cost tools such as air power while avoiding potentially open-ended military actions.

In short, Hillary Clinton’s closest and longest-serving advisor — her husband — is likely to counsel her to resist her missionary impulses and avoid costly entanglements in places of little strategic importance.

Like all U.S. presidents, Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly strive to keep the United States No. 1 in the critical areas of global power, and no doubt she’ll talk a lot about America’s global responsibilities, “exceptional” character, and indispensable leadership, blah, blah, blah. But if she’s smart, it will be mostly talk, and not a lot of action, while she focuses on fixing our crumbling infrastructure and repairing our fractured politics. And make no mistake: Those two tasks are a hell of a lot more important to America’s future than trying to determine who’s going to run what’s left of Syria or who gets to pretend to be in charge in Kabul.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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