What Kind of President Will Hillary Clinton Be?
What to expect on day one from the new Clinton administration.
George W. Bush believed in the magic of America. Barack Obama believed in the magic of his message. Hillary Clinton does not believe in magic. Her matter-of-fact habits of mind have made her a leaden candidate. But Americans have had quite enough of magical presidents. Perhaps the time has come for something more prosaic.
This is my preferred metaphor for a figure who has tried on so many identities over the years that she has become a vector of colliding meanings. Robert Kagan has described her as a Democratic neocon, an interventionist who embraces the transformative potential of American power. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat views her as the living incarnation of the Washington consensus. In her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton often depicts herself as a skeptical realist who expected far less from Iran, from Russia, from Israel, or from the Arab Spring than did the starry-eyed youngsters around Obama.
Each of these views offers a plausible account of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and thus of her likely role as president. She is more persuaded of the value of force than Obama, more shaped by political convention than Obama, more conscious of the zero-sum calculus of rival powers than Obama. But she is also, and above all, more pragmatic, more transactional, than either Obama or Bush.
In a long article about Clinton in Foreign Policy last fall, I wrote that while she did, indeed, have an old-fashioned faith in American power, Clinton was far more distrustful of other states and expected less from them than did Obama and his team. At the very least, I wrote, she is a “cautious figure who distrusts grandiose rhetorical formulations, is deeply grounded in the harsh realities of politics, and prefers small steps to large ones.”
A President Hillary Clinton might not achieve more than her predecessors, but since she would raise fewer expectations, she might provoke fewer disappointments. Bush promised in his second inaugural address to foster democracy with “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” He did not succeed, of course, and could not have. In his first year in office, Barack Obama promised to work toward a world without nuclear weapons and to forge a “new beginning” in the Middle East, without offering any notable change in American policy there beyond his own voice and story. What he achieved, in both cases, was far more modest than he had hoped.
What’s more, Obama was taken by surprise by the resurgence of great-power competition, which violated his intuitive faith that adversaries could be brought to recognize mutual interests. Hillary Clinton has little such faith. She accepts that states have intrinsically incompatible interests, which, as Dennis Ross, her former aide on Iran, put it to me last year, “means recognizing the reality of power relationships and the need to use power in defense of your interests.” She comes to the White House pre-chastened.
Of course, a president who takes over from an incumbent of the same party normally promises continuity rather than a decisive break. And unlike the last such example, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Hillary Clinton as the former secretary of state has substantial authorship of the policies she inherits. She is, to some extent, succeeding herself. Her major national security address, delivered in June, braided mockery of Donald Trump with reminders of her own efforts to strength alliances, her role in assembling sanctions against Iran, and her support for Obama’s plan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Her pugilistic language was more notable than her prescription: She reminded listeners that she had “gone toe-to-toe with Russia and China” and had “twisted arms” on Iran sanctions. She offered coded evidence for those hoping she will conduct a more muscular foreign policy than Obama has. “We lead with purpose,” she declared, “and we prevail.”
How should we imagine Clinton as America’s stateswoman-in-chief? On her first day in office, she will call her great-power allies: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Britain’s Theresa May, and India’s Narendra Modi … if it’s not too late at night. The very lame-duck François Hollande? Probably not. Maybe she will ask Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills whom she’s supposed to talk to in Brazil. When Mills reminds her that, on his first day, Barack Obama conducted an interview with Al Arabiya as a goodwill gesture to the Arab world, Clinton shoots back, “And a fat lot of good that did him.” Anyway, she says, no interviews. With anyone. For as long as possible.
Clinton does not, of course, call Vladimir Putin, who in any case is busy handing out prison terms to those so-called computer geniuses who promised to throw the election to Donald Trump by hacking her campaign’s emails. There is no view that enjoys broader bipartisan support in Washington than the need for a negative “reset” with Russia. But Clinton wants to be tougher than tough. She will tell Angela and Theresa (and you too, François!) that they don’t dare water down the sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine. And she will tell Secretary of State Bill Burns not to bother negotiating 24-hour cease-fires in Syria with Moscow. No more leverage for Russia.
Clinton will seek to have it both ways on Iran. She will sound more skeptical of Tehran’s intentions than Obama did, but she will do nothing to jeopardize the nuclear deal he signed, which she surely recognizes is the best he could have gotten, not to mention a greater diplomatic achievement than anything she herself could claim. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that a President Clinton would ever have taken the political risks Obama accepted in order to reach an agreement with a hated adversary. That’s the blind spot of the tough-minded, who are so acutely conscious of the world as it is that they have trouble imagining a world that might be.
But wait — what about interventionist Hillary? Won’t she immediately order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up plans to impose a no-fly zone over Syria? Well, no — she has said this won’t happen on “the first day” and would have to be preceded by “a lot of negotiation.” Among other things, she would have to feel confident that Putin wouldn’t test her by sending a Russian fighter jet into the middle of the no-fly zone. No American president is going to order the military to shoot down a Russian plane. Since Putin knows that, he probably won’t promise to keep out of the way. Seeing that, the Joint Chiefs might advise her against doing that no-fly zone. Clinton won’t take that risk.
Here we come to a fork in Clinton’s thinking. As a senator and later secretary of state, she rarely departed from the counsel of senior military officials. She was far more persuaded of the merits of Gen. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan, which would have sent an additional 40,000 troops there, than Obama was and maybe even more than then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was. She rarely departed from Gates on any significant issue. Of course, the one time she did so was on Libya, where she advocated intervention and he did not. On Syria, Clinton may have to choose between her own expressed commitments and a Pentagon that is far more cautious and more inclined to see mishap than are civilian interventionists. I wonder how Kagan-esque she will be in the White House. Less so, perhaps, than she was as secretary of state.
Clinton will not call Benjamin Netanyahu on day one, or day two, for that matter. But she will send discreet signals that she won’t push him as hard as she did as secretary of state, when she loyally carried the Obama administration’s message that settlement building must stop right away. Clinton will be happy to adopt the new view that Israel should be pushed to make daily life easier for the Palestinians rather than make any movement toward an increasingly unlikely two-state solution.
In 2009, a breakthrough on Middle East peace was seen as the key to reducing the hostility of the Arab world to the United States and even to weakening the potency of the terrorist message. No longer. President Clinton will have bigger fish to fry in the Middle East, including enlisting Arab allies in a more effective campaign against the Islamic State, stabilizing Libya, ending the civil war in Yemen, bolstering Tunisia’s fragile democracy, and reassuring the Saudis that we’re on their side in the epochal battle against Iran that Riyadh insists on waging. This last policy, which for Clinton will come under the heading of “alliance management,” would only deepen the violence and sectarian strife rending the region. She would be better advised to tell the Saudis that the United States will reduce its support of their war effort unless they make serious efforts toward a lasting cease-fire.
Finally, Clinton will send strong signals early on that she is every bit as passionate about the new global issues as Obama was. Climate change will move to the front of the agenda as the polar ice caps begin to melt like snow cones left out in the sun. Clinton may, on the other hand, give a rest to nuclear nonproliferation, Obama’s hobbyhorse, if only because he made so little progress on new international agreements like the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. The new issue confronting her administration will be refugees and migration, which has upended European politics and very nearly did so in the United States, as well. She will make this the centerpiece of her first meeting of the G-7 at the end of May. Maybe she will even accomplish something, though it’s hard to see what. If Europe can’t forge a collective solution on the subject — save to designate Turkey as the dumping ground for all future Syrian refugees — Clinton will be hard-pressed to forge a global entente.
The world that a President Clinton will face is very intransigent. Europe is weak, much of the Middle East is in flames, and the two great autocratic powers, Russia and China, are increasingly inclined to challenge the American-led world order. A president who likes problems could hardly ask for a more challenging set of them.
Hillary Clinton is a straight-A student. Maybe she’s even an A-plus student. She will not make dumb mistakes. She will reassure every ally who needs reassurance. She will try to mute China’s adventurism in the South China Sea without provoking a storm of nationalism. She’ll probably disappoint the neocons. She won’t go out on any limbs. She won’t shake the policymaking consensus. Perhaps she’ll be the Dwight Eisenhower of our time — a steady hand on the tiller. We could do a lot worse. We almost did.
Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally on November 7, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images
James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.