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Guy T. Saperstein Headshot

Hillary Clinton Is Trying to Drive Democrats Into a Dead End on Foreign Policy

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In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has increased her attack on Barack Obama, arguing that foreign policy experience is essential to "being ready on Day One." Clinton thinks this argument will bring her closer to the presidency, but she is actually painting herself, and Democrats, into a corner in the general election, for, whatever one may think about her or Senator Obama's foreign policy credentials, they certainly are less than John McCain's. Democrats cannot run the general election campaign on the question of who has more foreign policy experience, or experience, in general, because the answer to those questions will be John McCain, even though most of his foreign experience is military. The Democratic campaign will have to be about which candidate has demonstrated the best judgment in foreign affairs, not who has the most experience. Which one endorsed and supported the greatest foreign policy fiasco in modern American history? Which continued to support this war long after every possible justification for it had collapsed? Whose belligerent statements would increase the chance of war with Iran? In answering these questions -- the questions Democrats will have to emphasize in a campaign against McCain -- Hillary Clinton doesn't fare so well.

First of all, it is not clear where Hillary derives the foreign policy "experience" advantage she claims, if not her eight years in the White House as First Lady. But when did the American Presidency become a monarchy? When did the First Lady role morph into the Queen? No First Lady, including Hillary, has been tasked with foreign policy assignments. As First Lady, the main purpose of her foreign travel was to engage in ceremonial events. There was nothing wrong with that, of course, but being hostess or guest at dinner parties is not "Commander-in-Chief" experience any more than Senator Obama's experience living abroad is foreign policy experience. In fact, it can plausibly be argued that living in a foreign country, which Senator Obama has done, provides a deeper understanding of how the rest of the world thinks than bopping into a country for a day or two to schmooze with a Saudi oligarch. If her foreign policy role was more than that, why has she refused to release her White House papers so voters could see evidence of what her "experience" claims are based on?

Whatever her actual level of "experience," since entering the U.S. Senate, Senator Clinton has been one of the most hawkish of Democrats, including, of course, her vote for the October 2002 Iraq Resolution which led to war with Iraq. She and Bill have tried to explain that vote on the grounds that President Bush's true intentions, and the debacle Iraq would soon become, were "unknown and unknowable." These claims cannot withstand scrutiny, however. Long before October 2002, there were abundant reasons not to trust anything Bush/Cheney said about Iraq. Long before October 2002, there existed a large body of scholarship that detailed the regional and religious conflicts that would erupt in Iraq if Saddam were removed. Two of the best predictors of the fiasco that Iraq would become, were President George H.W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, both of whom had written well-known articles and memoirs about why Baghdad should not be invaded -- in the case of Scowcroft, in a New York Times Op-Ed shortly before the vote on the Iraq Resolution. And these warnings were not lost on the large majority of Democrats in Congress; in fact, 148 Democrats in Congress (125 in the House and 23 in the Senate) saw through the smoke and mirrors, accurately perceived that Bush/Cheney would use the resolution to invade Iraq, and voted against the resolution. Hillary Clinton missed all the clues, took the Republican bait, and made one of the worst foreign policy decisions in modern American history. As recently as December 2005, Senator Clinton wrote a letter to her constituents defending her war vote. While she now favors troop withdrawals, her turn against the war followed the opinion of a majority of Democratic voters by more than two years. Is following public opinion the type of leadership that "experience" produces? If it is, maybe we need less of it.

Hillary Clinton fell into the same hawk trap by voting for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution [Senator Obama opposed it], which labeled part of the Iranian national army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, "a terrorist organization." Aside from the fact that Iran has played a very cautious role in Iraq and seeks a long-term accommodation with the U.S. in Iraq, labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a "terrorist organization" establishes the pre-conditions for a military attack on Iran, just as Bill Clinton's call for "regime change" in Iraq was the predicate for attacking Iraq. Once Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, label part of the Iranian Army a "terrorist organization," how can they complain when Bush attacks the Guards without appearing weak on "terrorism." The Clintons play chess one move at a time; they simply are no match for Republicans, who see the whole board and plan several moves ahead.

The problem of Clinton's poor instincts on foreign policy is compounded by the hawkish foreign policy advisors she has surrounded herself with, the most important of which are Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Lee Feinstein and Sandy Berger. Former Secretary of State Albright is the person who Colin Powell's Chief of Staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, once said, "She never met a military option she didn't like. When I worked at Defense, she used to scare us." When Colin Powell urged the new Clinton Administration not to bomb Bosnia too hastily, she countered, "What's the use of having his superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" "I thought I would have an aneurysm," Powell would later write.

Perhaps an even more problematic member of the Clinton foreign policy team is Richard Holbrooke, who Clinton insiders say would be the most likely Secretary of State in a new Clinton Administration. Holbrooke certainly is not short on foreign policy experience, having been an Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Ambassador to the U.N., but his track record should cause all progressives concern. Holbrooke, described by pundits as, "The raging bull of U.S. diplomacy," cultivated and supported Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, supported Indonesia during its brutal occupation of East Timor and backed the generals behind the Kwangyi massacre in South Korea. He supported Bill Clinton's signing a bill calling for "regime change" in Iraq -- the predicate for the Bush/Cheney led invasion. Thanks to Richard and Bill, Bush and Cheney were able to say "regime change in Iraq is American policy." In his last press conference as U.N. Ambassador, Holbrooke called Saddam Hussein, "a clear and present danger at all times," and said the incoming Bush Administration, "will have to deal with this problem." Supported by this push from the Clintons, Bush/Cheney and the neo-conservatives were only too happy to oblige. As late as December 2005, with the Iraq War collapsing around Bush/Cheney, when asked what he recommended in Iraq, Holbrooke responded, "I'm not prepared to lay out a detailed policy or strategy." Holbrooke provides lots of experience and a great resume, but outstandingly bad judgment.

Lee Feinstein is rumored to be in line for the critical position of National Security Advisor in a new Clinton Administration. Like many Clinton foreign policy advisors, Feinstein enthusiastically supported invading Iraq and in April 2003, shortly after the invasion, confidently assured CNN that, "U.S. forces over time will find weapons of mass destruction and also find evidence of programs to build weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, even when it was becoming apparent they would not. Feinstein expanded his theories of unilateral, pre-emptive intervention in an article he co-authored in Foreign Affairs, where he championed the "duty to prevent." He argued that the U.S. should try to build coalitions, but that it can attack sovereign nations without support from allies. He went even further, arguing that Bush's controversial, and internationally illegal, doctrine of preemptive war "does not go far enough." The logic of his argument would be that his concept of widespread violations of international law is crucial to strengthening international law. We see, once again, that deep foreign policy experience is serving the Clinton advisors so well.

Other top Clinton foreign policy advisors, such as Kenneth Pollack, Jack Keane and Michael O'Hanlon, strongly supported President Bush's troop surge in Iraq. This could be why, during Bush's recent State of the Union address, when Bush claimed that the surge was a success, Clinton stood and cheered while Obama remained seated and silent.

It should be noted that not every one of Clinton's foreign policy advisors is a stone-cold hawk. General Wesley Clark and former ambassador Joseph Wilson have nuanced understandings of foreign policy, and neither supported the war in Iraq. Clark, in particular, understands not only the uses of military power, but also its limitations. I hope he will serve an important role in the next Democratic Administration, regardless of who wins the presidency. Experience is not always disabling.

In contrast to Senator Clinton, in the critical months prior to the launch of the war in 2003, with public opinion running strongly in favor of invading Iraq, Obama openly challenged the Bush Administration's exaggerated claims and astutely predicted that a war in Iraq would lead to an increase of Islamic extremism, terrorism and regional instability, as well as a decline in respect for America throughout the world. Obama is a case study of good judgment trumping a resume.

While nearly all of Senator Clinton's stable of foreign policy advisors were strong supporters of Bush's invasion of Iraq, almost every one of Senator Obama's foreign policy team opposed the U.S. invasion. Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's National Security Advisor, warned that the international community would consider invasion of a nation which posed no threat to the U.S. would be an illegal act of aggression. Bzezinski said "without a respected and legitimate law-enforcer, global security could be in serious jeopardy." Another key foreign policy advisor to Senator Obama, Joseph Cirincione, argued that containing Saddam already had been achieved, saying, "Saddam Hussein is effectively incarcerated and under watch by a force that could respond immediately and devastatingly to any aggression."

While Senator Clinton and most of her advisors have been strong supporters of virtually unlimited defense spending, some of Senator Obama's key advisors, like Lawrence Korb, have expressed serious concerns about the enormous waste from excessive defense spending. While most of Senator Clinton's advisors, like Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, have been strong supporters of globalization, some even being architects of it, Senator Obama's advisors have raised questions. Susan Rice, an Obama advisor and an expert on Africa in the Clinton Administration, has emphasized how globalization has led to uneven development that has contributed to destabilization and extremism.

Stephen Zunes, a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, comparing Senators Clinton and Obama, has written:

On balance, it appears likely that a Hillary Clinton administration, like Bush's, would be more likely to embrace exaggerated and alarmist reports regarding potential national security threats, to ignore international law and the advice of allies, and to launch offensive wars. By contrast, a Barack Obama administration would be more prone to examine the actual evidence of potential threats before acting, to work more closely with America's allies to maintain peace and security, to respect the country's international legal obligations, and to use military force only as a last resort.

For those voters who want American foreign policy to continue to trend in the direction of muscularity and intervention, they have their candidate -- Hillary Clinton. For those who want change in American foreign policy, who think American militarism and interventionism need to be scaled back, Senator Obama, and his foreign policy advisors, appear ready to begin those changes.