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Parsing Hillary Clinton's Disingenuous Foreign Policy Record

02/12/2016 04:27 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2016
TASOS KATOPODIS via Getty Images

In their most recent debate in Wisconsin, the two remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, clashed on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues. According to many experts and political observers questioned by the main stream media in the aftermath of this debate, Hillary Clinton separated herself from Bernie Sanders on the issue of foreign policy, in a large part because of the perceived strength of her record as a former Secretary of State under President Barack Obama.

Senator Sanders questioned Secretary Clinton's judgment in voting in support of a war with Iraq back in 2002, and furthered the issue of poor judgement by highlighting her support of policies promoting regime change in Libya and Syria since then, noting that such policies, while playing well to public sentiment, often have unintended consequences that prove to be far worse than the problem they ostensibly sought to resolve. Hillary Clinton responded by declaring "a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS."

In keeping with her overall strategy of wrapping herself in the record of President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton noted that President Obama trusted her judgement on foreign policy enough to select her as his first Secretary of State. Senator Sander's protestations over her policy choices in Libya and Syria, and her approach toward resolving differences with Iran, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

A closer examination of the issues raised during the debate, in particular the decision to bomb Libya and remove the regime of President Muammar Gaddafi, the ongoing debacle unfolding inside Syria, and the recently concluded Iranian nuclear agreement, only underscore the reality that Senator Sanders, far from being weak on foreign policy matters, was right to question both the judgement of Hillary Clinton when it came to foreign policy and national security issues and her record as Secretary of State.

The decision by the Obama administration to intervene in Libya was both indefensible as policy and legally questionable in terms of international law. The United Nations resolution authorizing the imposition of a "no fly zone" did not contain any language that could sustain the notion of expanding the "no fly zone" into a general aerial bombardment of Libya designed to remove Gaddafi from power -- the United States, Great Britain and France were compelled to turn to NATO to provide some semblance of diplomatic cover for that operation.

Even if one accepts the morally unsupportable notion that the ends justify the means, the rapid decline of Libya from a relatively stable nation state run by a repressive yet containable dictator (Gaddafi) to the chaotic morass of Islamist-infused anarchy that exists today makes even that contention moot -- there can be no doubt that Libya and the world was better off with Gaddafi in charge.

Senator Bernie Sanders is quite right to question the historic error of judgement on the part of both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama in using -- or abusing -- a United Nations mandate for the creation of a humanitarian "no fly" zone as cover for large-scale military intervention, void of express authority under international law, to achieve regime change in Libya.

Compounding this error is the decision that followed -- to capitalize upon the significant stocks of arms and munitions existing inside Libya in order to supply Islamist groups in Syria, intended to facilitate yet another round of regime change, this time targeting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Hillary Clinton has denied any knowledge of CIA efforts, run from the now-infamous "annex" in Benghazi, to collect and ship captured Libyan arms and munitions to Turkey. Once in Turkey, the government of then-Prime Minister Erdogan transferred these arms to Islamist militants, including the Al Nusrah Front and other pro-Al Qaeda elements, who were fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. "You'll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex," the then-Secretary of State said to Senator Rand Paul after being questioned directly about a link between the CIA, Libya and Turkey when it came to illicit gunrunning. "I don't have any information on that."

In this response, Hillary Clinton is clearly lying. Her representative in Libya, Ambassador Christopher Stevens (who tragically died in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012), was at the center of a massive arms smuggling operation that saw hundreds of millions of dollars worth of guns and ammunition shipped from Libya to Turkey and Qatar (both of these nations were, and are, key supporters and suppliers for the anti-Assad Islamist militants fighting in Syria). Stevens was personally involved in getting US Government approval of a $200 million contract to ship weapons and munitions from Libya to Qatar (which then flew the weapons into Turkey for further transshipment to Syria), and on the day of his death he had met with the Turkish ambassador to Libya to coordinate shipments of additional weapons and ammunition via sea transport from Libya to Turkey, again for use in supplying Islamist rebels inside Syria.

The notion that a US Ambassador would engage in such action without the express knowledge and permission of the Secretary of State is ludicrous. The CIA is a powerful organization, but there are limits to that power, and getting the permission of a US Ambassador for covert operations of the sort that were being conducted in support of supplying the Syrian rebels with Libyan weapons is one such limitation. To accept at face value Hillary Clinton's contention that she had no knowledge of this is to accept that Christopher Stevens, a renowned veteran American diplomat, had gone "rogue" and was working for the CIA independently of his State Department masters. The argument that Hillary Clinton knew nothing about either Ambassador Stevens' actions, or those of the CIA, simply does not pass muster.

The larger issue of Hillary Clinton's addiction to "regime change" as a cornerstone of American foreign policy still looms. It manifests itself in the legally questionable covert policy to acquire weapons and ammunition in Libya and deliver them, through proxies, to Islamist militants in Syria. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has a clear record of advocating for "regime change" in Damascus, and in doing so has sold the American people a bill of goods regarding the true state of affairs in that nation. The role played by the United States in facilitating the rise of Muslim extremism inside Syria is a dark chapter in the history of American foreign policy, and while Hillary Clinton was not the originator of that policy, she inherited it and helped sustain and grow it, promoting the very violence that plagues that nation to this day.

Misrepresenting the facts is par for the course for Hillary Clinton. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was well aware of the fact that it was the Turkish chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and not enraged "peaceful demonstrators," that set in motion the violent uprising against Bashar al-Assad in the spring and summer of 2011. The State Department closely tracked a meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Istanbul in April, 2011, where the situation inside Syria was discussed, as well as various options on how best to exploit the unrest to the benefit of the brotherhood.

A critical component of the Syrian uprising was the creation of a narrative propagated by a network of informants inside Syria loosely known as the "local coordination committees," or LCCs. Starting in February 2011, Syrian activists, working closely with the advocacy group Avadaa, procured 100 satellite telephones, pre-paid international SIM cards, laptop computers with special modems, and cell phone cameras -- enough to equip several interactive networks, which would be in position to operate outside the control of the Syrian government and capture the "reality" of the Syrian government's response to civil disobedience.

Hillary Clinton has largely embraced the Syrian narrative published by the LCCs. That this should be the case should not take anyone by surprise, given the role played by the United States, and in particular Hillary Clinton's State Department, in the creation and sustaining of these LCCs. Far from a grass-roots effort brought together in haste in response to the "Arab Spring" phenomenon sweeping the Middle East, the LCCs were, in fact, part of the broader regime change effort first promulgated by the Bush administration in 2006-2007, and later incorporated into the so-called "digital democracy" campaign spearheaded by the State Department. In support of this effort, the State Department led a delegation to Syria in 2010, which included representatives from Microsoft, Dell, Cisco Systems, and other companies, whose mission was to persuade the Syrian government to allow greater access for the Syrian public to new internet tools, ostensibly to create a better business environment to attract foreign investment. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised this effort, calling it "21st-century statecraft."

Left unsaid in this drive to get the Syrian government to open its doors to the internet was the existence of an active Syrian opposition that had been specifically trained by the United States to exploit the internet for the purpose of carrying out anti-regime activity. Funding for this activity came from a US-based organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit organization established by the US Congress in 1983, and which has been accused of providing funding for activities, including those that were the former purview of the CIA, involving direct interference in the internal political affairs of foreign nations. The NED supported an organization known as the International Republican Institute (IRI), which in 2006-2007 received significant funding, as part of a US State Department-managed program known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI. Under MEPI, more than $6 million was funneled to anti-regime activists, both inside and outside Syria (included in this funding was more than $1.2 million designed to influence the outcome of the 2007 Syrian Parliamentary elections, where the IRI proposed backing a prominent Syrian politician with anti-regime leanings).

The NED was also responsible for funding efforts to provide Syrian activists with the training and tools necessary to advocate effectively over the internet. Working hand-in-glove with MEPI, the NED provided millions of dollars to Syrian activists for the purpose of underwriting the acquisition of computers with special satellite-capable internet modems, satellite telephones and international SIM cards, and the means to gather and transmit video data.

These activities were widespread, and predated the so-called "Arab Spring" by several years. Many of these Syrian activists were trained and in place by the time Hillary Clinton's State Department began pressuring the Syrian government, in 2010, to open up the Syrian internet system to social networking sites and interactive communications capabilities found in Facebook, Google, and Yahoo. The fact is, most of the younger generation of internet-savvy "bloggers and posters" who constituted the LCCs and who captured the western media's attention during the early stages of the violent uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011 were the recipients of millions of dollars of US-provided funds designed to train and equip them for the purpose of generating anti-regime propaganda.

The Local Coordination Committees, once viewed as the ultimate expression of free will among an oppressed Syrian people, today serve as little more than the generators of reports used by a media outlet, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has all but self-identified as an arm of the British Government. Despite this fact, western media sources continue to cite the Syrian Observatory on nearly every major story to break from inside Syria. The sad fact is this effort at manufacturing a compelling narrative out of Syria has not only produced the kind of "unintentional consequences" Senator Sanders has cautioned about, but also enables Hillary Clinton to continue to sell a story to the American people about Syria that is false and deliberatively misleading.

The true nature of the threat facing Syria today is radical Islamic extremism, and not the government of Bashar al-Assad. The failure of the United States to appreciate the seriousness of this threat, and to formulate policies which can effectively and efficiently confront and contain it, is derived largely from the fact that it was the United States, through its ill conceived campaign of "digital democracy"-induced regime change, that helped create the crisis unfolding inside Syria today. More importantly, a threat founded on the principles of radical Islamic fundamentalism that could have, at the time, been dealt with by Syrian authorities now has had the opportunity to grow and expand in a manner which transformed Syria's suffering into regional catastrophe.

The events inside Syria did not take place in a vacuum, but rather represented the most public manifestation of the violent militancy which defined the anti-regime activities inside Syria since the outbreak of demonstrations in March 2011. This violence, and the actions of the Syrian government in response, provided the fodder for a network of internet-savvy people who were trained and equipped by the United States for the sole purpose of disseminating misleading information to a western media all-too willing to publicize these data without even a modicum of quality control. This was the very essence of the reality behind "digital democracy," which sought not to spread ideas and values, but rather disinformation and distortions.

The non-violent objectives of the US government, and the opposition groups inside Syria that America supported, were quickly subordinated to the militant violence promulgated by the Muslim Brotherhood (and their Turkish sponsors), which in turn was hijacked by more fundamentalist movements such as Jabhat al-Nusra, and even more recently by ISIS, all of whom captured an audience shaped by the work of the US-trained LCCs. These militants then used the tools of the internet promoted by Hillary Clinton's State Department to build the social media structure that today attracts the attention, and loyalty, of thousands of militant Muslim youth around the world.

When one incorporates into this already unseemly narrative the illicit gun-running scheme Hillary Clinton's State Department was facilitating out of Libya, the result was like pouring gasoline on a fire -- catastrophic. The fact that the former Secretary of State continues to support the creation of a no-fly zone over northern Syria that would serve to protect the last remaining strongholds of the Islamist militants her State Department helped create, train, and equip is indicative of the kind of alternate reality she and her supporters seem to live in -- one where the sins of Secretary Clinton's past (in Iraq, Libya and Syria) are forgotten amid a largely fabricated narrative that, while self-serving for Hillary Clinton, is a massive disservice to the American people and the millions of innocent civilians in the Middle East and elsewhere whose lives were turned upside down as a result.

It may be true that, as Hillary Clinton stated, "One vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS." But the real issue is whether or not Americans should entrust someone who helped facilitate the rise of ISIS with a plan to counter that threat. Secretary Clinton played a vital role in the formulation and implementation of policies that, in the end, helped create, empower, and sustain ISIS. Bernie Sanders is right to point out the reality of unintended consequences, and to question whether or not Secretary Clinton is the right person for the job of fixing the very same problems she helped create. Some Clinton supporters may argue that, in an extension of former Secretary of State Colin Powell's famous "Pottery Barn Rule" (i.e., if you broke it, you have a responsibility to fix it), there is no one better qualified than Hillary Clinton for this task. But Bernie Sanders could very easily respond by noting that the role played by Secretary Clinton is more likened to a bull in a china shop. Recognizing that to leave the bull in the china shop would simply condemn more china to be broken, perhaps the best policy available would be to simply remove the bull.

Hillary Clinton has likewise sought to spin the Iranian nuclear deal to her political advantage. According to her account, she initiated the engagement with Iran that, thanks to the pressure exerted by economic sanctions her State Department helped strengthen, drove Iran to the negotiating table, where the United States was able to "put a lid" on Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Like most of Hillary Clinton's re-telling of American diplomatic history during her tenure as Secretary of State, this one, too, is false. While Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton did in fact support secret back-channel discussions with Iran, via Oman, in an effort to build a framework for a larger nuclear deal. But the American position -- that Iran would have to abandon its nuclear enrichment program -- fell on deaf ears in Iran.

Ultimately, it was the United States that was compelled to change course and acknowledging not only Iran's right to enrich, but the fact that this enrichment would be allowed to continue in perpetuity. It wasn't economic sanctions that drove Iran to the negotiating table, but rather the reality of 20,000 spinning centrifuges inside Iran that drove the United States to the negotiating table. And far from capping a non-existent nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration had to surrender to the reality that Iran got what it always wanted -- the ability to exercise its rights under the nonproliferation treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy.

The false narrative of an Iran bowing under the pressure of American-led economic sanctions might play well among a largely ignorant American electorate, but the fact is any future president, whether it be Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or one of the Republican contenders, will have to deal with the reality that Iran has emerged from the nuclear negotiations with everything it wanted thanks in large part to an internally consistent policy that proved unyielding to the pressures of economic sanctions. Hillary Clinton's approach to telling the truth about her record as Secretary of State is every bit as disingenuous as her claims that millions of dollars of campaign contributions do not influence her policy formulations. During their debate in Wisconsin, Senator Sanders chastised the presumptuous Hillary Clinton, declaring that "you're not in the White House yet." Nor should she ever be, given what we know about her real record on foreign policy.

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