By Daniel L. Davis
Last Thursday Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for President, gave what was billed as a major national security speech in San Diego. While it was publicized that way, the speech was actually nothing more than an opportunity for her campaign to get millions of dollars in free advertising with the nationally televised speech, blasting the character of presumptive Republican candidate Donald J. Trump.
The majority of Clinton’s speech was standard campaign fare. The speech offered nothing new in terms of her position on foreign policy matters, but wasn’t really meant to. The primary purpose of the event was to make people believe that Trump is wholly unfit to become President.
Clinton pointed to several examples of policies that would be implemented under a President Trump. Among them, Trump’s statement that he would use torture against terror suspects and kill family members who are related to accused terrorists, “even though those are war crimes.” She also accused him of saying he would let the Islamic State “run wild” in Syria and use nuclear weapons against ISIS. She would “leave it to the psychiatrists,” she said, to explain why Trump allegedly likes tyrants.
But her more emphatic point was that electing Trump to become Commander-in-Chief “would be a historic mistake” because he wasn’t qualified. In contrast, Clinton said, she’s had “experience with the tough calls and the hard work of statecraft” and listed what she claimed were her biggest accomplishments.
Among them were that she had “wrestled with the Chinese” on major issues, advised the President in the White House Situation Room during critical times, and she had worked “side-by-side with admirals and generals” during wartime. There were, however, a few noteworthy events missing from her 4,149-word speech related to her experience.
As a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, two particular events immediately jumped out to me:
First, Russia invaded Georgia in August of 2008, to the consternation of many in NATO. Two months after the Obama Administration took office, Secretary of State Clinton was charged with trying to “reset” relations with Russia. It was at a meeting in Geneva that the now-infamous photo of Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pushing the red “reset” button (which had been improperly labeled by the White House with the Russian word for “overcharged”) was taken.
During the meeting with Lavrov, Clinton indicated the new Administration was willing to be “flexible” with Russia on the missile defense interceptors that had been planned by the Bush Administration. “Six months after the Geneva meeting,” the American Thinker reported, “the U.S. cancelled deployment of the systems, leaving Poland and the Czech Republic bereft of the economic and security benefits of the installations but still saddled with Russian anger.”
A scathing editorial in the Wall Street Journal later that year presciently argued that this time the diplomatic deal with Russia was “the concession was missile defense. Next time, perhaps, the West can be seduced into trading away the pro-Western government of Georgia, or even Ukraine.” That diplomatic achievement didn’t work out so well for the US.
The second issue involves the Secretary’s judgment regarding Libya. No, not the politically-charged Benghazi matter, but of the decision to attack Libya with airpower in 2011, bringing down the Kaddafi regime. The results of that disastrous mission continues to haunt North Africa today, with an on-going civil war, two governments each claiming to represent the country, and in recent months, the arrival of a new branch of ISIS.
Yet in a 2011 Washington Post interview entitled “Clinton: Libya Showed US Leadership to be Essential”, Secretary Clinton said of the results of the operation, “I do think we set into motion a policy that was on the right side of history, on the right side of our values, on the right side of our strategic interests in the region. And it turned out to have brought about the result that we thought it would in a relatively short period of time.” Clinton’s belief that her preferred outcome had been secured with the use of force was not new. She’s advocated for the use of the military to solve problems for decades.
In the 2007 New Republic article “Hillary’s War,” Michael Crowley explained how then-First Lady Clinton had been instrumental in President Bill Clinton’s decision to attack Serbia in 1999. He wrote “As she later explained to Talk magazine, while on a trip in North Africa she phoned her husband in Washington and pleaded with him to unleash the military. ‘I urged him to bomb,’ she said.” But, Crowley continued, it was “the third time Hillary had spoken up in favor of intervention. The first had been in 1994 in Haiti, according to one former Clintonite. The other had been the 1995 campaign of airstrikes to bring an end to the Bosnian conflict.” One year later after President-elect Obama had designated Clinton to become America’s top diplomat, John MacArthur writing in Harper’s Magazine explained some of Clinton’s early motivation for the use of force.
In reference to Hillary’s urging the President to attack Serbia in 1999, MacArthur wrote, “…but it gives us an insight into the shoot-first temperament of the future secretary of state. According to former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, “Hillary has a Manichean view of issues, splitting the political world into dueling forces of good and evil. . . . She sees herself as idealistic, moral, and righteous, and can only conclude that those with opposing views must have opposite motives.” As a U.S. Senator Clinton continued her advocacy of the expanded use of military power. During her 2000 campaign, the New York Times reported Clinton argued “the United States should do more than just intervene in 'splendid little wars' in which it can prevail, Mrs. Clinton staked out a robust foreign policy approach.
All these examples combine to make clear that Clinton’s promise in Thursday’s speech to use force only when necessary is not supported by her decades of consistent positions on use of force as the primary means of solving problems. This long history of militant foreign policy views is all the more troubling when combined with her positions on recent international actions.
The situation in Libya when the Secretary was advocating for bombing made it very clear that the likely result of Kaddafi being deposed would be chaos and more violence. Yet Clinton held to the belief that the intervention would yield preferred results no matter that logical analysis indicated otherwise. Yet far from learning from the experience, just two years later Clinton again advocated for the use of force for the same purpose.
In 2013 Syria it was even more clear than it had been in 2011 Libya that owing to the numerous violent Islamic rebel groups fighting against the regime, the fall of Assad would bring even more chaos to that nation, setting in motion the competition of the many rebel groups – the strongest of whom are off-shoots or allied to al-Qaeda – against each other in an attempt to fill the power void left by Assad. Clinton primarily sees the world in black and white, good and evil camps, and has limited ability to deal with complex, gray situations where all parties might have both good and bad sides.
The bottom line is that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record since the 1990s has consistently exposed a leader that grossly underestimates the difficulty of international action. Her judgment at critical times has been suspect. As a result, Clinton has advocated policy or taken action that frequently has resulted in outcomes antithetical to American interests. Perhaps one of the reasons she reaches poor conclusions is that she has an unrealistic expectation in what military power can accomplish.
The natural inclination she’s demonstrated since the 1990s towards a militaristic foreign policy would almost certainly be carried into the White House should she win. That inclination combined with an inability to accurately and independently assess whether a general’s advice is militarily sound or not, the likelihood of U.S. engagement with the world remaining a military-first proposition is high.
You might get the idea from reading this analysis that I’m secretly a campaign worker for Trump and that I’d recommend voters support the GOP nominee. Unfortunately, much of Clinton’s attacks of Trump are accurate. His inexperience and sometimes bizarre views on America’s role in the world means Trump might also make improper use of the military.
The truth of the matter is that in terms of the two candidate’s foreign policy views and records, neither offers a compelling vision of the future for the country. What may be the best hope for effective foreign policy in the future is that some of the polling trends continue and the American people – as they did to prevent bombing Syria in 2013 – communicate their growing dislike for militaristic foreign policy so that no matter who wins, they will bring their strategies in line with the people.
Daniel L. Davis is a foreign policy fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities and retired from the US Army as a Lt. Col. after 21 years of active service. He was deployed into combat zones four times in his career, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and then to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan twice (2005, 2011). He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor at the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991, and awarded a Bronze Star Medal in Afghanistan in 2011. He earned a Master of International Relations from Troy University in 2006 and speaks level II German and level I Russian.
This piece was originally published by The National Interest on June 9, 2016. Read more HERE.