14 April 2015

Hawk is a hawk

I'm seeing some recycling of the idea that Clinton is not a hawk or not basically a neoconservative on foreign policy issues. To the literal extent this is true. She's not likely to be as rhetorically bold or nonsensical and aggressive as a Rick Santorum or Marco Rubio and on a few policy choices (Cuba maybe a key example) she might be much less ridiculous and less useless than the GOP alternatives. Nevertheless, there are several major problems with the arguments being used.

1) Judge her on her record, not her rhetoric. Most of her opponents have little or no record at all on IR either. At best, they've been in the Senate long enough for issues like Libya, Syria, Iran, Cuba, and ISIS to come up. None of those were as clear and decisive however as "I voted for the Iraq War" and most have not resulted in any actions of any kind by the Senate. On a few occasions, Syria for example, even someone like Rubio opposed military action and voted accordingly.

Rhetoric is one way to assess what kinds of goals political figures have on international issues when we don't have much in the way of record. She also exercises a good deal more choice over what she says she might do than what she actually will do and can choose to portray her preferences as more dovish or diplomatic than she does. That she does not do so should be seen as suggestive of more hawkish preferences in our international affairs, even if she shades these with some occasionally prudent diplomacy that her rivals may not (Cuba). She isn't shading her position on Iran in that way for example as she apparently was insistent on a much stronger and more restrictive deal than the one that was possible (and thereby insistent on no deal at all, with no international monitoring instead of a good deal of it).

2) That record isn't as instructive as we should think because it derives from political calculations or some such. Eg, other people had voted for the first Iraq war and it helped their chances of political success later on.

The problem with that line of argument is that the first Iraq war was a very different geopolitical environment. We had regional support and allies, we had international allies, and most importantly, we had a fairly limited and easily decided goal in what we were declaring our interest to perform. We weren't going in to topple a heinous regime and attempt to construct or reconstruct the diplomatic and democratic institutions necessary for a modern nation-state to prosper and co-exist with western ideals. We were going to kick them out of an occupied nation-state that bordered them and possessed substantial quantities of a vital strategic and economic resource (oil). That's a fairly prudent reason by national interest standards to go to a war (protection of economic hegemony and protection of an international standard of territorial integrity).

The second Iraq war did not carry these advantages with it and this was clear to any rational observer at the time that not only did it not have these advantages, it carried considerable and obvious risks of not succeeding, certainly not as sufficiently as we were often promised would be the case. I said as much to as many people as cared to listen at the time. The world is filled with terrible dictators and governments doing horrible things to the populations of the countries they control. Our ability to first destabilize these and then replace them with stable democratically elected and guaranteed systems of government should be viewed as an enterprise not to be undertaken lightly however as the evidence suggests that we have a very limited capability to carry this mission out. Of such missions in the past 25 years, the only one I would regard as a "success" would be Serbia, and that had more to do with turning over the leadership of the country to international tribunals than a ground occupation. South Sudan, Kosovo, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Kosovo, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc all suggest that a strong intervention is potentially likely to carry large risks of blowing up in our faces rather than forging a stable democratic framework or even a stable and prosperous state of any kind (Rwanda seems to be doing better 20 years on, but this is partly because the conflict that started there moved to the DRC, which descended into a massive civil war killing an order of magnitude more people than were killed in Rwanda).

Favoring a predictably disastrous ground occupation therefore should be looked upon as a black mark upon one's history of policy decisions. Even favoring an energetic air campaign supposedly on behalf of others should be looked at as an expensive luxury rather than a basis for sound international relationships and a means of crafting a stable, free, and prosperous global community.

If the political calculations that people make on behalf of the decision to bomb or invade other nation states is being made from the point of view that it will cynically advance a political career rather than whether it advances or defends some vital national interest this is not exactly an endearing argument anyway.

3) Why does any of this matter?

I'm being told by various conservative pundits, and what looks like some of the eventual Republican strategy, is that this will somehow become an election centered on foreign policy. The problem is that on actual policy grounds, there is not that big of a difference between Clinton and most of the GOP field. The lone exceptions are Rand Paul (generally to her left on IR and national security issues, and very unlikely to be the nominee) and people like Rubio or Santorum who are more hawkish rhetorically and tone (but rarely that much farther to the right in actual policies). Everyone else seems to be basically hawkish at similar levels or not a viable foreign policy candidate anyway if that's the intention (Cruz, Huckabee, Bush, Walker. Three of these are/were governors and Cruz's main drum in the Senate has been religion and Obama, not Iran and the Pentagon). So if this is their supposed winning strategy, I do not see it working out all that well anyway. Trying to run an IR election against a former Secretary of State who was reasonably successful in that role (by Washington standards) who has a reasonably hawkish track record for a Washington politician (and a very hawkish one for a Democrat) is an extremely stupid idea already on its face before considering a bigger problem: it's not likely to be an election decided on foreign policy grounds. It's not even that likely to be a consideration for most voters.

I'm dubious that this will be an election centering on IR issues simply because such elections are rare and generally focused on very large IR issues (like declared or potential wars). 2004 was sort of in this category (I think the rhetoric that Iraq decided it was overplayed). 1916 and 1940 meanwhile are obvious. 1952 would be another likely case. And then 1968. And that's about it. Most voters pay little attention to brush fires and minor interventions, by this standard. And in any case most voters are broadly in support of diplomatic approaches to the Iranian situation, a position Clinton is likely to take at least rhetorically, mostly don't care about what we do to or with Cuba anymore, even in Florida and even among the Cuban expat community which now has second and third generation voters who don't care either, and while the public are not fond of ISIS, they also don't seem to want us putting (more) troops back in Iraq to deal with them on the ground. These positions are not sellers and they are broadly speaking, what the GOP is selling (again, other than Rand Paul). Clinton's not so stupid about her interventionist tendencies to go against the general public during an election cycle. Which is to her credit. Meanwhile, most voters in most cycles tend to go with economic conditions or domestic policy concerns (things like crime or civil liberties/social policies issues). Most of which Presidents don't have much control over anyway, meaning this is a dumb approach to electing Presidents, but it is the approach people have typically taken. Barring a recession (a possibility, but still somewhat unlikely given the monetary policy positions at present), we're not likely to see much of a shift on these grounds that make it that favorable for Republicans (or for Clinton either), but we're also not likely to see much that makes it unfavorable for Clinton either, meaning she probably wins on an incumbency bias and then some sort of populist economic message talking about income inequality and the middle class, and on IR she probably crushes whoever gets picked up (just as Obama crushed Romney on that front).
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