While many, if not all, Republican-leaning realists have—and for good reason, considering the alternatives—decided early on to hitch their wagon to Rand Paul’s star, might there be a realist option for those on the other side of the great political divide? The putative 2016 Democratic primary lineup, dominated as it is by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would seem at first glance to offer scant hope for realists, not least because Clinton herself seems to be completely held captive to the reigning neoconservative magical thinking on issues as diverse as Syria, Russia, the utility and rightness of the surveillance state, and the supposed threat posed to American interests by the IS group.
Astute analysts like The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn and former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb have both written that there are abundant signs that the neoconservatives, supreme political opportunists that they are, have been playing footsie with the former Secretary of State, with neoconservative-in-chief Robert Kagan going so far as to re-brand himself as a “liberal interventionist” in the hope of snagging a high-level appointment in what he clearly hopes will be a third Clinton term. And why wouldn’t he? Even a cursory look at Mrs. Clinton’s record reveals a politician only too eager to try and turn neoconservative fantasy into actual policy.
Mrs. Clinton’s championing of the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya; her support for ill-fated Afghan “surge”; her ill-considered comparison of Vladimir Putin to Adolph Hitler; her misplaced admiration for Mikhail Saakashvili; her enthusiasm for arming the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels; her efforts to embroil the U.S. in a dispute with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and much else besides, all raise serious questions about her judgment.
And so: what of Mrs. Clinton’s opponents? On foreign policy, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (full disclosure: I wrote a white paper for his fledgling campaign early last year) seems to be something of a tabula rasa, very much along the lines of the last two Democratic governors to make it to the White House. This has its obvious drawbacks: neocon-esque hardliners by and large carried the day under both Presidents Carter and Clinton. Given his limited foreign policy experience, history suggests O’Malley would quickly (if he hasn’t already) become captive to the bipartisan neoconservative consensus.
Since the midterms much speculation has centered on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s intentions. Is it possible she—besides being the most formidable progressive challenger to Clinton—might be amenable to realist arguments? Maybe. But as TAC’s Daniel Larison has pointed out, “Warren has no distinctive foreign policy views to speak of, and insofar as she has had anything to say on the subject she has not distinguished herself as an antiwar or progressive champion.” Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is also testing the waters. Though Sanders would no doubt be a forceful advocate for a foreign policy of restraint on the campaign trail, the chances of a self-proclaimed socialist gaining the White House are so remote as to render it pointless to include him in a list of credible Clinton opponents.
This brings us to former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Webb, as opposed to O’Malley and Warren, has a long record from which voters and pundits can surmise what U.S. foreign policy might look like should he gain the Oval Office. Clinton’s team is seemingly alive to the danger a Webb candidacy poses. Only recently US News and World Report noted that longtime Clinton henchman Philippe Reines had been pitching talk radio producers unflattering stories about Webb. Clinton’s reliance on such low-grade courtiers such as Reines (and before him, people like Howard Wolfson and Sidney Blumenthal) should raise additional questions about the former Secretary’s powers of discernment, particularly when it comes to the character of some of her closest advisers.
But if and when the Clinton camp does finally come around to squaring up against Webb over actual issues, they will find an estimable opponent. In an interview with Iowa public television last August, Webb previewed his probable lines of attack against Clinton. While noting that he agrees with the administrations pivot to Asia, it is obvious he feels he hasn’t received the credit he feels he deserves for initiating the policy, noting tartly that “we led that from our office” two years before the Obama administration announced it. According to Webb, the policy is warranted because he believes the U.S. needs to act as an “offshore balancer” in Asia.
Regarding Clinton’s criticism of Obama, that not doing “stupid stuff” isn’t exactly a policy, Webb responded, “I’m not sure that was a fair way for somebody to summarize that the administration has done.” But Webb also took great issue with Obama’s failed Middle East policy, and according to Webb, “Secretary Clinton, quite frankly, was a part of enunciating this strategy.” Further:
I can’t understand why people would have supported the notion of arming certain groups inside Syria a couple of years ago…I say that not only as someone who has spent a lot of time working on foreign policy, but as a journalist in Beirut in 1983 when the word I got from Marines on the ground was: ‘Never get involved in a five-sided argument.’
His criticism of Obama’s intervention in Libya, of which Mrs. Clinton was a vocal and visible proponent, has been scathing and well as prescient, writing, “Under the objectively undefinable rubric of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ President Obama has arguably established the authority of the president to intervene militarily virtually anywhere…” The contrast with the intervention-happy former Secretary could not be clearer.
As 2016 fast approaches, Clinton supporters may begin to lose sleep over a Webb insurgency.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.