James Traub gamely tries to convince us (and himself) that Clinton’s foreign policy won’t be as aggressive and meddlesome as she says it will be, but he undermines his argument when he says this:
As a senator and later secretary of state, she rarely departed from the counsel of senior military officials. She was far more persuaded of the merits of Gen. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan, which would have sent an additional 40,000 troops there, than Obama was and maybe even more than then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was. She rarely departed from Gates on any significant issue. Of course, the one time she did so was on Libya, where she advocated intervention and he did not [bold mine-DL]. On Syria, Clinton may have to choose between her own expressed commitments and a Pentagon that is far more cautious and more inclined to see mishap than are civilian interventionists. I wonder how Kagan-esque she will be in the White House. Less so, perhaps, than she was as secretary of state.
In other words, when military officers recommended a larger escalation, she agreed with them, and when Gates didn’t support intervention she didn’t agree. Clinton was fine with advice from the military when it meant supporting deeper involvement, but she broke with Gates when he didn’t want to take sides in a foreign war. That isn’t a picture of someone who consistently heeds military advice, but rather someone who always opts for the more aggressive option available at the time. It doesn’t make much sense that Clinton as president would be less “Kagan-esque” than she was as a member of Obama’s Cabinet. As president, she will have considerable leeway to do as she sees fit, Congress will be pathetically quiescent as usual, and most of the foreign policy establishment will be encouraging her to do more in Syria and elsewhere. Clinton will be predisposed to agree with what they urge her to do, and in the last twenty years she has never seen a military intervention that she thought was unnecessary or too risky. Why is that suddenly going to change when she has the power of the presidency? In virtually every modern case, a new president ends up behaving more hawkishly than expected based on campaign rhetoric. All of the pressures and incentives in Washington push a president towards do-somethingism, and Clinton has typically been among the least resistant to the demand to “do something” in response to crises and conflicts, so why would we think she would become more cautious once she is in office? I can understand why many of her supporters wish that to be the case, but it flies in the face of all the available evidence, including most of what we know about how Washington works.
Traub makes a number of predictions at the end of his article:
She will not make dumb mistakes. She will reassure every ally who needs reassurance. She will try to mute China’s adventurism in the South China Sea without provoking a storm of nationalism. She’ll probably disappoint the neocons. She won’t go out on any limbs. She won’t shake the policymaking consensus.
I don’t know where this confidence in Clinton’s good judgment comes from, but it seems misplaced. I suppose it depends on what you think smart foreign policy looks like, but there is a fair amount of evidence from Clinton’s own record that she is quite capable of making dumb mistakes. That doesn’t just apply to her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq and her backing for intervention in Libya, but could also refer to her support for sending weapons to Ukraine, her endorsement of “no-fly” and safe zones in Syria, her preference for more sanctions on Iran while negotiations were still taking place, and her belief that the U.S. has to bomb another country to retain its “credibility.” All of these are mistakes, and some are quite dumb.
It isn’t at all reassuring to know that Clinton will “reassure every ally who needs reassurance,” because in practice that means indulging bad behavior from reckless clients and rewarding them with more aid and weapons. Earlier in the article, Traub seems to understand that enabling the Saudis is a bad idea:
This last policy, which for Clinton will come under the heading of “alliance management,” would only deepen the violence and sectarian strife rending the region. She would be better advised to tell the Saudis that the United States will reduce its support of their war effort unless they make serious efforts toward a lasting cease-fire.
That would certainly be wiser than offering uncritical backing of their intervention, but what is the evidence that Clinton thinks U.S. support for the war on Yemen needs to be curtailed? Yemen has been devastated in no small part because of Obama’s willingness to “reassure” the Saudis and their allies. What other countries will be made to suffer so Clinton can keep them happy? Clinton may disappoint neocons, but then they are disappointed by anything short of preventive war. Even if Clinton’s foreign policy isn’t aggressive enough to satisfy them, it is likely to be far more aggressive than necessary.