Stephen Walt isn’t persuaded that Hillary Clinton will be as hawkish a president as her record suggests:
If Clinton goes overboard with more globalization, expanded U.S. security guarantees, open-ended nation-building in distant lands, or even expensive acts of international philanthropy, all those skeptical people beguiled by Trump or Sanders will be even angrier. By contrast, if she can win over some of the people during her first term, her popularity will soar and re-election would be easy. The lesson? Clinton should focus on domestic reforms and not on international crusades. And as former State Department officials Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky suggest, that’s been her basic inclination all along.
Clinton would be unwise to pursue an even more activist and militarized foreign policy agenda as president, but Walt and I agree about this because we generally view that sort of foreign policy as dangerous and contrary to American interests anyway. It does seem foolish for any president to want to do the things that Clinton thinks the U.S. should do, but that is not a reason to think it won’t happen. I have made my objections to Shapiro and Sokolsky’s piece before, so I won’t repeat all of them here, but there are at least four major reasons why we should assume that Clinton’s foreign policy will be even more hawkish and interventionist than Obama’s .
The first is that Clinton has consistently sided with the conventional wisdom in Washington at the time about what the U.S. should do in response to any conflict or crisis. She has reliably backed more aggressive measures abroad in part because that is what pundits and analysts in Washington are usually demanding on any given issue. She isn’t one to resist demands to “do something,” because she typically sees no reason to resist them, and often enough she is making the same demands. The second is that Clinton won’t be able to “focus on domestic reforms” alone because foreign events and her public enthusiasm for U.S. “leadership” won’t allow her to do that. There will probably be a new civil war or international crisis at some point over the next four years, and she will feel compelled to be seen doing something about it, and given her record that will almost certainly mean deeper U.S. involvement than most Americans would prefer. The third is that Clinton will have few opportunities to advance a domestic agenda in the face of determined resistance in Congress. Even if Clinton has a Senate majority, she won’t have one in the House, so it is doubtful that she will be able to get any “domestic reforms” passed. The one area where Congress is totally submissive to the executive is foreign policy, and that is what Clinton will spend a disproportionate amount of her time on because she will mostly be stymied at home. Clinton won’t be hemmed in by budgetary concerns. The other party has been insisting for years that we must throw more money at the Pentagon, and there is no reason to think that Clinton worries about paying for this through borrowing. Finally, Clinton will be inheriting at least two ongoing wars, one of which she will be under significant pressure to escalate, and she will also inherit the Obama administration’s horrible enabling of the Saudi-led war on Yemen. In that sense, it won’t be entirely up to Clinton how much time these matters take up in her first term, because she is already committed to continuing these missions for the foreseeable future.
It is quite possible that governing as an liberal hawk will “derail her presidency,” as Walt says, but we have at least one example that tell us that isn’t necessarily true. Obama has presided over eight continuous years of war, including at least two interventions that he started and continued illegally without Congressional approval, and yet he is poised to leave office with a reasonably good approval rating and (if this scenario is to be believed) about to be succeeded as president by a member of his own party. That isn’t going to discourage Clinton from her usual interventionism. The Obama years have reminded us of the unfortunate truth that the public will tolerate quite a few foreign wars as long as the direct costs to the U.S. in American lives are low. So we should expect Clinton to rely heavily on air wars and missile strikes as Obama and her husband did. There presumably won’t be a repeat of something on the scale of Iraq, but we should assume that there will be other Libya-like interventions and some of them will be in places that we’re not even thinking about at the moment. Remember, Clinton doesn’t think that the Libyan war was a failure or a mistake, but rather considers it “smart power at its best.” I’m fairly sure about all this because Clinton has never given us any reason to think that she doesn’t want to govern this way, and almost everything in her foreign policy record says that this is how she will govern.