In a seemingly full-throated promise to voters in Scranton, Pa. on Monday, Hillary Clinton said adding “American ground troops” in the war against ISIS in Syria “is off the table.”
But every message coming from her surrogates in the media and in the Washington defense establishment has been that she will “lean in” harder in Syria, and whether you want to call it “added ground troops” or something else, everyone in her orbit is calling for expanded U.S. intervention—including personnel and firepower—in the region, even at the risk of confrontation with Russia.
For weeks, a parade of high-stepping national-security officials—some barely out of government service—have been rattling their sabers passionately for a Hillary Clinton presidency. From Michael Vickers, a former intelligence official most celebrated for his promotion of hunt-to-kill operations in the War on Terror, to (Ret.) Gen. John Allen and ex-CIA Chief Mike Morrell, there is a growing backbench of Washington establishment macho men—and women—who testify to Clinton’s “run it up the gut” security chops, and more than one has noted her well-publicized break with President Obama on Syria. She, of course, having been more hawkish than the other from the start.
Her advisors say Syria will take top priority in her first days in office, and, in addition to ISIS, President Bashar Assad must go. So it is important to examine what a real Clinton Syria policy might look like despite her rhetoric on the campaign trail.
There are three things to look at:
1 . What Clinton’s shadow national-security team—specifically her likely defense secretary, Michele Flournoy, and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which was founded in anticipation of Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid—have said on the subject.
2 .What Clinton’s campaign and foreign-policy surrogates are saying.
3. The neoconservative refugees from the Republican Party who have thrown their influence behind Clinton.
Flournoy is no stranger to the national-security establishment. Harvard-educated, she went from the ivory tower to Bill Clinton’s first-term administration, where she served in strategic-policy roles in the Pentagon. During the Bush administration, she toiled in the National Defense University as an instructor and entered the think tank world before launching CNAS with Kurt Cambpell. With CNAS, she hoped to advance Clinton’s candidacy around the idea that the flagging war in Afghanistan could be turned around with the same counterinsurgency (COIN) policies that Gen. David Petraeus had “successfully” executed in Iraq.
When Obama won the Democratic nomination instead, the think tank deftly adjusted. Flournoy and Campbell eventually scooped up key posts in the Pentagon and State Department. She was the third-highest-ranking civilian in the Pentagon before leaving service in 2012. COIN withered on the vine as Afghanistan became a greater quagmire.
Flournoy took herself out of the running to replace retiring Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014. Speculation abounds, but most believe she was keeping her powder dry for Clinton.
Flournoy now wears many hats, and one of them is as a national-security advisor to Clinton. And whatever she may have said to the contrary, the CNAS reports she helps to cultivate specifically advocate additional U.S. personnel in the region for combat purposes, in addition to new airstrikes and direct conflict with Assad forces as well as ISIS.
To be exact: “Military commanders on the ground should be authorized to conduct direct-action raids in Iraq and Syria in order to degrade ISIS’ ability to plot external attacks, and sufficient resources should be authorized to carry out and support these operations.” The report that sentence comes from, released in June, was written by a CNAS study group headed by Flournoy. It calls not for a “fundamental shift in current U.S. strategy,” but “some course corrections.” “Most importantly, it means a willingness to lean further forward in the types of military action the United States would take in this territory,” it explained.
While the emphasis is on arming and training local opposition forces (a strategy that was proposed but did not work so well in Afghanistan, and ultimately also Iraq), it calls for the creation of “no bomb zones” in opposition-held parts of Syria to protect them from pro-Assad airstrikes. This is in line Clinton’s public position, too, according to her campaign website.
But the CNAS strategy is much more explicit: While working with the coalition partners who will somehow emerge in 2017, the U.S. will add more boots on the ground. The report asserts at the start that this would not mean “conventional forces,” but then goes on to say the strategy would require “quick reaction forces, logistics, intelligence, force protection (e.g., base security), fire support, medical evacuation support and air support,” in addition to advisors and “counter network” personnel.
The report also calls for “an expanded campaign of intelligence collection, airstrikes, and direct-action raids” to “further degrade ISIS’ capabilities.” On the no-bombing zones, the report says the U.S. would retaliate against Assad assets if necessary. It acknowledges the risks of inflaming tensions with Russia, which is employing its own airstrikes on behalf of Assad, but there seems to be hope of a “power sharing” agreement down the road.
“Establishing a no-bombing zone would risk escalation with Russia, but this concern is manageable given that neither side wants to enter a direct conflict and the United States needs to exert some military pressure if it wishes to change Russian and regional calculus and empower more acceptable actors on the ground,” the report states.
When Defense One published a straightforward piece making many of these points, Flournoy was quick to respond, saying while she advocates all of the above regarding the no-bombing zones and airstrikes, she does “NOT advocate putting U.S. combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad’s forces or remove Assad from power.”
Defense One appended Flournoy’s letter to the story, but it didn’t issue a correction. The piece’s author, Patrick Tucker, told The Intercept that “Strike weapons at standoff distance is troops.” He continued: “Those are military personnel. That is U.S. military power—at war with the Assad regime. There is just no way around it.”
Bottom line: the CNAS authors are calling for increased U.S. military operations in Syria. “I can’t think of another instance in which a U.S. presidential candidate was actually planning, via advisors who had drawn up detailed plans, a new war, to actually start an additional war that didn’t exist before,” said writer Gareth Porter, who recently penned “Hillary Clinton and Her Hawks.”
“That is even more dangerous and more reckless, because even the authors of the CNAS report acknowledge there is a serious risk of coming into direct conflict with Russian forces in Syria. It’s really quite an astonishing turn of events when you think about it,” Porter added.
But the CNAS report and Flournoy’s op-eds are pretty tame to what Clinton’s surrogates have been saying to the media more recently.
Reporting from the Democratic National Convention, the Telegraph got some choice quotes from Clinton advisor Jeremy Bash, a former Pentagon official who founded Beacon Strategies, a “strategic advisory firm” that includes Morell, career bureaucrat and Clintonista Leon Panetta, and Clinton media operative and fixer Phillipe Reines, among others.
Bash was unequivocal about Clinton’s Syria “reset,” which would focus not only on ISIS but also on bringing down President Bashar Assad. “A Clinton administration will not shrink from making clear to the world exactly what the Assad regime is,” he said in interview with The Telegraph. “It is a murderous regime that violates human rights; that has violated international law; used chemical weapons against his own people; has killed hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children.”
It is no secret that Clinton has supported removing Assad from the start and had a famous break with President Obama over arming the opposition and establishing so-called no-fly zones. While the White House has focused more on pushing back ISIS’s advances in the region, Clinton and her advisors have made it clear they disagree and that the removal of Assad won’t be off the table.
Meanwhile, Morrell says he was “non-partisan” before endorsing Clinton this summer, but in reality he joined Beacon, which is run by longtime members of Clinton’s inner circle, after leaving the CIA in 2013 instead of going to a national-security think tank or an academic perch. That he suddenly became a Clinton champion out of a noble concern for the country, which is the lazy media narrative, is a bit hard to swallow.
Morrell told Charlie Rose in August (starting at the 30-minute mark) that U.S. policy should be to make Russians and Iranians “pay a price” for being there, including killing Russians “covertly” and helping to initiate the bombing of Syrian government buildings and installations to “scare” Assad before he is ultimately “transitioned out” of power. In July, Panetta all but said the same thing to CBS’s Margaret Brennan. He also hinted at the possibility of putting more U.S. troops on the ground:
I think the likelihood is that the next president is gonna have to consider adding additional special forces on the ground to try to assist those moderate forces that are taking on ISIS, and that are taking on Assad’s forces. And we have to increase our air strikes. We’ve got to do all of those things in order to put increasing pressure on ISIS but also on Assad. We can’t surrender one objective for the other. We’ve gotta continue to press on both fronts.
“I think the three of them [Bash, Morrell, and Panetta] provide a very clear window into the type of foreign policy one can expect under a Clinton administration,” says Christopher Coyne, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University who has written about military interventions. “A policy that entails a proactive use of the military to attempt to address a wide range of issues around the world.”
“I would say the majority of people in my circle will vote for Hillary.” So says Robert Kagan, one of the most influential neoconservatives in Washington, as well as an astute foreign-policy player who has positioned himself among both Republican and Democratic national-security literati as a grand strategy thinker. His last book, The World America Made, is an unabashed paean to American hegemony and interventionist posture, and his made-for-Barnes & Noble books are much admired by Obama. His wife is Bush-Obama State Department official Victoria Nuland, a potential secretary of state in a new Clinton administration. TAC’s Phil Giraldi has called Nuland “Hillary’s Hawk in Waiting,” blaming her interference in Ukraine for escalating a crisis with Russia in the region.
Kagan was recently featured in an article by Intercept writer Rania Khalek, who covered a recent “foreign policy professionals for Hillary fundraiser.” The event raised $25,000 for Clinton but also raised eyebrows about which members of Kagan’s “circle” would support her.
It’s not hard to start counting. Some of them, like Eliot Cohen, who supported the war in Iraq from his perch at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, have said Clinton is the “lesser evil.” Max Boot, a hardliner if there ever was one, took the step of declaring a break from Republicanism and his endorsement of Clinton in the Los Angeles Times, noting she would be more hawkish than Obama. Jamie Kirchick, another familiar neoconservative stalwart, recently penned an article endorsing Clinton entitled, “Hillary Clinton Is 2016’s Real Conservative—Not Donald Trump.”
Kagan is the most open about his common ground with Clinton, telling the New York Times in a 2014 interview that he is “comfortable” with her foreign policy. No doubt. He and his circle consider Obama’s foreign policy in Syria to be woefully passive. Regime change is again in the air, and Clinton’s left and right flanks are ready to see it through.
It is “something that might have been called neocon,” Kagan said of Clinton’s views, “but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Whether additional U.S. forces on the ground will remain “off the table” will be an early test of rhetoric versus reality. They may just call that something else, too.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.