Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Clinton’s Syria Folly and 2016

It's not surprising that Clinton has taken a foreign policy position that is horrible on the merits.
hillary clinton bernie sanders

Last week, Hillary Clinton joined a number of Republican hawks in endorsing the insane option of establishing a “no-fly zone” in Syria. That has given her main competitor for the Democratic nomination an easy opening to appear more responsible:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Saturday that he opposes a unilateral American no-fly zone in Syria, offering a less hawkish stance on the war-torn region than Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a position more in line with President Obama.

It’s not surprising that Clinton has taken a foreign policy position that is horrible on the merits. The odd thing about Clinton’s decision to endorse yet another bad hawkish idea is that she is repeating the same political mistake that has tripped her up in the past. Clinton’s habit of siding with hawks in foreign policy debates is how she made the wrong call on the invasion of Iraq and wrongly backed intervention in Libya, and now she is doing so again on a high-profile issue in opposition to what most people in her party support. She is used to assuming that opting for the more aggressive option is the smart political move, but that hasn’t been true in the Democratic Party in over ten years.

Her Syria position gives her rivals for the nomination a more or less free pass to cast doubt on her foreign policy judgment, which has been consistently poor, and it allows her competitors to attack her for aligning herself with Republican hawks against the administration. She is exposing her political weakness on foreign policy and reminding her would-be supporters why she shouldn’t be trusted to make the right decisions as president. Her statement last week highlights one of the main reasons why Democratic voters should be wary of her candidacy, and it makes her foreign policy that much harder to distinguish from the hawks in the other party.

The question remains whether her rivals are willing and know how to use her stumbling against her. Sanders has had little to say about foreign policy over the last few months, and for an insurgent challenger he has been unusually reluctant to criticize Clinton on anything. Clinton is practically begging to be attacked by taking a position on Syria that is so completely at odds with what most Democrats want, but it will be up to her challengers to force her to defend her irresponsible and dangerous Syria position.