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Clinton’s Foreign Policy Is the Opposite of Triangulation

Matt Lewis is unduly impressed [1] by Hillary Clinton’s predictable hawkishness:

It’s called triangulation. It’s a method perfected by Bill Clinton and Dick Morris. And it’s brilliant.

There are many things one could call Clinton’s recent foreign policy remarks in this Goldberg interview [2], but politically savvy or brilliant is *not* one of them. The foreign policy she outlined in the interview is one that would replicate all of Obama’s major errors (e.g., intervention in Libya, arming foreign rebels, etc.) while expanding on and adding to them. She is clearly currying favor with foreign policy analysts and pundits that already think Obama has been too passive on Syria, Ukraine, etc., and she is doing that by reciting many of their unpersuasive arguments.

Clinton has “brilliantly” identified herself as the hawk that she has always been, which puts her sharply at odds with most people in her own party and most Americans of all political affiliations. That’s not triangulation at all. The old Clintonian triangulation was driven by an obsessive focus on public opinion and on finding mostly minor issues that obtained support from a large majority. The purpose of it was to co-opt popular issues and deprive the opposition of effective lines of attack. The goal was not to poke the majority of Americans in the eye on major issues and tell them that they’re wrong. Clinton’s foreign policy posturing politically tone-deaf and focused entirely on what will please people in Washington and a few other capitals around the world. It is evidence that Clinton thinks she can get away with campaigning on a more activist foreign policy on the assumption that no one is going to vote against her for that reason. She may be right about that, or she may end up being surprised–again–to find that her horrible foreign policy record is still a serious political liability.

Now it’s true that the vast majority doesn’t vote on foreign policy, and most Americans normally pay little or no attention to it, but one thing that does seem to get their attention is when they are being presented with the prospect of new and costly conflicts. If Obama is faulted in Washington for being too cautious, Clinton is making clear that she will err on the side of being too activist and aggressive, and she gives us every reason to expect that she will err quite often on that side. That isn’t going to gain Clinton any votes, and it could easily lose her quite a few. Her twin hopes at this point have to be that she won’t face a significant challenge from the left on these and other issues and that the next Republican nominee will be even more irresponsibly hawkish than she is. That’s not brilliant. It’s called wishful thinking.

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19 Comments To "Clinton’s Foreign Policy Is the Opposite of Triangulation"

#1 Comment By Chris On August 11, 2014 @ 11:30 am

Stout analysis. The irony is that foreign policy is where Presidents have the most ability to influence policy, so perhaps Americans should care a bit more.

Clinton is a card carrying member of the War Party who left her gig at State after her and DP’s plan to amp up Libya was turned down by Obama (perhaps the only sensible thing the guy has done, to be honest). Her record there is miserable, and the book on the topic came out early to insure no one would talk about in come 2015. She’s nothing if not calculating. Most reporters like Lewis find this brilliant, but in reality it’s quite predictable and mundane. In addition, she’s a terrible manager.

Clinton running against any GOP-er in 2016 reminds me of the Obama/Romney debates on FP, where both candidates were in general agreement and preferred to take their commentary back to domestic policies. A GOP caring about winning would be wise to nominate a non-war party candidate, but in reality TPTB (a/k/a the GOP funding machine, which includes Adel$on, Wall $t & the huge defense contractors) would never allow that to happen, so I look forward to HRC & Chris Christie both agreeing on every major neo-con talking point through most of 2015 & 2016 while talking about tax cuts and “securing the border” (LOL).

#2 Comment By collin On August 11, 2014 @ 11:38 am

WHAT THE Fudge? Is HRC trying to screw up the primaries? I think the draft Elizabeth Warren just movement just got shot in its arm! Seriously, I never appreciated HRC on these foreign policy but did she not learn anything in 2008? She lost because the Iran vote and just when Ds were forgiving her for the vote she sounds like McCain in training.

#3 Comment By Richard W. Bray On August 11, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

I think Hilary’s strategy is to talk about anything but the Clinton record.

What administration first “renditioned’ people to be tortured in countries like Syria?

Who deregulated the banks?

Who deregulated the media?

Who gave firms like Blackwater contracts to privatize what should be military operations?

Hilary needs to have an insurmountable lead before the debates begin. Inevitability is her only strategy in large part because she is, in contrast to her husband, such a lousy politician on the stump.

So now she’s attacking Obama. This could backfire, of course, because in addition to revealing her innate bellicosity, it makes her look very disloyal.

#4 Comment By John On August 11, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

She has a finger in the wind and that’s it. If Obama’s bombing campaign in Kurdish territory works, she’ll be able to take credit for being on the side of military force before Obama was. If it doesn’t work, she’ll be able to say that she would have invaded Syria in the first place or landed the 82nd Airborne or some other counterfactual that will be repeated uncritically over and over by most newspapers and TV news networks.

#5 Comment By SteveM On August 11, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

Re: “Now it’s true that the vast majority doesn’t vote on foreign policy, and most Americans normally pay little or no attention to it”

Which is largely accurate. The opponents of aggressive interventionism should circumvent that truism by explicitly pointing out the opportunity cost of War Party aggression. I.e., itemize other ways the money largely wasted on World Cop exercises could have been spent domestically instead. Make a list of necessary bridges and highways that could have been constructed with the Trillions squandered in Iraq/Afghanistan. Additional physicians trained. Increased targeted medical research. Offsets for reductions in the regressive payroll tax.

Emphasize zero-sum. All of those other value added opportunities didn’t happen because the Power Elites preferred to shovel the money into civil wars and nation building occurring 5,000 miles from American shores. Rather than fix Detroit and Newark, they preferred to fix Baghdad and Kabul instead.

Money in and of itself has no intrinsic value. So Americans really don’t pay attention when it’s squandered by Power Elites on foreign policy overreach. Create a story though that tells how the same money could have been allocated to tangible alternatives to War Party shenanigans and Americans will be much more likely to start playing close attention, asking the right questions and hopefully, electing the right politicians to represent their interests when their tax dollars are expended.

#6 Comment By Austin Rebreh On August 11, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

I just read the Atlantic interview she gave: Clinton makes Obama look like Ghandi!

Do most democrats know this? If they do, then we can finally conclude that they are not anti-war just anti-republican.

#7 Comment By James Canning On August 11, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

Bravo, Daniel. And Matt Lewis is dead wrong. Hillary Clinton was a cheerleader for idiotic US invasion of Iraq, and the ill-advised military intervention in Libya.

#8 Comment By icarusr On August 11, 2014 @ 1:27 pm


Do most democrats know this?

Have you already forgotten the 2008 primary? The most important thing that allowed the one-term Senator from Illinois to carry the bulk of the Democratic voters with him over HRC was his reminder, time and again, that for all of HRC’s experience, she got Iraq “wrong.”

If they do, then we can finally conclude that they are not anti-war just anti-republican.

I would suggest that it is a little premature to pronounce on what the Democratic Party or its voters believe. She is in the lead of a nonexistent race, where no issue has been debated, she has not been challenged, no one else has presented his or her credentials and she is un-running two years before the elections as the sentimental favourite.

In the event her bellicosity is an issue in the primaries (it will be), the Republicans select an anti-war candidate (about as unlikely as my being named Pope) and Democrats overwhelmingly determine to ignore it and support her in any event (at best, an iffy proposition at this point), you’d be right. That would, however, require a staggeringly unlikely concatenation of events.

#9 Comment By Let Them Eat Enriched Uranium On August 11, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

The the woman who abandoned her post at State, leaving the Middle East in flaming ruins, manages to pull her face out of the speaking-fee hog-trough just long enough to offer helpful advice regarding the catastrophe she was instrumental in creating.

What a gal.

#10 Comment By spite On August 11, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

So the next election will be Hillary the hawk against some generic hawkish neocon. Scary times ahead.

#11 Comment By Skipjack On August 11, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

I think her distance from Obama on these issues is a bit overstated for the sake of drumming up a story. I agree that her campaigning here is not brilliant on the merits. But what you laid out as wishful thinking is instead her path to victory. Most likely, she does not have a serious challenge from the left this time. Also likely, she faces a Republican even more reflexively hawkish than she is. If those two things were different then maybe she doesn’t win anyway.

The important (for her) things she is doing here by speaking her mind is to flatter official Washington, which tends to agree with this kind of cheerleading, and also to inoculate herself from charges of playing to the Democratic base in a general election. She has to be consistent about the areas she will point to as her strengths.

On a personal note, her nomination will make me ask myself if I am one of those “foreign policy voters”. Absent an actual war, I probably won’t be. I’ll just do like every other Democrat and eye the Supreme Court and pull the lever.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 11, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

“Who gave firms like Blackwater contracts to privatize what should be military operations?”

While Pres. Clinton did increase the use of private contractors, part of the larger discussion being pushed back then to privatize the military, it is expressly permitted in the Constitution to hire “privateers” (private operators, mercenaries) to fulfill US objectives.

There are plenty of areas that challenge Sec. Clinton’s attempt to be elected into the WH.

I have to admit that some my opposition is personal as well as political.

#13 Comment By SteveJ On August 11, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

In purely political terms, you could argue that it is a perverse triangulation of sorts — given the absurd anti-Conservative behavior of the Republican Party in general over the last decade plus.

The Republican Party in general invokes a reflexive stance of claiming the democrat is not doing enough. In general, that is the only criticism.

In general, with some exceptions, there will be no Republican candidate who criticizes Clinton for advocating military interventions. Whatever Clinton advocates, the Republican candidate will take a more hawkish stance.

Politically, she may as well tilt towards hawkish positions bordering on the absurd. It takes the issue away from the Republicans. She looks more reasonable — “more reasonable” only by comparison that is.

#14 Comment By Richard W. Bray On August 11, 2014 @ 4:14 pm


The United States Constitution did not come down from the mountains with Moses; it was written by flawed human beings who wrote that a slave was three-fifths of a man.

Yes, German mercenaries contributed to George Washington’s victory over the British. But that does not mean that the United States of America should rely upon “contractors” to perform essential military duties in this day and age.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 11, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

I think Steve J has it about right

Hillary position is correctly seen as “triangulating” because it appears to split the difference between Obama’s foreign and military policies and what will most likely be the much more hawkish F and M policies of whoever is the GOP presidential nominee.

And that, more or less, is Lewis’ point, although he doesn’t express it well and is himself arguing from the perspective of a GOP supporter. The public at large, as represented in opinion polls, IS fairly dovish. The voters in Democratic primaries even more so, which, as has been pointed out, was a big reason why Obama beat Hillary in the ’08 primaries. But Hillary is banking on not facing a strong dovish challenger in the primaries (or beating any such challenger who does emerge on other issues, such as experience, that it is now a “woman’s turn,” that she has paid her dues, domestic issues, etc).

Mr Larison:

“Her twin hopes at this point have to be that she won’t face a significant challenge from the left on these and other issues and that the next Republican nominee will be even more irresponsibly hawkish than she is. That’s not brilliant. It’s called wishful thinking.”

OK, its not “brilliant,” but I would hardly call it “wishful thinking” either.

Most likely, the GOP will nominate someone not named Paul, and that nominee will almost certainly posture himself as much more hawkish than Obama. Hillary, if she gets that far, will have inoculated herself against that Republican’s charges of her being “too soft” on F and M policy (charges which may have added potency against the first female nominee) by starting now, and continuing into 2016, to position herself to the hawkish side of Obama.

In the primaries, to me, it seems quite unlikely that history will repeat itself and someone else will be able to pull off what Obama did in ’08. Obama certainly made war and peace the main difference, allegedly, between himself and Hillary. But he had a lot more going for himself than that…great speechmaker, handsome, cool, first real Black contender, youth vote, etc. Also, his team ran a practically flawless campaign while Hillary’s team missed the boat, shot itself in the foot, was caught flat footed, etc. Is all of that, plus the F and M policy difference, going to happen again?

So, yes, Hillary’s posture is based, politically, on not having a redo of ’08 among the Dem voters, and not having a Paul as a GOP opponent. I would say those are two realistic, solid assumptions. And even both together seem more likely than that either one will not come to pass.

And, of course, unstated is that any position she takes now has potential upsides and downsides.

If she postures now as a dove, for one thing, that will make everything she has said since she was First Lady look inconsistent. She was known to favor the Balkans adventures, she voted for the Iraq AUMF, she supported the Afghanistan surge and the Libyan bombing campaign, and so on. So, if a Paul were to win the nomination or a dove were to pose a real challenge in the primaries, she would look like a complete phony and opportunist if she tried to be more dovish than Obama (especially given that she was originally a McGovernite peacenik who has become more hawkish….another switch in course would make her seem totally feckless).

For another, that very record will make it impossible for her to position herself to the dovish side of Obama, of a potential dovish Dem challenger, or of a Paul. She has to play the cards she now has, not the cards she would have IF she had voted against Iraq AUMF, IF she had been a Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libyan dove, etc, etc.

In standard political terms, she is “moving to the middle.” True, that is usually done after the nomination is sown up, not before, but Hillary is operating under the assumption that she can afford to do so, that she will not get sucker punched in the primaries as she did six years ago. Maybe she’s right, maybe not, but it seems to be a perfectly plausible strategy to me.

And the fact that the public at large may favor a more dovish policy than Obama’s does not change that. As has been stated, the public does not vote on a F and M policy basis, for the most part. Unstated is that perhaps a great portion of the dovish group that responds to polls are not voters at all. Another possibility is that the hawkish voters are more likely to vote based on F and M policy than are the dovish ones. And it is a certainty that the movers and shakers, the Washington insiders, the mainstream media, including the supposedly “liberal” NY Times and Washington Post are quite hawkish, as is the FP Establishment.

That too is part of the environment that Hillary has to operate in. We do not have anything close to a plebsitory system in the USA, particularly when it comes to choosing a Chief Executive and military C in C, and when that executive makes F and M policy. Merely because the polls show that dovishness is popular, does not at all mean that Hillary’s best strategy is to pretend to have refound her dovish roots. Yes, Obama won as “dove,” but it is hardly the case that the more dovish candidate always wins (if it were, there would not have been a Republican presidential administration in the last half century!). And Obama, as mentioned, had many other things going for him in the primaries, and he also had a bad GOP candidate, McCain, who pretty much mailed in it, to face in the general, on top of a bad economy and two misfiring wars to dump on the incumbents.

#16 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 11, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

“The United States Constitution…was written by flawed human beings who wrote that a slave was three-fifths of a man.”

The Constitution certainly was written by flawed human beings, and it did encompass slavery. But it did NOT say that a slave was three-fifths of a man. What it said was:

“Representatives [in the House of Representatives] and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Thus, while some Indians were not counted at all for purposes of representation, and “other” not free “Persons” (ie slaves) were counted only as three fifths of a person in comparison to free citizens and indentured servants, the Constitution does not say that such slaves (or Indians) are not men, or are not human, or any such thing.

In addition, the clause is often misunderstood, in terms of slavery and the Constitution. Anti slavery advocates would have preferred that slaves not be counted at all, for purposes of representation, because including them gave more power to the slaveholding States, and to slaveholding districts within States. Counting slaves as three fifths of a free person gave more power to slave owners than not counting them all would have done. And, of course, by the same token, counting the slaves as less than three fifths (as, say, two fifths, or one fifth, etc) would still have been better, from an antislavery POV, than was counting them as three fifths.

The problem can be phrased in terms of the Constitution compromising broadly with slavery itself (the fugitive slave provision, the 20 year prohibition on import bans of slaves, etc, as well as the three fifths provision), or in the specific case of the three fifths clause, the problem can be phrased in terms of giving slaveowners and their representatives unwarranted legislative power in the House. And, of course, racial prejudice was undeniable, at all levels of society.

But the issue can’t, in all fairness, be phrased in terms of the Framers actually believing that a slave was “three fifths of a man.” They knew that slaves were men, were human beings. They did what they did in this infamous clause as a compromise between the slaveholding States, which wanted the slaves counted as the same as free persons, and the non slaveholding States, which wanted the slaves, like the tax exempt Indians, to not count at all.

#17 Comment By Sean Scallon On August 11, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

Actually there is a political angle to all this and it is calling winning West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri back from the GOP. Indeed, you’ll find a lot of Dems in Kentucky calling themselves “Clinton Democrats” and acting like a “Jacksonian” when it comes to foreign policy is one way to do so. If both Grimes and Pryor win their Senate seats with her help, however slight it is, then they might as well give her nomination after Thanksgiving.

But that’s okay. Assuming Rand Paul isn’t the GOP nominee I’m looking forwards to seeing the rise of the Libertarian Party into a serious political player.

#18 Comment By RP_McMurphy On August 12, 2014 @ 6:01 am

@ Sean Scallon:

“Actually there is a political angle to all this and it is [called] winning West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri back from the GOP.”

That may well be HRC’s aim, but I’m skeptical it can succeed (barring an absolute blowout). The gravitation pull of social liberalism has grown too strong. Winning the support of Appalachia while simultaneously bludgeoning the Republican nominee on abortion, contraception, immigration, and same-sex marriage is likely a bridge too far. Moreover, why bother? If Clinton can keep the Obama coalition intact, she wins. A slight improvement among white voters makes Florida a rout, puts North Carolina in the bag, and probably threatens Arizona and Georgia. Altogether, that’s 374 electoral votes — probably close to Clinton’s ceiling.

#19 Comment By Philo Vaihinger On August 12, 2014 @ 11:41 am

Well, she’s probably right in expecting the GOP nominee to be more Hawkish than she is.

Republicans are more profoundly divided on war issues than Democrats, and the Republican spectrum is broader than that of the Democrats on this issue both toward and away from interventionism.

It’s an interesting question whether an anti-interventionist like Rand Paul would win over more anti-interventionist Democrats and independents than he would lose in neocons and ardent Zionists.

But we’re not going to find out.