Of Course Clinton Will Be Very Hawkish as President
Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky think Clinton won’t be as hawkish as president as many expect her to be. Their argument isn’t persuasive, and this strikes me as its weakest part:
The most important reason that a President Hillary Clinton is unlikely to have a hawkish foreign policy is that she will no longer be a senator, or the secretary of state, or a presidential candidate. She will be president. And that means that her priorities will be very different.
Presidents with less hawkish records than Clinton have ended up launching new wars and intervening in foreign conflicts far more often than their campaign rhetoric would have suggested. Bush campaigned on conducting a “humble” foreign policy to distinguish himself from the frequent interventions of the Clinton administration, but as president presided over the most hubristic and reckless foreign policy in decades. Obama was never as dovish as some of his fans and detractors wanted to believe, but he was supposed to be the less hawkish candidate in the primaries and the general election. Despite that, Obama has been a war president for every day he has been in office, and that includes two wars that he initiated illegally on his own authority. As a senator, Obama argued against starting wars without Congressional approval, but as president has done the very thing that he previously denounced.
The pressures and powers that come with the presidency encourage and allow a candidate to become even more hawkish once in office, and Clinton won’t be immune to those effects. More to the point, she won’t want to be immune to them. It’s not at all clear why being president would make Clinton less hawkish than she has been in other positions. There is good reason to assume that being in the office and being subjected to the endless demands to “do something” about each new conflict that comes along will exacerbate her tendency to favor more aggressive measures.
Shapiro and Sokolsky gamely try to make the case for Clinton as a supporter of diplomatic engagement, but the evidence is not as strong as they suggest. Clinton carried out administration policy on Russia in the first term, but like most first-term policies this one was run out of the White House and she wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing better relations with Moscow. She presided over the start of negotiations with Iran, but by all accounts didn’t think they would succeed, and once she was out of office favored more coercive measures to impose additional pressure on Iran that likely would have derailed negotiations if new sanctions had been put in place. Most of the time, Clinton tends to be the one arguing against accommodation and negotiation and in favor of using coercion. When she was running against Obama 2008, she derided his interest in diplomatic engagement as proof of his naivete, and I suspect that contempt for making the effort to engage pariah and rival states remains. More often than not, her preferred approach involves threatening or using force. Shapiro and Sokolsky tout her enthusiasm for “smart power,” but neglect to mention that she thinks the Libyan war was “smart power at its best.”
There will also be unexpected events over the next four years, and a candidate who believes in the importance of American “leadership” as Clinton does isn’t going to know how to leave well enough alone. When a candidate assumes that the U.S. has both the right and responsibility to interfere all over the world (and Clinton obviously takes this for granted), we should assume that she will get the U.S. involved in crises and conflicts that have not yet begun because she thinks that’s what international “leadership” requires.
They also claim that Clinton will be constrained by public opinion to a much greater extent as president than she has been before, but that’s a questionable assumption. With the notable exception of the public backlash against the proposed bombing of Syria in 2013, recent presidents have not encountered strong opposition at the start of a new intervention. There is certainly no appetite for more interventions, but as we have seen over the last seven years there is also not much of an antiwar movement to speak of when a Democratic president is in power. I assume Clinton will launch Kosovo- or Libya-style air wars when the opportunities present themselves, and she will be quicker to take sides in foreign conflicts than her predecessor and will back the side she takes more aggressively. She probably won’t commit the U.S. to a major ground war, but then her judgment on foreign policy is reliably bad so there are no guarantees that she won’t. Based on her record, it is very difficult to imagine that she would resist demands for “action” when they inevitably come, and that is why her consistent support for each new military intervention is so worrisome.