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Truman and Clinton’s Foreign Policy

President Truman in the act of committing executive overreach, via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Chait considers Truman as a model for how Hillary Clinton might govern, and then says this:

It is impossible to predict how Clinton will handle foreign policy, but it is not fanciful to hope that her experience (unusually deep for a president) will enable her to imaginatively face the confounding challenge of radical Islam.

It’s true that we can’t know exactly what Clinton will end up doing abroad as president. However, we have a fairly good idea of how she approaches foreign policy issues and how she reacts to conflicts and crises overseas. Given Clinton’s longstanding record of hawkishness, the comparison with Truman isn’t a particularly reassuring or flattering one, but I fear it could be a very accurate one.

Thanks in large part to later friendly revisionist historians, Truman is now remembered as the president who oversaw the creation of many of the major institutions and policies for the Cold War. That isn’t how his foreign policy was viewed at the time. His final years in office were defined by the costly, desultory Korean War that contributed so much to his horrible public approval ratings. Chait manages to review Truman’s presidency without mentioning the war. He not only presided over an unsuccessful war that had to be ended by his successor, but he also dangerously expanded containment doctrine to apply to the entire globe instead of the defense of Europe as Kennan had originally envisioned it. That in turn would lead to the errors of later administrations in trying to check the advance of a supposedly monolithic global communism, which produced the disastrous and avoidable war in Vietnam among other failures. That’s not a great example to follow, but I can believe that Clinton–easily the most hawkish Democratic nominee since LBJ–would want to follow it.

Fortunately for us, Clinton will be coming into office at a time when the U.S. faces far fewer threats than it did when Truman was president. The U.S. presumably won’t be bogged down in any additional wars unless Clinton chooses to get the U.S. involved in one or more. Unfortunately, the U.S. is already waging and/or supporting several military interventions right now, and we have good reason to expect that she will respond to some new foreign conflict more aggressively than her predecessor and with a more militarized response than U.S. interests require. We can expect this because this is how she has tended to respond to foreign conflicts throughout her public career. She has shown herself more willing to take sides in foreign wars than Obama, and she has been more willing than he has been to commit U.S. forces to affect the outcome of other countries’ internal conflicts. If Obama were the “reluctant” interventionist he has been made out to be, that would still be bad news, but the record shows that Obama has launched two wars, escalated a third, supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and ordered drone strikes in many more countries. Now imagine a Clinton administration that is even less restrained than that, and you have some idea of how Clinton will conduct foreign policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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