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Can Hillary Reset Herself?

On March 4, Hillary Clinton was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves into the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow would formally annex two weeks later. Putin had justified his actions on the claim that ethnic Russians were at risk of violence or worse at the hands of Ukraine’s post-revolutionary and pro-Western government.

The former secretary of state was having none of it. “I just want people to have a little historic perspective,” Clinton said. “I’m not making a comparison certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.” The historical antecedent was Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia and his subsequent invasion of Poland. “All the Germans that were…the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.” Clinton went on to say that Putin’s land grab—the first annexation of territory on European soil since World War II—was pursued in furtherance of his long-term goal to “re-Sovietize Russia’s periphery.”

High-school debaters are taught early in their careers to avoid Reductio ad Hitlerum, but Clinton’s appraisal had the virtue of being right. Putin, like Hitler, contests the legitimacy of internationally recognized borders. Putin, like Hitler, has invented wild claims of oppression, discrimination, and violence endured by his ethnic brethren. And Putin, like Hitler, has decided to exploit that imaginary pretext to invade and occupy a sovereign nation’s territory.

Clinton’s stark assessment of Putin’s Hitler-like qualities, however, did not lead her to a reassessment of the American diplomacy that has led us to the present crisis. Three months after her comments made waves, the BBC asked Clinton if she had any regrets about the administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, which had offered unilateral concessions to Moscow (namely, the abandonment of missile-defense systems to be stationed in Poland and the Czech Republic), in hopes of improved relations. “I thought it was a brilliant stroke, which in retrospect appears even more so,” she said.

Clinton was on an international book tour promoting the memoir of her time at the State Department, Hard Choices. Her defense of the reset, now considered by all but the most slavish of Obama supporters to have been a failure, was but one of many stumbles she committed during the book’s rollout. And her words sounded even worse as the summer wore on. A month after her “brilliant” remark, separatist forces under Putin’s control shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet; less than two weeks later, the United States revealed that Russia had violated an arms-control agreement by testing a cruise missile as far back as 2008; following both of these, Barack Obama imposed extraordinarily harsh sanctions while claiming this was not “a new Cold War.”

Hard Choices is a 656-page door-stopper that attempts to make the case for Clinton’s success as secretary of state—and, by extension, her fitness for the presidency. She is the overwhelming favorite in her party and dominates national polls, and nothing that has happened over these past months has dislodged her. But what kind of case does Hard Choices make? And what are we to make of Hillary Clinton’s views of foreign policy? Does she even have any?

Examining Clinton’s years in office, and studying her own account of those years, one finds it difficult to pinpoint a single major policy success. To a large extent, this is due to the president she served, who has offered no clear grand strategic vision, no doctrine (other than managing his country’s decline), and for whom the whole realm of foreign policy seems more a distraction than a weighty responsibility. Energetic, Clinton certainly was. She boasts of having visited 112 countries, more than any of her predecessors, and the State Department website even featured a “Travels with the Secretary” page, noting the mileage she racked up jetting around the world. But there is only so much a secretary of state can achieve when the administration’s foreign policy is strictly the domain of the president and his closest advisers.

Clinton’s relationship with Obama was not like Dean Acheson’s with Harry Truman or George Schultz’s with Ronald Reagan; those secretaries of state were given broad authority to execute the president’s foreign policy. To a degree unmatched in recent memory, the foreign policy of the Obama administration has been the work largely of the president and his most trusted aides, including those—like former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Chicago fixer Valerie Jarrett, and deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes—without any practical experience in the management of foreign policy. Robert Gates, who served for two years as Obama’s secretary of defense, observes in his memoir Duty that the Obama White House “was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”

Hoping to emerge from a long, four-year slog with something to show for it, Clinton advocated for and championed the use of “smart power,” a concept—if one can even be so generous as to call it that—originally coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye. It “had been kicking around Washington for a few years,” and Clinton appropriated it to explain just about everything she attempted to do as secretary of state.

What, pray tell, is smart power? “We all had in mind slightly different meanings,” Clinton recalls in Hard Choices. For her, it meant “choosing the right combination of tools—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—for each situation.” How this distinguishes the Obama administration from every regime since time immemorial is left unsaid. Even Stalin knew when to temper his military aggression with cultural overtures. The closest Clinton comes to offering a clue is in her discussion of Afghan strategy. The ideal American policy for the troubled country would be “one that used the full range of American power to attack terrorist networks’ finances, recruitment, and safe havens, as well as operatives and commanders,” she notes. “It would take daring military action, careful intelligence gathering, dogged law enforcement, and delicate diplomacy all working together—in short, smart power.” In short, adjectives.

Another Hard Choices buzz-phrase is “21st-Century Statecraft,” which is what happens when we “put ‘smart power’ into practice.” It involves “harnessing new technologies, public-private partnerships, diaspora networks, and other new tools.” Readers are again left wondering how this approach is different from old-fashioned liberal internationalism. The use of meaningless verbiage is a way to disguise retrenchment and retreat. It covers the normal, humdrum practice of foreign policy in a sheen that will appeal to millennials whose historical memory begins with the Iraq War, as well as others disillusioned by what they perceive as the George W. Bush administration’s heavy reliance on military force. For instance, at one point Clinton writes that she supported drone strikes on terrorist targets, but, watching her left flank, she notes that she did so only as “part of a larger smart power counterterrorism strategy that included diplomacy, law enforcement, sanctions, and other tools.” Of course, the Bush administration also used diplomacy, law enforcement, and sanctions. Democrats, presumably, are just “smarter” in doing it.

The point of using a phrase as empty as “smart power” to describe one’s foreign policy is to cast doubt on skeptics as, well, dumb. What else can those who oppose “smart power” be but proponents of “dumb power?”

The first instance of the administration’s vaunted use of “smart power” was with Iran. In 2009, following a rigged presidential election, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to protest. The administration refused to speak up in support of them, a decision Clinton has come halfway to regretting. “In retrospect,” she writes, “I’m not sure our restraint was the right choice.” At the time of the protests, some of Clinton’s young, tech-savvy underlings noticed that activists were using Twitter to communicate, and they worried that a scheduled maintenance shutdown of the popular social-media platform would quash the opposition movement’s momentum. Clinton’s State Department persuaded Twitter to keep its service open. This, she heralds as a major achievement. The protests, meanwhile, were crushed, dozens of activists were killed, and hundreds more were jailed.

A better metric of Clinton’s record on Iran would be the progress the regime made toward achieving nuclear-weapons capability during her tenure. Clinton trumpets international sanctions as having brought Tehran to the negotiating table last fall, sanctions she crisscrossed the world coaxing reluctant international leaders into supporting. She also credits the reset with winning crucial Russian support for a round of UN sanctions. In fact, Russia and China watered down the sanctions heavily; both nations, according to the New York Times, “blocked any measure that would stop the flow of oil from Iranian ports or gasoline into the country.” French president Nicolas Sarkozy called them “toothless.”

Meanwhile, the tough American sanctions for which she and the administration now take credit were largely the work of Congress, whose members were frequently frustrated by the White House and State Department in their attempts to legislate them. “The administration doesn’t carry out the laws that are on the books, and they want the new law to be as weak and loophole-ridden as possible,” Democratic Representative Brad Sherman, a leading sanctions proponent, complained in 2010.

Indeed, so obstructionist was the administration on the matter of Iran sanctions that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, another Democrat, publicly chastised the State Department’s chief negotiator with the Iranians, Wendy Sherman, in a testy 2012 hearing. “This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future,” he said, after the administration asked him to shelve a bill sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank. (The law passed, 100–0.)

The following year, when Congress tried to legislate prospective sanctions should Iran fail to adhere to an interim deal agreed upon by the P5+1 powers, Jay Carney, then the White House Press Secretary, accused sanctions supporters of being on a “march to war.” Menendez lambasted the administration for its “over the top” and “fear-mongering” rhetoric.Writing about the negotiations that led to that tentative agreement between Iran and the West, Clinton characterizes the “secrecy” surrounding them as “necessary to prevent hard-liners on all sides from derailing talks before they had a chance to get going”—effectively likening American hawks on the Hill to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Clinton delicately tries to distinguish her record elsewhere in the Middle East from that of her former boss. In Syria, she supported arming moderate rebels to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In this endeavor, she was joined by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former CIA Director David Petraeus, but they were all ultimately overruled by Obama. “The United States was not prepared to join such efforts to arm the rebels,” she writes in the passive voice, depriving the president and his close-knit advisers of agency. The consequences of Obama’s refusal to try overthrowing Assad, a longtime enemy of the United States who has massive amounts of American blood on his hands, are being felt across the region with millions of refugees pouring across Syria’s borders and the rise of an Islamic caliphate in neighboring Iraq.

Yet up until the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Clinton was entirely on board with the administration’s rapprochement with Assad. She fully supported returning the U.S. ambassador to Damascus, who had been recalled as a result of Syrian complicity in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria had done nothing to indicate it was prepared to become a respectable member of the international community in return for this concession. It never relented in its support for international terrorism, continuing to arm Hezbollah and opening its border with Iraq to facilitate the entry of jihadists bent on killing American troops.

Clinton’s attempt to wean Syria from its decades-long alliance with Iran was fruitless and was met repeatedly with a series of embarrassing rebukes. (Assad and other Syrian officials would frequently host Clinton or other American envoys, engage in outwardly friendly talk about “stabilizing” the region, and then promptly travel to Tehran and proclaim support for the “resistance.”) When peaceful protests against Assad’s repressive rule began in early 2011, Clinton echoed the tune of many secretaries of state before her by insisting that the Syrian president was a “reformer” and a “different leader” than his father, Hafez. (She was unintentionally right in one grim sense: Assad the younger has killed many more of his own people, in a mere three years, than his father did over three decades).

Clinton also takes credit for having helped persuade the president to intervene militarily in Libya, preventing what would have been a large-scale massacre by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s troops against his own citizens. “Leading from behind”—the characterization of the administration’s approach to Libya attributed to an anonymous official—is “a silly phrase,” she writes. But that’s as far as she will go in criticizing what is essentially the Obamian view of America’s role in the world. And while Clinton devotes a whole chapter defending herself from accusations that she or the State Department should be held responsible for the tragedy that took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, she avoids discussing the larger consequences of the security vacuum left in the aftermath of the Libyan operation, which has now resulted in the full evacuation of the American Embassy and all its personnel.

Similarly, in the case of the Middle East peace process, Clinton distances herself from what is now widely seen as a major diplomatic blunder on the part of the administration: an early demand to end all settlement construction, including that in East Jerusalem, as a precondition for peace talks. “The strongest voice in favor” of this stipulation, Clinton writes, was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It was an unprecedented demand and doomed negotiations from the start, as it had the perverse effect of forcing the Palestinians into making this heretofore supererogatory condition (no negotiations while settlement construction continued) a requirement for their sitting down at the negotiation table.

Clinton, safely at a remove from the responsibilities of power, now acknowledges that this gambit “didn’t work.” But if she expressed any disagreements with the administration’s position at the time, even behind closed doors, there exists no evidence for it. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instituted a 10-month settlement freeze beginning in early 2010 (after announcing his own support for a Palestinian state), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas still refused to negotiate. This was a stunning rebuke not only to the Israelis but also to President Obama, who had staked so much of his Middle East policy on a resumption of peace talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Driving the Obama administration’s obsession with a settlement freeze was the belief, widely held among Middle East specialists and generations of peace-processers, that solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is the key to repairing a whole array of regional problems. This conceit is known as “linkage,” and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, from Tunis to Baghdad, ought to have destroyed it as a precept. More than ever before, Arabs are overthrowing regimes, killing each other by the tens of thousands, protesting in the streets—tumult that has absolutely nothing to do with Israel. Given the regional turmoil she witnessed as secretary of state and continues to witness today as a private citizen, Clinton ought to have reconsidered her subscription to this dogma. But she appears to stick with it.

“Because of their shared suspicion of Iran and their partnerships with the United States, Israel and many of the Arab states, especially the Gulf monarchies, should have been natural allies,” she writes. “Enmity over the Palestinian conflict prevented that.” Yet a tacit alliance between Israel and the Sunni Muslim governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and (some of) the Gulf states is precisely what has emerged over the past six years. Ironically for Clinton and her former colleagues, this unlikely coalition formed as a result of American withdrawal and the attendant perception among leaders in the region that Washington will not stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Like many a political memoir, Hard Choices is full of banalities, and the section on the Middle East is no exception. There are paeans to Israeli resourcefulness, lamentations over Palestinian woe, and confident avowals of the mutual desire shared by both peoples for peace. “Parents in Gaza and the West Bank share the same aspirations as parents in Tel Aviv and Haifa for a good job, a secure home, and better opportunities for their kids,” Clinton writes. I have no doubt that this is true for many, if not most, Palestinian parents. But an appreciable number want their kids to grow up to be martyrs, a not insignificant obstacle in the way of “bridging the gaps that divide the region and providing the foundation for lasting peace.”

Not surprisingly, Clinton skips over any discussion of her vote in favor of the Iraq War and her vote cast against the surge of troops, led by David Petraeus, that helped win the (subsequently lost) peace. Neither will prove to be helpful to her in a 2016 presidential campaign. Indeed, Iraq is a subject she would rather avoid; while Clinton devotes a chapter each to her diplomatic efforts in Syria, Libya, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, she does not write one specifically about Iraq—though she now says she is unequivocal in her belief that the war was a blunder and that she made the wrong decision. No doubt Clinton has read the polls and realized she is facing an even more resolutely anti-war Democratic electorate. As for the surge, in Hard Choices she bizarrely takes credit for its success (though, as just stated, she voted against it). General David Petraeus, who executed the policy, “followed a strategy that looked a lot more like what he had advocated for in his writings and what I had pressed him on during [a January 2007] hearing instead of the Bush administration’s approach to date,” she writes. She never mentions her widely published remark, also uttered during a hearing with Petraeus (and then-Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker), that the two men’s report on progress in Iraq required “a willing suspension of disbelief”—a blatant falsity she knew to be untrue but was clearly designed to stroke Democratic primary voters.

Perhaps it is too much to ask a former secretary of state to criticize the foreign policies of the sitting administration in which she served. But it is hard to think of any diplomatic initiative so obviously wrongheaded as the “reset.” Robert Gates, a Republican without political aspirations, has no such qualms. “Gimmicks in foreign policy generally backfire,” Gates writes in Duty. “They are right up there with presidents putting on funny hats—they result in pictures you have to live with forever.”

In her writings on Russia, Clinton attempts to give sustenance to her claim that the reset was indeed “brilliant.” She credits it with winning Russian backing for a range of bilateral initiatives, from Iran sanctions to transporting material across Russian territory to coalition forces in Afghanistan. But Russia had voted for five UN Security Council resolutions on Iran under the Bush administration and had also allowed transshipments to Afghanistan; there was never a serious threat of Moscow suddenly shutting down the supply routes. Far from wishing an American defeat in Afghanistan, Moscow wants us to stay, indefinitely if possible. The prospect of its former adversaries in the Taliban regaining power—and potentially inflaming Muslim extremism in Chechnya and other restive regions of Russia—is one the Kremlin would rather avoid. As for Iran sanctions, ultimately the Russian position on that issue has been determined by how Moscow views its national interests, not out of goodwill toward the United States or “the international community.” Indeed, this could be said of Russia’s position on any matter.

What did Hillary Clinton accomplish after four years at Foggy Bottom? She offers a genuinely moving account of her relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese democratic opposition who had lived under house arrest for many years, and one of the world’s most inspiring women. (Clinton and Obama have both touted the opening of Burma as a significant and unmitigated foreign-policy achievement, but the country is still ruled by a military government that continues to inflict massive human-rights violations.) The role she played in helping to secure the extrication to the U.S. of the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who courageously escaped house arrest and made his way to the American embassy in Beijing, was pivotal. Clinton introduced the promotion of gay rights as a cause in American foreign policy and made gender equality a centerpiece of her diplomatic agenda, a crusade that often angered and puzzled her more socially retrograde, all-too-frequently male interlocutors.

But in the grand scheme of things, these achievements, while admirable, do not add up to anything resembling a significant legacy. Nor do they outweigh the failures. Earlier this year, Clinton appeared before a friendly forum (Tina Brown’s Women in the World confab) and was asked by an obsequious moderator (New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman) about her proudest accomplishment as secretary of state. She had difficulty settling on a single, specific success, and in a meandering response eventually arrived at something resembling an answer. “I think we really restored American leadership in the best sense,” she said, “that once again, people began to rely on us, to look at us as setting the values, setting the standards.”

Now it’s true that global approval ratings of the United States are higher, in most places, than they were under the Bush administration. But it’s more than a stretch to say that our allies are more confident of American leadership, and that our adversaries are more fearful of our power, than they were before Barack Obama took office. (To cite but one glaring example, a recently released recording of a private dinner conversation revealed Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski saying that his country’s alliance with America was “worthless.”) If it’s any consolation to Clinton, our global predicament has only become more frightful since she left. “Not as bad as John Kerry” isn’t a particularly convincing 2016 campaign slogan. But it looks like it will have to do.

About the Author

James Kirchick is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative and a correspondent for the Daily Beast.




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