By John Cassidy
It is often said, and it appears to be true, that Hillary Clinton is more hawkish on foreign policy than President Obama. But what sort of hawk is she? And, if she were to be elected to the White House, how would her approach differ from Obama’s? Thanks to two deeply reported pieces of journalism—one just released about Clinton, from Mark Landler, of the Times, and one from last month on Obama, by Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic—we now have more information to help us answer these questions.
Landler’s story, which will be published in print in Sunday’s Times Magazine, is headlined “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” and it relies largely on the testimony of Washington officials and generals who have dealt with her over the years. Goldberg’s article, “The Obama Doctrine,” which was the cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic, is based on a series of long interviews with the President, and it presents Obama largely, though not exclusively, in his own words. For anyone who wants to understand the differences (and similarities) between Clinton and Obama, both pieces are must-reads.
The take-home for both of them is that Clinton is more comfortable using American military power than Obama, and that she shares little of his skepticism of the military and foreign-policy establishments. To the contrary, she gets along very well with generals and former generals, especially gruff-talking Irish ones, such as Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, who was an architect of the “surge” strategy that President George W. Bush ordered in Iraq, and whom Landler describes as “perhaps the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues.”
In his account of Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, which lasted from 2009 until 2013, Landler reports that, during the administration’s internal deliberations over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, she consistently supported the most interventionist option that was on the table. Even in dealing with China, she favored a robust approach. In 2010, after the North Korean military sank a South Korean navy vessel, she supported a Pentagon proposal to send a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea, which lies between North Korea and China, telling her aides, “We’ve got to run it up the gut!”
Obama overruled the idea. In the Atlantic article, he comes across as constantly concerned about being railroaded by the Pentagon and hawkish officials, including Clinton, into approving risky military actions. While he isn’t averse to using deadly force—witness the drone-assassination program—he is extremely wary of being drawn into extended military campaigns. One of Obama’s intellectual inspirations, Goldberg informs us, is Brent Scowcroft, the foreign-policy realist who served as George H. W. Bush’s national-security adviser. (In a post in 2014, after Obama gave a big speech at West Point, I described the President as “a reluctant realist.”)
The hawk-versus-realist dichotomy, while useful, shouldn’t be viewed too literally. Obama, for all his doubts, approved a mini-surge in Afghanistan, the deployment of American airpower to facilitate the removal of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and an expansion of the semi-covert war against Islamist extremists in North Africa. Clinton, for all her tough talk, has never had to make the final call to send U.S. forces into combat, or to justify the deaths that often result. But, even taking these qualifications into account, Landler and Goldberg’s reportage suggests that Clinton would be a very different Commander-in-Chief than Obama has been.
In seeking out the roots of Clinton’s positions, Landler doesn’t dwell on her formative years, the late nineteen-sixties, when she went from being a Midwestern Goldwater girl to an antiwar liberal activist. (A 2008 Salon piece about this period is still worth consulting.) After mentioning the strange tale Clinton has told about inquiring into joining the Marines in 1975, while she was living in Arkansas, Landler goes into her years as First Lady, when the contacts she had with the military officers who ran many of the day-to-day operations in the White House “deepened her feeling for them.” He also discusses her eight years as a U.S. senator for New York.
In October, 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks, she visited Fort Drum, the sprawling Army base in upstate New York. There, she met General Buster Hagenbeck, who was in charge of the 10th Mountain Division. Having seen Clinton only in her role as First Lady, the general wasn’t prepared for the woman who presented herself at his office. “She sat down,” Hagenbeck told Landler, “took her shoes off, put her feet up on the coffee table and said, ‘General, do you know where a gal can get a cold beer around here?’ ”
In late 2002, Clinton joined the Senate Armed Services Committee, turning down the opportunity to join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose vacant Senate seat she had won, had long sat on. “After 9/11, Clinton saw Armed Services as better preparation for the future,” Landler writes. “For a politician looking to hone hard-power credentials—a woman who aspired to commander in chief—it was the perfect training ground.”
Under the tutelage of uniformed officers like Hagenbeck and Keane, whom she also got to know in 2001, Clinton turned herself into an expert on military matters. She didn’t always take their advice. In 2007, when she was getting ready to run for President, she opposed the Iraq surge, which Keane strongly supported. But she valued the generals’ knowledge, and their combat experience. “She likes the nail-eaters—McChrystal, Petraeus, Keane,” one of her aides told Landler. “Real military guys, not these retired three-stars who go into civilian jobs.”
In April, 2015, just before Clinton announced her Presidential candidacy, Keane gave her a long briefing on Syria, in which he advocated the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of the country—an option Obama had rejected. When Clinton went out on the campaign trail, she called for a no-fly zone. “I’m convinced this president, no matter what the circumstances, will never put any boots on the ground to do anything, even when it’s compelling,” Keane told Landler. “That’s an issue that would separate the President from Hillary Clinton rather dramatically. She would look at military force as another realistic option, but only where there is no other option.”
Goldberg’s piece takes up Obama’s thinking about Syria in some depth, and specifically the decision, in 2013, not to bomb President Bashar al-Assad’s forces after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Syria had used chemical weapons against rebel forces—an action that Obama had previously said would draw a strong U.S. response. “Syria, for Obama, represented a slope potentially as slippery as Iraq,” Goldberg writes. Obama was also unnerved by the fact that the British Parliament had voted against military action in Syria. He feared possible civilian casualties, and was aware that a retaliatory missile strike wouldn’t eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons. Moreover, he didn’t believe that Syria’s civil war threatened vital U.S. interests.
Obama’s U-turn on Syria infuriated some of America’s Arab allies, and it alarmed some U.S. officials and former officials, who believed that it damaged the credibility of the United States. Goldberg quotes Leon Panetta, who served under Obama as C.I.A. director and Secretary of Defense, to this effect. He also reports that Clinton, who by the summer of 2013 had left the State Department, agreed with the critics of Obama’s decision. “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice,” she remarked privately.
In making this statement, Clinton was echoing a foreign-policy playbook that has ruled Washington for decades, and that Obama told Goldberg he was proud to have broken with. “The playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses,” the President said. “Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.” Inside the White House, Goldberg reports, Obama went further, arguing that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
If Clinton does become President, at some point she is likely to face a dilemma similar to the one that Obama faced in 2013. She will also be obliged to tackle a larger question that Obama, in his interviews with Goldberg, spent a lot of time tussling with: in the twenty-first century, what is America’s role in the world?
At this stage, it might be unwise to make bold predictions about how a President Hillary Clinton would deal with these issues. She must be keenly aware that there is little enthusiasm in the country for more interventionism. And entering the Oval Office places a burden on Presidents that can alter their views. But, based on what we now know, there isn’t much doubt where she would be coming from. “Hillary is very much a member of the traditional American foreign-policy establishment,” Vali Nasr, a foreign-policy strategist who advised Clinton on Afghanistan and Pakistan when she was Secretary of State, told Landler. “She believes, like presidents going back to the Reagan or Kennedy years, in the importance of the military—in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence.”