American Foreign Policy

Hillary’s Dilemma: Foreign Policy and the Race for the White House in 2016

Danny Cooper*

Brisbane, November 5, 2014 (Alochonaa): Written with an eye towards the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s recently released memoirs on her years as Secretary of State, Hard Choices, demonstrates some of the challenges she will face as she prepares herself for another tilt at the top job. The dilemma is easy to summarise: Hillary will have to defend aspects of Obama’s foreign policy even as she distances herself from it, carving out a unique position on a whole host of issues. How will she distinguish herself? What ideas will she revive? Her memoirs are revealing in several ways.

First, it should go without saying that there will be more continuity with Hillary as president than there would be under a Republican president. The Republican Party is the more hawkish party in the United States and the party more likely to resort to the use of force to defend American interests abroad. Yet the Democrats, as Obama himself has demonstrated, are not doves. With the exception of Dick Cheney, few could accuse them of being soft in the war on terror (managing the rise of America’s great power rivals such as Russia and China is perhaps another question).

So this brings us to an obvious question, namely, would American foreign policy be different under Hillary Clinton than it has been under Barack Obama? Let’s focus on the Middle East, the world’s true hot spot. Despite lambasting Obama in the primaries for his naiveté and willingness to talk to America’s enemies, Hillary credits herself in her memoirs with laying the groundwork for greater engagement with countries such as Iran. Yet Hillary’s charges of “inexperience” when it comes to Obama have not gone away. In Hard Choices, she obviously softens the language and speaks in a respectful tone. But she makes it clear that Obama erred badly in his management of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, needlessly provoking a fight with the Israelis by insisting on a settlement freeze before negotiations could proceed (a demand whose strongest advocate within the administration, apparently, was Rahm Emanuel, the president’s first chief of staff). She also softly criticises the president for siding with the protestors in Egypt and not insisting on an orderly transition away from the Mubarak regime in Egypt, thus laying the groundwork for the mess that followed.

These arguments, however, are nonsense. They indicate that Hillary is eager to burnish her credentials as an able foreign policy practitioner who served loyally for four years as Secretary of State as her boss mismanaged U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Arab Spring. Yet they deserve close scrutiny. First, the argument that Obama erred in provoking a show-down with Netanyahu by insisting on a settlement freeze is highly questionable. It assumes that absent this demand, progress would have been made. Subsequent events have demonstrated this to be false hope – two thousand dead Gazans should confirm this. The reason why no progress has been made is a simple one: Netanyahu and the government he leads have no interest in peace and no interest in creating a Palestinian state. Regardless of what he says now, Netanyahu has opposed Palestinian statehood his whole career. At least Obama, however momentarily, restored some sense of balance to the U.S. approach. Don’t expect Hillary to do likewise. As she puts it, “Israel is more than a country – it’s a dream nurtured for generations and made real by men and women who refused to bow to the toughest odds.” Members of AIPAC feel free to applaud.

Likewise, Hillary’s charges of an inexperienced president mishandling the revolutionary turmoil in Egypt need qualification. Of course, whether the U.S. has done enough to nurture democracy in Egypt is an important question. There are legitimate grounds to claim that more should have been done before and after the fall of Mubarak. However, to talk about an “orderly transition” in the midst of a revolution is a non-starter. What did Clinton expect? Protestors in Tahrir Square to listen to a political science lecture on the importance of democracy’s “pre-conditions?” A guest lecture from Fareed Zakaria perhaps? The fact that Obama quickly reversed course and abandoned a doomed ally tells us little about Obama’s alleged inexperience in foreign affairs. Mubarak was going regardless of who was in the White House.

Whatever the merits of Clinton’s arguments, there is little doubt that she will revive them in the coming years to put some distance between herself and President Obama, touting her credentials as an experienced foreign policy practitioner capable of managing U.S. alliances and responding to foreign policy crises. However, Hillary levels another charge at Obama which also deserves attention. If she intends to present herself as an accomplished foreign policy candidate, she will also present herself as the candidate more likely to restore some semblance of morality to U.S. foreign policy. She will present herself as a fierce champion of human rights – Hillary as a liberal hawk. In her memoirs, there is hardly a category of the downtrodden which Hillary does not wish to save. Ethnic minorities, women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons, all can expect to be beneficiaries of Hillary’s human rights crusade.

Whether one supports the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy obviously depends on one’s foreign policy leanings. With Hillary as president, realists will find much to be nervous about. As someone with liberal leanings, however, I am not altogether opposed to it. But it is important to note that Hillary’s support for the 2003 Iraq was no mistake. She may have come to regret it politically, but her decision to support the war was a result of many liberals embracing a militarized humanitarianism after the Cold War that supported the punishment of serial human rights abusers. When it came to Iraq, other motives within the Bush administration were obviously at play, but the war had a moral dimension which liberals, many of whom cheered U.S. action in Bosnia and Kosovo, found difficult to resist.

In her memoirs, Hillary speaks about the quiet diplomacy she conducted to encourage democracy and the advancement of human rights in places such as Burma, but she also speaks about her efforts to encourage President Obama to act more aggressively in Libya and Syria. Encouraged by eager European leaders, Hillary came down on the side of intervention in Libya, siding with the U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, and NSS staffers, Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power (there is some irony in this since Power, a strong liberal interventionist who authored a best-selling book bemoaning the West’s passivity in the face of genocide, had once described Hillary as a “monster” and was briefly dismissed from the Obama campaign before being promptly reinstated after his 2008 election victory). Opposing the Libyan intervention, however, were individuals such as Robert Gates, the Republican appointed Secretary of Defense, who, in his memoirs, argued that he would often turn up to meetings, asking: “Can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you go looking for new ones?” Obama, perhaps swayed by Hillary’s decisive support for aggressive action, agreed to a limited intervention. The liberal hawks carried the day.

Not so in Syria. Acknowledging that there were no good options in Syria, Hillary delicately agrees with those who were critical of Obama for not doing more to help the Syrian opposition in the earliest days of Assad’s savage crackdown. Recounting a conversation she had with David Petraeus, the U.S. General credited with momentarily turning around America’s fortunes in Iraq in 2007 after implementing a counterinsurgency strategy, she pitched the idea to the president in 2011, arguing that the United States should take the lead in arming and training an opposition that would make Assad more forthcoming in agreeing to a settlement of the conflict. However, believing that U.S. support for the Syrian opposition would have little impact on the ground, Obama was not persuaded. As Hillary explains in her memoirs, “No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President’s call and I respected his deliberations and decision.”

What, then, does this mean in the context of 2016? If she runs, Hillary will defend the overall thrust of Obama’s foreign policy, but she will present herself as a more experienced candidate unlikely to repeat Obama’s alleged rookie mistakes. She will also campaign as a true American moralist, eager to speak out on behalf of human rights around the world and restore a Wilsonian edge to U.S. foreign policy. What does it mean if Hillary succeeds and becomes president? As a liberal I am not as nervous as a good realist should be, but given the ongoing social instability around the world, especially in the Middle East where medieval fanatics continue to run rampant, the next president will have plenty of opportunities to employ American power in a variety of ways. And Hillary, I suspect, will not need as much convincing as America’s current president.

*Dr. Danny Cooper is the Editor, American Foreign Policy ,Alochonaa. He is a senior lecturer at Griffith University in American Politics and American Foreign Policy. His book Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy: A Critical Analysis was published in New York by Routledge in 2011. His review article Lessons from Iraq: the agony and ambivalence of an American liberal was published by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: American Foreign Policy

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.