Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy Failures
Do not be fooled by Hillary Clinton’s attempt to rehabilitate her term as Secretary of State ahead of the 2016 presidential election. From 2009 to 2013, Clinton embodied U.S. foreign affairs even as President Obama’s avowed policy of self-effacement descended into listless, desultory abdication. Notwithstanding her recent critiques of Obama’s performance, Clinton’s failures as Secretary of State helped bring war to Europe, an arms race to Asia, and inferno to the Middle-East. The U.S. and its international standing are weaker for Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State.
Clinton’s mistakes began early, with her contribution to the misconceived and poorly executed Russia Reset. President Obama campaigned on a sunshine foreign policy platform, and one of his first foreign policy priorities was to improve relations with Russia. Bilateral relations froze when Russia invaded Georgia in August, 2008, and President Bush deployed warships into the Black Sea and facilitated Georgia’s recall of its combat troops from Iraq. Secretary Clinton’s first major assignment was meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva in March, 2009. They drank, ate, talked, and posed for now-infamous photos in which the pair “pushed” a kitschy, red, plastic button mislabeled with the Russian word for “overcharge” instead of “reset.”
To give substance to the show, Clinton and Lavrov discussed the U.S.’s “flexibility” on plans made during the Bush administration to build installations housing missile defense interceptors in Eastern Europe. Russia vehemently opposes locating interceptors in Eastern Europe, and Poland and the Czech Republic incurred Russia’s wrath for agreeing to host the systems anyway. Six months after the Geneva meeting, the U.S. cancelled deployment of the systems, leaving Poland and the Czech Republic bereft of the economic and security benefits of the installations but still saddled with Russian anger.
In the first of what would become a pattern, the U.S. sacrificed allies’ interests to a rival in the fatuous hope that the rival would feel some sort of gratitude or obligation in return. The Wall Street Journal’s scathing editorial has proven prescient. TheJournal warned that bowing to Russian pressure would only encourage it to demand ever more concessions and that “[n]ext time, perhaps, the West can be seduced into trading away the pro-Western government of Georgia, or even Ukraine.” The Journal continued that “inclusion in NATO and EU was supposed to have [ended great power use of Eastern and Central Europe as bargaining chips], but Russia's new assertiveness, including its willingness to cut off energy supplies in winter and invade Georgia last year, is reviving powerful fears.” The Journal and a litany of foreign policy commentators rightly predicted that Putin would take such gestures only as an invitation to aggression.
Five years later, Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a fait accompli. Russian armored vehicles and tanks have moved across Ukraine’s border and it is unclear if East Ukraine will fall to rebels leavened with Russian Special Forces. Reports from late August indicate Russian paratroopers have been captured in Ukraine.
As was the case to a lesser degree in Georgia, the impetus for Russia’s invasion of Crimea and other aggressive behavior in Ukraine was Ukraine’s popular revolt against a Russian client government in favor of joining Europe. NATO’s failure to respond in any meaningful way not only raises doubts about the wisdom of nations from the former Soviet sphere orienting with the West, it has called into question the alliance’s very viability. If Russia moves on against the Baltic States, will NATO respond? In a game contest of perceptions, does Russia think the U.S. and its allies will rouse themselves to meet their treaty obligations for some frozen, little country so far from core Europe?
Since 2009, Russia has also violated missile and nuclear test ban treaties, cracked down on domestic dissent, de facto criminalized homosexuality and sent nuclear bombers on sorties off the U.S. mainland. In 2010 and 2011, Clinton was deeply involved in the negotiations that culminated in the New START treaty and rewarded Russia for armament cuts it was making already. There new treaty provided no recognizable benefit to the U.S. other than political cover for the Obama Administration to cut U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Clinton has called the Russia Reset “brilliant.” It is a debacle.
The 2011 “pivot” to Asia has proven as bad. In theory, it meant refocusing American foreign policy on the tandem issues of China’s emerging military challenge and the region’s robust economic growth and importance. China’s impression that the pivot entailed a robust containment strategy is not all wrong. But in practice it has meant further abandonment of European obligations and abdication of responsibilities in the Middle-East without discernible benefit.
Perversely, the pivot may have destabilized Asia and damaged security. The U.S. declared its intention to bolster military capacity in Asia, but increased deployments haven’t materialized and the Department of Defense has said they “can’t happen” due to plummeting Department of Defense budgets. Promising to strengthen the U.S.’s military position in Asia and then admitting the inability to carry through projects weakness and invites challenge.
Recognizing the military incapacity implied by Obama and Clinton’s Potemkin Pivot, China has aggressively asserted specious territorial claims. Under China’s “Nine-Dash” policy it claims exclusive economic rights in approximately all of the South China Sea. The precise coordinates of the nine dashes bounding China’s claims are not public, but they decidedly exceed China’s legal boundaries and encroach on Japan’s, Vietnam’s and the Philippines’s internationally recognized rights.
To substantiate its demand for exclusive rights in international and foreign waters, China has built and annexed new islands and claimed existing islands already belonging to its neighbors. These fabricated “Chinese” territories give a patina of legitimacy to China’s nine-dash claims because, if legitimate, China would have economic rights to a zone surrounding those territories.
Challenged by China’s ruse and bereft of a U.S. counterbalancing force, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, the primary victims of China’s expansion, are acquiring arms to fight back. The badly-overmatched Philippines and Vietnam have already clashed with the Chinese Navy and its sea-going irregulars. The Philippines are now acquiring obsolete U.S. frigates explicitly to establish a minimum deterrent against China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abo has generously reinterpreted Japan’s constitution to allow robust military acquisitions and actions for the first time since the end of World War II.
In both the Russia Reset and the Asia Pivot, Obama and Clinton naively believed that they were uniquely able to woo or cajole Russia and China, even where administrations before them had failed. Instead, responding to signals that the U.S. lacks either the ability or fortitude to stand against them, Russia and China are both literally expanding, acquiring new territory at the expense of Western-oriented U.S. allies. Those allies and others similarly situated no longer assume the U.S. is capable of – or even interested in - meeting its foreign obligations, and are understandably looking for other means of protecting their own interests.
But while shrinking from geopolitical rivals in Russia and China is a severe error, Clinton and Obama’s most lasting legacy may be the slaughter in the Middle-East. Clinton was Secretary of State when the U.S. pulled all troops out of Iraq, the first inexplicable and obvious mistake that opened the door for the Islamic State (“IS,” a/k/a the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a/k/a the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)). IS began as an insurgent group in Iraq, a former al-Qaeda affiliate supposedly ostracized for being too extreme. Once U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, IS expanded rapidly.
Clinton now claims she opposed Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq. Some insiders corroborate parts of her story, including James Jeffrey, who was Ambassador to Iraq at the time. However, Obama’s rationalization for the precipitate troop withdrawal was that there was no Status of Forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, and leaving troops on the ground without such an agreement created legalistic dangers to U.S. troops to go along with the kinetic ones. While Clinton has blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for failing to reach an SFA, it was her job as Secretary of State to negotiate an agreement and she failed to do so.
The premature U.S. withdrawal left other gaps filled by adverse forces. As violence ramped up after the U.S. departure, U.S. influence over the Maliki government evaporated and Iran stepped into the void. Absent U.S. pressure and guidance, Maliki’s sectarianism asserted itself and he denied Sunnis access to meaningful participation in government, whereas American presence and pressure would have pushed broad inclusion. The excluded Sunni leadership, in turn, was more receptive to IS.
Across the border in Syria, too, IS seized power because there was no substantive opposition force. Early in the Syrian Civil War a multitude of rebel groups jockeyed for men, arms and support, and the U.S. remained aloof of any of them. As Clinton told Jeffrey Goldberg, “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people . . . left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” The articulated reason the U.S. never provided substantial arms or materiel to help create a credible fighting force was that the U.S. did not have strong enough relationships with the rebel groups to feel confident that arms used against Assad would not someday be turned against the U.S. or its allies. As head of U.S. foreign missions, Clinton again bears responsibility for failing to create and foster those predicate relationships.
Allowing IS’s rise and the resultant carnage in Iraq and Northern Syria does not even touch on the horrors of the Syrian civil war itself. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. Millions displaced across borders to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and even Iraq threaten to further destabilize those countries. Assad has targeted civilian populations, used chemical weapons, and systematically raped, tortured and murdered. Despite intermittent reports that the U.S. would arm rebels, the U.S. still has done nothing of substance to bring Assad down.
At root, Clinton simply miscomprehended the conflict itself. More than two years ago, Clinton said “[i]t should be abundantly clear to those who support [Syrian President Bashar al- Assad’s] regime [that] their days are numbered.” If she had been right, and the Assad regime had collapsed in late 2012 or early 2013, IS may never have expanded into Syria, never consolidated anti-Assad forces under its banner, never gained notoriety, fame and growing international Islamist support. Without a base in Syria, IS may never have returned to terrorize Iraq. Maybe if Clinton were correct in her stated assessment of the Syrian war, IS would never have grown into the force it is today.
But Clinton was flat wrong, with horrific consequences she cannot run away from. Due to the administration’s combined failures of abandoning Iraq and abstaining from any practical role in Syria, the IS’s self-declared Caliphate now stretches across great swaths of both countries and threatens Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. IS is systematically destroying kafir holy sites, recently eradicated the nearly 2000-year-old Christian community in Mosul, is trying to exterminate the Yazidis, and is pressing Kurdish forces hard. The situation today is so dire that U.S. troops have returned to Iraq -- without a Status of Forces agreement.
Clinton’s mishandling of the Arab Spring is another recurring theme, though nowhere so bloody as in Syria. In Egypt, decades of U.S. foreign policy reflected the calculation that the stability of an unpleasant but relatively benign strongman was better than the discord and disruption threatened by its near-certain Muslim Brotherhood replacement. In 2011, though, Obama and Clinton backed popular calls for political reform and then criticized President Hosni Mubarak’s first proposals.
Belatedly, Clinton backed off aggressive calls for Mubarak’s immediate departure. The Egyptian Constitution required elections within 60 days from the President’s resignation. The Muslim Brotherhood had been the only organized opposition party in the country for a generation and was bound to dominate any snap elections. Clinton therefore called for an orderly “transition” that would allow other parties to organize and compete.
Too late. Mubarak stepped down and the Brotherhood dominated the ensuing 2012 elections. Predictably, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, imposed an Islamist agenda. Having thoroughly alienated the relatively urbane Cairenes within a year, Morsi was overthrown in a popularly-support military coup led by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Sisi was elected President earlier this year.
There remains a chance that Sisi will transition to democracy, perhaps on the pre-Erdogan Turkish model in which a strong military is the guarantor of secular democracy. Steady, confident U.S. leadership would be critical, though, and the U.S. has shown neither constancy not trustworthiness in Egypt. Obama and Clinton criticized Mubarak’s slow reform, then backed a tempered transition, then supported free elections when Mubarak resigned, then backed Morsi even after the population turned against his extremism, then condemned Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi even though the population supported it. Pew polling shows favorable views of the United States among Egyptians have fallen from 27% in 2009 to 10% today. The U.S. generally and Clinton personally have precious little credibility or goodwill in Egypt.
The instinct to support democracy abroad is a good one, but Clinton and Obama failed to distinguish between democracy in name and democracy in practice. There was good reason the Egyptian military and U.S. policy makers have long opposed the Muslim Brotherhood. Time after time Islamist organizations have taken power through elections and never left, repressing popular opposition and fomenting violence abroad. Egypt and the Obama Administration needed only look next door to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas (the Brotherhood’s Palestinian Branch) won an election in 2006 and has not allowed one since, choosing instead to militarize the territory and lob missiles at Israel. Clinton and Obama failed to recognize that the Brotherhood would abuse instead of embrace democracy.
In Libya, too, Clinton and Obama failed to foresee and prepare for the repercussions of decapitating the regime. Muammar Qaddafi was a cruel, evil man, an avowed enemy of the United State, and a terrorist. Nobody questions the decision to back his overthrow. But the United States never had a coherent plan in Libya, and leading from behind turned out to mean feckless spectating.
In the absence of a sustained Western influence, Libya has foundered. Once Qaddafi was gone -- tortured, sodomized and murdered by the rebels -- an Islamist insurrection began almost immediately. The U.S. Embassy in Libya, headed by Ambassador Christopher Stevens, requested additional security both at the Embassy in Tripoli and at the exposed consulate in Benghazi. Those requests were not honored.
On September 11, 2012, Stevens and three others Americans were killed when the Benghazi consulate and a nearby CIA annex came under coordinated attack. In the days following, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, claimed the attack was a spontaneous response to an obscure internet video. That claim was false. While the White House and State Department have not disclosed what they knew and when, the U.S. government knew in real time that Benghazi was a well-planned, coordinated attack and not merely a spontaneous demonstration gone terribly awry.
Benghazi itself was not a foreign policy failure, it was a terrorist attack. However, Clinton’s mistakes contributed both to the attack and subsequent government evasions. Clinton’s inability to foresee and prevent Libya’s dissent into a terrorist safe haven is certainly a foreign policy failure. Otherwise, Benghazi is more a leadership failure. Clinton’s State Department failed to provide the additional security Ambassador Stevens requested and he and three others were murdered. Clinton failed either to properly educate Rice or to rein her in, and she attempted the video ruse. That is a leadership failure. When Mrs. Clinton later railed, “what difference . . . does it make” whether the attack was premeditated or spontaneous, it was deplorable hubris.
Meanwhile, fighting has reached Tripoli and Libya’s neighbors are now actively involved in preventing yet another failed Islamist state from arising.
At the opposite end of the greater Middle-East, Clinton and Obama failed to capitalize on a once-in-a-generation opportunity in Iran. Since its inception, the self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran has opposed the U.S. in every way. The Iranian revolution was consciously anti-American and post-Shah Iran’s first great act was kidnapping US diplomats in 1979. Since then, Iran and its Hezb’allah terrorist arm have conducted terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies, and more recently armed and trained insurgents killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One reason for optimism on Iran has been the disconnect between the mullahs and the Iranian population. Before the revolution, Iran was quite Westernized, and it has long been gospel in Foggy Bottom that the Iranian population is among the most pro-American in the world.
At last, in 2009, the tension between the anti-U.S. Iranian leadership and pro-U.S. Iranian population tore open. Ultra-radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in his reelection bid, but all three of his opponents claimed the election had been rigged. Protesters took to the streets in unprecedented numbers and staying power.
Yet the US did nothing. There were no pronouncements about the universal right to free expression and representation, no admonitions that the Iran should abide the will of its people. There was no effort whatsoever to help the Iranian population improve their own lives and at the same time lessen the threat of terror and war in the Middle-East.
Isolated and unsupported, the protesters were crushed. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Basij militia beat, raped and murdered the protesters into submission. The Green Revolution died with the protesters.
Ahmadinejad proceeded to quite a successful second term at Clinton’s, Obama’s and the United States’ expense. He duped Obama and Clinton into deferring nuclear sanctions and meanwhile expanded Iran’s nuclear program. He consolidated Iran’s control and influence in Iraq and deployed troops and irregular assets to wage Assad’s war in Syria.
None of the various explanations for Obama and Clinton’s failure to support the Green Revolution is adequate. Some have opined they worried U.S. support for the protesters would inadvertently undercut the opposition by giving credence to regime accusations that they were Western stooges or CIA plants. Others have suggested more plausibly that Obama and Clinton simply prioritized “engagement” with Iran and believed that support for the protesters would undercut nuclear negotiations and the bizarre hope that Iran would help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whatever rationale they embraced at the time, Obama and Clinton squandered a unique opportunity to support democratic reform at the expense of an implacable theocratic enemy.
Clinton failed to understand and address myriad other international developments. On her watch, Boko Haram grew from a local disputant to a regional threat in West Africa, while al-Shabaab expanded in East Africa, and the Taliban resurged in Afghanistan. Venezuela remains benighted by incompetent socialist oligarchs and ruinous economic failure despite Hugo Chavez’s long illness and death. The U.S. angered England by abandoning longstanding policy (again) and seeming to back Argentina in the dispute over the Falkland Islands. Israel repeatedly found itself strong-armed into poor positions by the Administration’s headlong pursuit of an ephemeral deal at all costs.
While the vast majority of Clinton’s mistakes were criticized contemporaneously, some of them are admittedly made with the benefit of hindsight. However, Clinton wants to be President of the United States and appears intent on claiming her stint as Secretary of State as a qualification. And the U.S. deserves a successful president and foreign policy apparatus. That means understanding the cascading repercussions of seemingly isolated decisions; soberly assesses foreign counterparts’ good or bad intentions; quickly putting unfolding events into broader context and answering difficult questions correctly the first time even when the facts and circumstances are murky. Like any other assignment, good foreign policy must ultimately be judged by the results. As Clinton indulges hindsight revisionism at Obama’s expense, it is fair to ask why she didn’t live up to minimum expectations.
Yes, Clinton was merely a cabinet member, but all of the aforementioned mistakes fell squarely within her portfolio. If Clinton disagreed with Mr. Obama’s decisions, why did she fail to persuade him? Why didn’t she make the case more forcefully? More publicly? More successfully? Why didn’t she reach an agreement with Nouri al-Maliki? The Syrian rebels? Why did she pursue the reset debacle? Why did she back the failed pivot? Why were allies repeatedly left aghast as the U.S. took harmful decisions without consultation or forewarning? To the extent she was a dupe or merely the titular Secretary while somebody else wielded real power, why did she allow herself to be coopted? Why didn’t she do something?
No, Secretary Clinton is responsible for four years of U.S. backsliding on the world stage. It was her job to observe and interpret foreign events, advise the President, and formulate and execute policy to benefit the U.S. and its allies and confound U.S. enemies. It does not matter which component of her responsibilities she failed; the record is clear that U.S. foreign policy collapsed on Clinton’s watch and the world is a far more dangerous and far less free place as a result.
Jonathan Levin is an attorney and blogs at punditryandpontification.com