While Trump boggles the mind, Hillary will be no picnic for the Middle East either
Clinton has been on the global scene for decades, and must be seen as a known quantity...
The world’s fascination with the car crash that is Donald Trump is certainly understandable. However, lost in the global horror at the prospects of the White House being managed by someone with only the foggiest understanding of international relations, is the almost wholly unexamined case of what Hillary Clinton is likely to do as president.
But surely we already know that. Clinton has been on the global scene for decades, and – like her or loath her – must be seen as a known quantity, certainly in comparison to the populist Trump. The truth, as we saw in my column about the Republican, is more nuanced and elusive than the standard, cartoonish version of events would have you believe.
For while Hillary Clinton’s garden variety Wilsonian foreign policy tendencies are well known (in contrast to the more cautious realism practised by Barack Obama) and jibe with the mainstream of her party, during the Obama years they have amounted to a minority view in policy terms, as the White House has broadly followed the more realist line of the President. As such – and if as is likely she becomes president – Clinton’s victory will signal more change in foreign policy than has been accounted for.
A Wilsonian in the Middle East
The primary season has made the broad parameters of a Clinton foreign policy regarding the Middle East clear. Gone will be the structural view that the US is in relative decline. Back will come into fashion America as the indispensable power, the only legitimate superpower on the world stage that can tilt the global balance on any number of issues. From this fundamental structural difference with Obama’s realism, activism is the logical policy result.
Wilsonians can be characterized as more ready to use force than realists, being inclined to do so when an international coalition can be assembled, often for humanitarian purposes, and when the international community generally backs the use of such military power.
Look for Clinton, as she did while Secretary of State, to press for a greater American role in the world, including in the Middle East. Rather than stepping back, and hoping to morph into some sort of off-shore balancer as the present White House has angled to do, instead a Clinton administration will be much more involved in the nitty-gritty day-to-day affairs of the region.
Since leaving office, Clinton has rarely criticized her former boss, but did take him to task for failing to support the Syrian rebels early enough, thereby creating a strategic vacuum which has since been filled by ISIS and the al-Nusra FrontDr. John C. Hulsman
Secretary Clinton has pushed for a large, if residual, American force to stay in Afghanistan (she advocated the same policy earlier in Iraq), an outcome the Obama administration only reluctantly agreed to in October 2015, following Taliban gains in Kunduz. She has consistently advocated policies that would position more American forces in the region, a direct contradiction of the Obama goal of trying to limit America’s strategic footprint in the Middle East.
Likewise, Clinton has not been shy in advocating the use of such force. She led the charge within the administration for western efforts to topple the Qaddafi regime in Libya, even as the President rightly worried about what might come next.
Secretary Clinton was also an early and passionate advocate of arming the Syrian rebels. Since leaving office, Clinton has rarely criticized her former boss, but did take him to task for failing to support the Syrian rebels early enough, thereby creating a strategic vacuum which has since been filled by ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.
Specifically, Clinton has called for the US to establish no-fly zones on the Turkish-Syrian border, and for a more serious American effort to train and arm the Syrian rebels, even at this late date. Whereas Obama has done all he can to avoid the quagmire of the Syrian Civil War, Clinton seems intent on jumping into the swamp.
Be careful what you wish for
And this takes us to the heart of the matter. From a Middle Eastern perspective all this newly rediscovered American activism may be less gratifying than it seems at first glance. First, greater American involvement will mean a greater American say in foreign policy outcomes, in itself not something any number of American allies – having grown used to a greater degree of strategic autonomy during the Obama years – may welcome.
Second, as Libya so compellingly illustrated, greater American involvement can lead to disaster. Without working through the desired political outcomes before a decision to intervene is made, it is impossible to reach any sort of end state approaching “success”. Wilsonians – like their hated but similar neoconservative cousins in the Republican Party – tend to shoot first, and ask questions later. Her primary authorship in the Libya debacle is not a great advertisement for a more activist Clinton foreign policy in the region.
Lastly, in terms of the structure of the world, Secretary Clinton’s global view is several decades out of date. While the US remains, and by a long way, the most important country in the world, it certainly does not possess the almost unheard-of dominance it enjoyed when Clinton’s husband so ably ran the affairs. As such, following the same policies in a different era of lessening American power is a recipe for disaster. Elites in the Middle East may come to regret their support for a candidate who seems to still be living squarely in the 1990s.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.