War Is an Afterthought in the Democratic Primary
February 5, 2016
Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic
Analysis and Commentary: Many of Hillary Clinton's endorsers treat her foreign-policy differences with Bernie Sanders as trifling disagreements, even though they could remake the world for the worse. I disagree vehemently with a lot of Bernie Sanders's beliefs . . . but I'll vote for Sanders over Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush, because those men are much more likely to start a dumb war of choice that costs billions and needlessly kills tens of thousands.
(February 3, 2016) -- Last week, after reading Kevin Drum's endorsement of Hillary Clinton at Mother Jones, I wondered why a progressive would assign so little import to her hawkish foreign policy instincts -- and why her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, gets so little credit for his prescient opposition to the Iraq War, his aversion to interventionism, and the longer odds against him starting a ruinous war of choice.
Many Hillary Clinton endorsers should grapple with the same question.
There is no issue bigger than war and peace. The stakes are as high as the $6 trillion that the Iraq War cost, the 4,500 American soldiers it killed, the part it played in the rise of ISIS, and the ISIS fighters who filled the power vacuum in Libya. Going forward, Hillary Clinton wants the United States to pursue regime change in another Middle Eastern country. Bernie Sanders does not. Both their records and their plans for the future are hugely different.
Yet Clinton endorsers treat these differences as if they are unimportant.
A comparison is instructive. Here's The Nation's well-argued case for Bernie Sanders:
On foreign policy, Clinton is certainly seasoned, but her experience hasn't prevented her from getting things wrong.
Clinton now says that her 2002 vote to authorize George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was a mistake, but she apparently learned little from it. Clinton was a leading advocate for overthrowing Moammar El-Gadhafi in Libya, leaving behind a failed state that provides ISIS with an alternative base.
She supported calls for the United States to help oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria, an approach that has added fuel to a horrific civil war. She now advocates a confrontation with Russia in Syria by calling for a no-fly zone. Her support for President Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran was marred by an explicit rejection of better relations with that country and bellicose pledges to provide Israel with more arms. If elected, Clinton will be another "war president" at a time when America desperately needs peace.
Sanders's approach is different and better. The senator hasn't talked as much as we would like about global challenges and opportunities, and we urge him to focus more on foreign policy. But what he has said (and done) inspires confidence. An opponent of the Iraq War from the start, he criticizes the notion of "regime change" and the presumption that America alone must police the world.
He rejects a new Cold War with Russia. He supports the nuclear-weapons agreement with Iran, and he would devote new energy to dismantling nuclear arsenals and pursuing nonproliferation. He has long been an advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba and for reviving a good-neighbor policy in the hemisphere.
Compare that to the New York Times' endorsement of Hillary Clinton. The newspaper did not ignore foreign affairs. It praised some of Clinton's work as secretary of state. But it spent just two sentences on issues pertaining to her war record:
Mrs. Clinton can be more hawkish on the use of military power than Mr. Obama, as shown by her current call for a no-fly zone in Syria and her earlier support for arming and training Syrian rebels. We are not convinced that a no-fly zone is the right approach in Syria, but we have no doubt that Mrs. Clinton would use American military power effectively and with infinitely more care and wisdom than any of the leading Republican contenders.
Neither Iraq nor Libya were even mentioned. And even though its endorsement was aimed at the Democratic race, the Times only averred that Clinton would be more careful and wise than "leading Republicans," but failed to draw a "care and wisdom" comparison with Sanders. It's hard to imagine a more conspicuous evasion of a hugely relevant contrast.
That evasion is all the more dubious given that a Clinton or Sanders administration would be severely constrained by Congress in its domestic-policy agenda yet comparatively free to act in the realm of foreign affairs.
Indeed, either president would frequently have the option to act without telling the public. And Clinton takes a broad view of executive power while showing disdain for transparency.
Nonetheless, the New York Times is hardly alone in writing as if this hugely consequential realm where presidents have extraordinary power isn't worth dwelling on.
The merest gesture toward it is often treated as sufficient.
Joan Walsh's endorsement of Hillary Clinton, for The Nation, spends more time analyzing an arguably condescending question the candidate got at a townhall meeting than her interventionist impulses. The lengthy piece's entire discussion of foreign policy:
"I'm supporting Clinton, joyfully and without apologies. That's not the same as without reservations; I continue to wonder whether she'll be more hawkish on foreign policy than is advised in these dangerous times. I'm concerned that she's too close to Wall Street; I really wish she hadn't given those six-figure talks to Goldman Sachs. But I genuinely believe she'll make the best president."
How can an endorser wonder whether the candidate they're supporting will initiate another dumb war, note that reservation, but say no more on the subject? Being unadvisedly hawkish in a dangerous geopolitical time doesn't sound like a minor flaw!
The answer, I think, is that all of Clinton's endorsers operate in a political culture where it is normal to underestimate the costs of bygone foreign-policy mistakes, to misperceive where presidents are likely to make their most consequential decisions, and to underweight the potential downsides of foreign-policy actions.
Consider that foreign-policy isn't even mentioned in some endorsements.
In Salon, Amanda Marcotte published her reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton. Neither foreign affairs nor national-security policy are mentioned once. She praises Sanders's domestic agenda, but argues that he will never be able to get it through Congress:
The problem is that Sanders is actually in this to win it now, and that is where I get off the train. Not that I think he'd be a failure as president -- the job is mostly about appointing judges and filling bureaucracies with the right people, all of which I'm sure he is capable of handling -- but because Clinton is just better equipped for it.
The presidency is an executive office. Clinton's more pragmatic approach to politics means she's more suited to that work, which is about executing the existing law in ways that best get you closer to liberal goals.
The job isn't about passing single-payer healthcare. It's about running the health and human services department. Sanders has failed to persuade me that he really, truly gets the difference, and so I can't, in good conscience, support nominating him over Clinton.
My other concern about the Sanders campaign is that its focus on impossible goals might backfire. Effecting change is not about making really big promises and posturing about how you're more socialist than thou. It's about organizing, lobbying, working with others and, yes, compromising. It's about running for and winning offices on the local and state level.
That analysis elides the fact that acting as commander-in-chief is a rather large part of being president. And it casts Hillary Clinton as the "pragmatist" who is less likely to focus on impossible goals that might backfire -- this despite her bet that the US military could bring Iraq from regime change to democracy, the spectacular backfire of her Libya invasion, and her conviction that the US can pursue a political revolution in Syria and fight ISIS simultaneously, despite Russian opposition.
Shouldn't every Clinton endorser at least grapple with the plausibility of those goals and the likely consequences should her hawkishness backfire again?
Comparing their foreign-policy records, Sanders is the pragmatist, while Clinton is the only one who has repeatedly watched long-shot initiatives wreak havoc.
Of course, a neoconservative or a liberal interventionist might protest that I am wrong; that the senators who favored the Iraq War cast the right vote given what they knew; that the Libya intervention was necessary; that America should ignore Vladamir Putin and oust Bashar al-Assad while fighting ISIS; and that US drone strikes kill more terrorists than they create, not vice-versa.
Those Democrats should absolutely vote for Hillary Clinton.
What confounds me is an election cycle where even liberals and progressives who are disdainful of the Iraq War, hostile to the military-industrial complex, dubious of the drone war's efficacy and morality, ideologically committed to transparent government, and allergic to neoconservatism are championing Clinton.
If they did so on the grounds of electability, like Dana Milbank, I'd understand their logic. What vexes me are substantive endorsements by non-hawk Clinton supporters who proceed as if war just doesn't rank very high among substantive issues.
That's exactly backwards.
I disagree vehemently with a lot of Bernie Sanders's beliefs. I'd rather have seen Rand Paul elected president. Better yet, I'd love to reanimate Friedrich Hayek and stick him in the Oval Office (birth certificate be damned). But I'll vote for Sanders over Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush, because those men are much more likely to start a dumb war of choice that costs billions and needlessly kills tens of thousands.
With that in mind, I ask Clinton endorsers (like the Times, Drum, Walsh, and Marcotte): Am I assigning too much weight to foreign policy, or are you assigning too little?
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