Less than a week out from the next Democratic debate—and less than a month from the Iowa caucuses—it’s time for all of us to acknowledge what is plainly true: A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for war.
Liberals shouldn’t kid themselves that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is very different from the Republican frontrunners on this score. Conservatives should stop pretending too, so they can get on with digging into areas where true policy differences between the Democrats and Republicans might actually mean something.
And the rest of us who are appalled at the incalculable human costs of a demonstrably failed, bipartisan, interventionist foreign policy that has accomplished next to nothing for all of the 21st century can get on with figuring out how to fight back against persistent war hysteria. Regardless of who gets elected in November, U.S. foreign policy will almost certainly not change very much from a status quo that stokes global instability while underwriting constitutionally unsound domestic surveillance. It will be heavily militarized and the Pentagon will get more money than it knows what to do with.
It’s not just that Hillary Clinton gets “high-profile foreign policy guidance” from the same firm that advises hawkish Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who last year supported increasing the Pentagon budget without cutting other government outlays. Nor is it that as first lady, Clinton “urged” her husband to bomb Serbia in 1999 and, as a senator from New York, she supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq without reservation and said during her failed 2008 presidential bid, “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.”
As secretary of state, she rarely missed an opportunity to back more and bigger interventions. “Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war,” wrote Michael Crowley in Time in 2014. “She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action.” That’s exactly the reason why Republican John “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” McCain joked to The New Republic that it would be a “tough choice” for him if the presidency came down to Clinton or the libertarian-leaning dove Rand Paul. “We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton herself joked to CBS News after the death of Muammar Gaddafi in the wake of bombing runs joined by the United States. Even after Libya was plunged into utter chaos and has become a “safe haven” for ISIS, Clinton still calls our intervention there “smart power at its best.” Which raises the question: What could dumb power possibly look like?
As a candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination, Clinton has softened her bellicose rhetoric ever so slightly as she tacks left to co-opt Bernie Sanders’s left-leaning, non-interventionist support (the former “senator from Wall Street” is doing the same on economic issues, repudiating trade deals and other pro-market policies she long supported). As Salon noted, she supported the Iran deal only after it became clear that congressional critics wouldn’t be able to stop it, but “she talked like somebody ready to start dropping bombs.” Indeed, she remains a hawk who “goes beyond President Obama in plans to defeat ISIS,” as The New York Times puts it. “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS,” she said in November when calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, more and bigger bombing runs, and most worryingly of all, more “special operations troops” in the Middle East to train local forces. Like Marco Rubio, who erroneously claims that Islamic jihad represents a “civilizational struggle” akin to the Cold War battle between communism and free enterprise, Clinton says that the United States “must lead the world to meet this threat.”
Among other things, that means leaving troops in Afghanistan after an already-delayed withdrawal because being the indispensable nation means never having to say you’re sorry. “We have invested a lot of blood and a lot of treasure in trying to help that country and we can’t afford for it to become an outpost of the Taliban and [ISIS] one more time, threatening us, threatening the larger world,” Clinton has said. Perhaps the second 14-year engagement will turn the tide.
Unsurprisingly, Secretary Clinton also pushed for keeping troops in Iraq as the elected government there insisted we leave. Clinton—and hawks in either party—never ask why a decade or more wasn’t enough to create “secure, stable, and self-reliant” situations. And what such failures say about the wisdom of the missions in the first place.
Ultimately, what Clinton shares with most of the Republican presidential candidates is a dangerous and unthinking conflation of foreign policy with military power and action. “Since the beginning of the Cold War, we built up a very substantial military,” Gordon Adams, a professor emeritus of international politics at American University and former Bill Clinton adviser on security and military budgets, told me recently in an interview. “To some degree ever since then, the instinct in American policy has been to say that the most useful tool to reach for to demonstrate American leadership, to demonstrate American commitment, to demonstrate American capacity, is our military capability.”
Part of that worldview simply reflects budgeting priorities. The Pentagon spends about $600 billion a year, while the State Department’s total budget of around $50 billion is less than what the Pentagon spends just on “Overseas Contingency Operations” or so-called war spending (despite our not being at war). It’s particularly ironic that a former secretary of state such as Hillary Clinton would be captivated by such a viewpoint. But it helps explain why diplomacy, commerce, and cultural considerations always take a backseat to saber-rattling and huffing and puffing among presidential candidates, including the former secretary of state, who is always quicker to talk about arming countries than expanding trade with them.
I don’t expect Clinton to be called out for her hawkishness by partisan Democrats, who are already trying to smooth her way to winning in November. And the Republicans are content to try to gin up votes by spending all of their time accusing Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and all Democrats as the bastard offspring of George McGovern and acting as if the problem with 21st century American foreign policy is that we haven’t invaded and occupied enough countries.
In the end, it will be up to candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul to force this conversation when they return to the Senate, and it will be up to libertarians and progressives pushing in from the edges to call attention to failures that everyone sees but few in power will acknowledge. That’s not the worst outcome in the world, but it’s shame the topic couldn’t get a good hearing during a presidential election season.