So How Hawkish Is Hillary Clinton?

She’s not a neocon. She has a humility they lack. However, she could stand to show a little more humility toward Democratic primary voters.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Okay, everybody. Deep breath, back to equilibrium. Yes, Hillary Clinton talked some smack on Barack Obama to Jeff Goldberg in that interview. But beyond those three or four sentences—and when yanked out of their larger context, sentences like that always carry more shock value than they do in context—did she really say very much that set her dramatically apart from Barack Obama? How different, really, would a Clinton foreign policy be?

Despite Clinton’s very public efforts to make up with the president, the consensus verdict over these last three hyperventilating days is: dramatically different. Hillary’s a neocon! Robert Kagan, operatic Iraq war enthusiast, admires her. MoveOn, the grassroots liberal group, snarled at her like a tiger—specifically, one freshly on the prowl for a non-Clinton alternative for 2016: “Secretary Clinton…should think long and hard before embracing the same policies advocated by right-wing war hawks that got America into Iraq in the first place and helped set the stage for Iraq’s troubles today.”

Having read through the interview a few times now and talked to some folks about it, I’m less convinced that the differences—with two key exceptions—are that dramatic. But those exceptions are big ones, and they make me wonder not only about any future Clinton foreign policy priorities, but about her political judgment today.

The main, non-headline-making takeaway from the whole interview is that she wants a bigger American footprint in the world than Obama seems to. Okay, we’ve known that, but she spelled out what that means at some length. And she’s actually pretty nuanced about it. She does not mean, as people to her left reflexively seem to think she means, going bombs away. Money quote:

“I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.”

What did she just say there? No Iraqs. Good. But more aggressive pushing on Egyptian moderates to form political parties, get in the game, and not leave the competition to just military vs. Muslim Brotherhood (she had spoken at length on this earlier). And more follow-through in Libya. I don’t think those are positions that would have her marching in the shoot-’em-up parade next to John McCain. A bit later, Goldberg gently challenged her that the constituency in America for her middle-ground views between Obama and the neocons might not exist, and she acknowledged that by making a good point in her own defense: “…most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase ‘smart power.’ I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.”

Sentiments like these left me, and others, with the feeling that differences with Obama in a lot of cases would not be that great—more presence, more follow-through, more diplomatic pressure, but not war-mongering. Heather Hurlburt, who worked for President Clinton and is now at the New America Foundation, told me: “Clinton and her closest advisers are more rooted in a style of visible, public American leadership developed in the 1990s, before the catastrophes of the 2000s, to which Obama’s personal style is in many ways a reaction. But Clinton’s assessment of the world—that the United States wields great power, has great responsibilities, and best exercises both in close coordination with others—is not fundamentally different.”

Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress largely agreed, but he pointed to Clinton’s talk of smart power and her identification of “prosperity” as a central organizing principle as providing something of a contrast. “I don’t see much difference here in substance, but perhaps there is one of emphasis. Clinton talks about this more. Of course, President Obama continues to have this element in his foreign-policy outreach,” Katulis told me. “But Clinton seems to keep this concept closer to the core of her world view, which places less emphasis on limits than Obama does.”

There were two issues, though, in addition to the much-discussed Syria example, where Clinton’s comments were alarming. The first was her balls-to-the-wall defense of Benjamin Netanyahu. First of all, as Peter Beinart wrote for Ha’aretz, she left a lot of inconvenient facts out of her narrative. She sounded like she was reading from an AIPAC press release—particularly surprising, said Matthew Duss, the new president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, given the way the Netanyahu government has been trashing Clinton’s own successor, John Kerry. “To completely back Netanyahu both on substance—about having control of security in the West Bank—and to do so after several weeks in which the Netanyahu government has really gone out of its way to embarrass and humiliate your successor…that’s really troubling,” says Duss.

The other issue on which Clinton got pretty far out there was on Iran and the current nuclear negotiations. The position she took in the interview—no working centrifuges for Iran, or a very small number of “discrete, constantly inspected” centrifuges—sounds much harder-line than the Clinton of 2010, when she told the BBC that Iran should be “entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy.” So maybe she’s just being politically crafty here, but that’s not much of a defense. The potential long-term implication is that the Obama administration could negotiate a deal with Iran that would permit civilian centrifuges to operate, and then a President Clinton could come into office and derail the deal—a deal that she, as secretary of state, had helped forge! “Again, it’s troubling to see her weigh in on the side of U.S. hardliners,” says Duss.

Those hardliners don’t all feel like Kagan. I emailed with Elliott Abrams about this yesterday, and he thinks that Clinton “has moved all over the place,” from “totally pro-Israel” as a New York senator to not so much as secretary of state, and now apparently back again. “And as Gates’s book reminds us, her views on the Iraq surge were apparently politically motivated rather than sincere,” Abrams continued. “Her track record is hard to decipher, and most of what she billed as major speeches are just laundry lists of problems we face. There’s no sense of priorities or strategy.”

I don’t think she’s a neocon hawk. I think she’s what we might call a muscular internationalist. And yes, there are differences. The main one is about American hegemony: It is the neocons’ core belief that America is and must remain the world’s sole superpower and can do whatever it needs to do, unilaterally or otherwise, to maintain that status. Obama is a cautious internationalist, and on the whole I see Clinton as closer to Obama than to McCain. Yes, she agreed with McCain on Syria, but arming the Free Syrian Army is essentially a muscular-internationalist position for which the neocons are having to settle. And unlike McCain, who preens his way around Washington saying that that ISIS’s strength is entirely Obama’s fault, at least Clinton says, “I don’t think we can claim to know” what would’ve happened had the FSA been armed two years ago. That’s a humility the neocons lack. It’s a crucial distinction, and it’s a pretty damn important quality in a president.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

However, the interview suggests she may lack another kind of humility—toward the Democratic primary voter. Yes, she’s probably invincible. There appears to be (emphasis added) no one out there who is like Obama was in 2008—someone, that is, who could knock her off. And if her hawkishness is the left’s concern, then Elizabeth Warren isn’t the answer, since foreign policy isn’t her portfolio. So it’s hard to picture Clinton not getting the nomination.

Still, she should remember that it was in large part her hawkishness—her pro-Iraq war vote—that cost her the nomination in 2008. She should be aware that U.S. public opinion, and certainly Democratic primary-voter opinion, while not exactly pro-Palestinian, is not as enthusiastically pro-Israel as it once was. And she should keep in mind that the foreign-policy establishment of Washington, D.C., whose favor she’s clearly currying in sections of this interview, consists of only a few thousand voters. To the millions who’ll vote in Democratic primaries, she’ll need to be considerably clearer about those differences between her and the neocons.