America was supposed to make big changes while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. Clinton would spearhead a reset in U.S.-Russia relations. She’d usher in an era of new, internet-enabled democratic activism. And rather than focus on protracted wars in the Middle East, the U.S. would pivot toward Asia.
None of that quite came to be. If there is a connective thread in Clinton’s tenure, it was an overestimation in the U.S. ability to shape events around the world and an underestimation of the unintended consequences of change.
In places like Egypt, rather than democracy, there is a return to an even more aggressive police state, where thousands of opponents are in jail, free speech no longer exists and Islamist jihadists are expanding their grip. Rather than improved relations with Russia, the U.S. is trying to dodge a proxy war with the former Soviet bloc in Syria. Through competing airstrikes, the U.S. is supporting opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Russia has helped prop up the regime. And in Asia, rather than a pivot, the U.S. has only kept one eye on a rapidly changing region. China has increasingly claimed its stake to the South China Sea, and in North Korea Kim Jong-un’s ballistic missile launches have rattled his U.S. allied partner in the south.
In other words: The job that was supposed to best prepare Clinton to be the next president could also be the albatross of her campaign, thanks to the chaotic world that emerged since she left the post in 2013.
Presidential campaigns aren’t known for their foreign policy nuance. But this one is looking to be particularly dense, even though one candidate led U.S diplomacy during one of the most complex periods of U.S. foreign policy. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the kind of quarter-turns that led to failed strategy; the Clinton campaign can’t afford to rehash them.
Take Trump’s acceptance speech on Thursday. He hit Clinton for allowing Egypt to be “turned over to the radical Muslim Brotherhood, forcing the military to retake control.”
It’s a legitimate target. The U.S. government’s handling of the Arab Spring—particularly in Egypt—during Clinton’s tenure was, in hindsight, a total mess. But the Brotherhood did not take over; it was democratically elected. And the military chose to step in and oust the president.
A year earlier, as iconic images of thousands of Egyptians filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square during a so-called “Twitter Revolution,” U.S. officials initially resisted supporting the uprising against Egypt’s strongman president, Hosni Mubarak. It was not until Mubarak’s fall seemed all but certain that the U.S. backed the military forces that took over. But for those protesting, it came too late. They felt that America’s support was wavering. And for Mubarak’s supporters, some of whom now are back in power in Egypt, it was a betrayal. That is, the U.S. gained few benefits from a seemingly bold move by Clinton’s State Department to walk away from a three-decade-long ally.
When the presidency of a democratically elected Islamist, Mohammed Morsi, appeared in peril, the Egyptian military ousted him. In the process, both sides were angry at the United States. Morsi supporters suspected the U.S. was behind the coup; the military resented the lack of U.S. support. And Egypt-U.S. relations have been frayed ever since, even as the U.S. has continued to provide military equipment and aid.
“The administration believed it was supporting democracy when it engaged elected Islamists after the Arab Spring but when those Islamists behaved like tyrants and governed Egypt into the ground, many Egyptian resented what they saw as U.S. support for Islamists,” Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Daily Beast.
In her 2014 book, Hard Choices, which was devoted to her time as Secretary of State, Clinton signaled that she was hesitant about Arab Spring, saying she was not convinced the military likely would do much better than Mubarak.
“There is little reason to believe that restored military rule will be any more sustainable than it was under Mubarak. To do so it will have to be more inclusive, more responsible for the needs of the people, and eventually, more democratic,” Clinton wrote.
She also described current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who announced Morsi’s ouster, as someone who “appears to be following the classic mold of Middle Eastern strongmen.”
In Libya, while Trump has focused on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a consulate in Benghazi, smarter critics point to a more important issue: Clinton’s calls for intervention in Libya a year earlier.
Obama administration insiders say Clinton’s failing in Libya was twofold and predated the attack in Benghazi. What began as a humanitarian mission to save the residents of Benghazi from a government assault during the 2011 uprising somehow evolved into regime change. Who made the decision? And why? Critics have yet to get a clear answer.
To make matters worse, once the regime change decision was made, there was a lack of planning for how Libya would look once its four-decade-long leader, Muammar Gaddafi, fell from power. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained to The Daily Beast, the post-Gaddafi plan did not exist. “We were playing it by ear,” Gates said.
Libya has devolved into a fractured state battling a burgeoning jihadist threat, where ISIS has set up a hub in the city of Sirte, Gadhafi’s former hometown.
Testifying on Capitol Hill in January 2013, Clinton conceded that events in Libya had unfolded in unexpected ways. But she said that the criticisms directed at her were too often about politics, not improving U.S. strategy.
“We are in a new reality. We are trying to make sense of changes that nobody had predicted but which we’re going to have to live with,” she said. “Let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s avoid turning everything into a political football.”
Beyond the Middle East, Clinton proposed a reset with Russia, hoping for better relations to reset relations, which had hit a nadir after Russia attacked Georgia in 2008. She even presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with an actual red button supposedly labeled “reset” in Russian. Lavrov would later say the Russian word that appeared actually translated as “overcharge.”
The reset didn’t go much better after that. Early on, Russia agreed to allow the U.S. military to fly over its airspace en route to Afghanistan and both sides agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenal. But since then, Russia has claimed Crimea, contributed to the ongoing unrest in Ukraine and rattled parts of NATO which is fearful that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks a geographical expansion through member states, like Poland. Most notably, on Sept. 30, 2015, Russia began launching strikes on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who the Obama administration once said had to go. With the help of Russian strikes, Assad resurrected his once moribund grip on power. In some cases, Russia has attacked U.S.-allied forces, including a strike last month in southern Syria.
In an October 2015 interview with PBS, Clinton refused to concede that she may have misread the Russians, telling the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff: “No, I don’t think so at all.”
In Asia, the Obama administration sought to signal that the United States would no longer be focused on the Middle East but rather would turn its attention to Asia. Clinton’s first trip as Secretary of State was to Asia and reportedly a quarter of her foreign travels after that were dedicated to the region.
But like the Russian reset, while there were initial successes, the pivot eventually faltered. During his confirmation hearing in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry was ambivalent about the pivot toward Asia, saying: “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up [in the Asia-Pacific] is critical yet.”
Perhaps most notably, candidate Clinton has distanced herself from the work Secretary Clinton did on behalf of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with the 12 Pacific Rim countries, including the U.S., that has since drawn the ire of critics who say it kills American jobs and doesn’t address currency manipulation. The agreement was a keystone in the pivot toward Asia; some see her new position as an example of flip-flopping on the agreement in a bid to win favor with organized labor.
“What I know about it, as of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it,” Clinton said during the same PBS interview.
With little specifics from the Trump campaign on how it would tackle the emergence of ISIS, an emboldened Russia and the rise of inspired terrorism, it will be hard for the Clinton campaign to deflect questions about her role in current world affairs. Clinton’s campaign did not respond to an email from The Daily Beast seeking additional comments about her tenure at the State Department.
So far, Trump has suggested a policy of appeasement toward Russia, a potentially reduced U.S. role for NATO and increased U.S. isolationism. But he has never explained how those changes would happen—or addressed the possible consequences of such changes.
“The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents is that our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect. This will all change in 2017,” Trump said at the Republican National Convention, in perhaps his most specific offering for the way ahead.
We’ll see if Clinton can do any better when the Democrats gather in Philadelphia next week.