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Excerpts from FP – The Hillary Clinton Doctrine
On Jan. 13, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave what turned out to be a remarkably prescient speech in Doha, Qatar. “The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” she warned. If you do not manage to “build a future that your young people will believe in,” she told the Arab heads of state in the audience, the status quo they had long defended would collapse. The very next day, Tunisia’s dictator was forced to flee the country. Almost two weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding that then-President Hosni Mubarak step down. Over the following week, Clinton and her colleagues in the Barack Obama administration engaged in an intense debate over how to respond to this astonishing turn of events. Should they side with the young people in the streets demanding an immediate end to the deadening hand of autocratic rule, or with the rulers whom Clinton had admonished, but who nevertheless represented a stable order underpinned by American power and diplomacy?
The young national security aides whom Obama depended on heavily for advice, including Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes, and Samantha Power, saw the Arab Spring as a supreme opportunity for a president who had often spoken about “the arc of history” to align himself with the forces of change.
Secretary Clinton thought they were naive. She told her deputy, James Steinberg, that she saw no reason to believe that the Tahrir crowd would or could govern Egypt in Mubarak’s absence. She was close to the Mubaraks, and especially to the president’s wife, Suzanne. And, most decisively, recalls Dennis Ross, then the National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, “Her feeling was that Mubarak has been a friend for 30 years, and if you walk away from your friends, every other ally in the region is going to doubt your word.” Even Ross, a hard-headed realist, thought Clinton was putting too much stock in her old friends. Mubarak, he told her, “is blind to what’s going on, and it’s going to get worse.”
On Jan. 28, at a national security meeting in the White House Situation Room, Clinton pushed back against those who urged Obama to put himself on the right side of history. Two days later, she went on NBC’s Meet the Press to make her case to the public, commending Mubarak as a source of regional stability and calling for an “orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy.”
The debate pitted hope against caution and young against old: then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden sided with Clinton. The president chose hope. On Feb. 1, he stated publicly that the “orderly transition” of which his secretary had spoken “must begin now.” Several days later, Egypt’s military deposed Mubarak, ushering in a brief era of euphoria in the Arab world — and in the White House.
This episode matters today, of course, because Hillary Clinton is seeking to become the first secretary of state since James Buchanan to ascend to the presidency. Several different narratives about her tenure have begun to cohere. Among Republicans prepared to say anything to discredit her, the most salient event from her time in office is the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which allegedly demonstrates that she was asleep at the switch, self-absorbed, indifferent to the welfare of her own diplomats, and so on. One investigation after another has shown that these claims are preposterous. The far more serious claim, advanced most recently by, of all people, Vice President Joe Biden, is that Clinton was an ”interventionist” — all too inclined to believe that “we just have to do something when bad people do bad things.”
A President Hillary Clinton would almost certainly be more confident about the utility of force than President Obama has been (or a President Biden would have been). She was the most enthusiastic of all of Obama’s senior civilian advisors about the counterinsurgency plan his generals proposed for Afghanistan in 2009; she helped persuade a very reluctant commander in chief to bomb Libya to prevent atrocities there. Clinton is a Cold War-era patriot who believes unambiguously that America is a force for good in the world. At the same time, it’s clear from conversations I had this summer with most of her senior staff members, as well as White House officials and outside advisors, that Clinton is a cautious figure who distrusts grandiose rhetorical formulations, is deeply grounded in the harsh realities of politics, and prefers small steps to large ones. Her belief in the use of American power has less to do with the humanitarian impulse to prevent injustice abroad than with the belief that only coercion works with refractory nations and leaders.
Is that good or bad? Perhaps that depends on how one thinks about how the Arab Spring turned out. Clinton is proud of her role — she tells the story in her memoirs at great length — because she thinks history has vindicated her judgments. Egypt quickly spun into a maelstrom of confusion and political incompetence, and has now emerged as a harsher dictatorship than it was in 2011. The hope that Obama offered, above all in his first year in office, often seemed untethered to the grim realities of the world, putting his rhetoric at odds with his actions. Clinton’s optimistic vision is less soaring, less idealistic, less transformative in its goals. Perhaps that will turn out to be well suited to our own diminished expectations of America’s ability to shape the world beyond its borders.
The politics of preconditions
On one of her first trips abroad, in April 2009, Clinton went to London with Obama for the meeting of the G20 group of nations. Obama was about to hold his first meeting with Hu Jintao, then China’s president, and he informed Clinton that he was going to tell Mr. Hu that he was prepared to visit China that fall for a state visit on the margins of the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Clinton suggested he withhold the offer. The president then turned to Jeffrey Bader, then his chief national security aide for Asia, who urged him to do just as he planned — which Obama then proceeded to do. Afterwards, Bader told me, Clinton pulled him aside — in order, he assumed, to instruct him never again to contradict her before the president. In fact, she said, “I just want to explain my thinking to you,” Bader says. “The essence of it was leverage to her mind. A presidential visit is a big deal, and you don’t give it away lightly.”
Bader had supported Obama during the campaign, and he subscribed to the collective view of the Obama camp that Clinton was petty and vindictive. He was startled to find, as many people are when they meet Clinton privately, that she was considerate and warm. He also realized that she thought about diplomacy largely in transactional terms. “She’s an immensely pragmatic person,” Bader says. “She is not an ideological person. She’s a deal-maker. Her attitude is: How can we get this done?”
Virtually everyone I spoke with who has worked closely with Clinton speaks of her this way. Philip Gordon, Clinton’s former assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia and later a national security advisor to Obama, says, “Obama is, instinctively, not liberal, but almost revolutionary. Clinton is instinctively more conservative.” He uses the example of America’s relationship with Russia. Clinton was always on the bleak side of the spectrum of opinion about what could be gained from the “reset,” though she was eager to explore the possibilities. The corollary of the reset was the need to reassure Eastern European allies and preserve NATO solidarity. Clinton, as Gordon puts it, “was quite happy to be the guardian of the corollary.”
The temperamental difference between the president and his secretary of state was foreshadowed in a famous exchange during a campaign debate in July 2007. They were asked whether as president they would be prepared to meet “without preconditions” with the leaders of rival states including Iran and North Korea. “I would” said Obama. Clinton said that she would not; the next day, she called Obama’s answer “irresponsible and frankly naive.” As I reported at the time, the Obama team found the exchange “orienting.” He was a different kind of Democrat, free from Cold War protocols and prepared to take the first step to break the paralytic grip of rivalry. Yet it turned out to be telling for Clinton as well. For her, there was nothing artificial about state rivalry, nothing that could be overcome by acts of mutual understanding. Rivalry was to be managed, not transcended.
And yet this presents an incomplete picture. Bruce Jentleson, a political scientist who worked as a senior advisor to the State Department’s Policy Planning director from 2009 to 2011, says that in Clinton, “you see elements of 20th century thinking and 21st century thinking.” Clinton sought to consistently redefine America’s national interest to include not just classic geopolitical calculations but the economic and institutional development of other states. She made the status of women a central concern of her tenure. She sought to transcend the simple-minded distinction between “hard” and “soft” power by adopting the term “smart power,” to describe a form of statecraft that combined development, diplomacy, public-private partnerships and, yes, military power. One of her signal initiatives was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, an effort to re-think the organization of the State Department in order to harmonize all of these elements. The exercise generated a great deal of noise and a few modest outcomes: State now has officials directly responsible for “cross-cutting” issues including energy, women’s rights, and information technology.
It’s an unusual combination. Clinton thinks about the relationship between states pretty much the way Henry Kissinger does. But she thinks about America’s global agenda pretty much the way Barack Obama does. This sounds like a contradiction, but could also be regarded as an adaptation to a world in which the United States faces both rival states, as it long has, and a new class of problems without borders.