Ghosts of Obama: Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy Problem

"Having failed for all practical purposes since 2009, the Obama-Clinton international approach is now officially out of date."

In a major speech a few days ago, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton laid out the likely parameters of her foreign policy argument for 2016. Decrying what she calls the “cowboy diplomacy” and “reckless warmongering” of Republicans, she advocates “progress” and “fresh thinking” against the GOP’s supposedly “out-of-date” and “partisan ideas,” where “ideology trumps evidence” on international as well as domestic issues.

Clinton’s most fervent supporters claim with great confidence that foreign policy will strongly favor Hillary against any conceivable Republican in November 2016. But they may be whistling past the graveyard. The reason can be summed up in two words: retrospective voting.

Retrospective voting refers to the fact that in presidential elections, American voters cast a judgment on the domestic and international policy record of the past four years, whether or not the incumbent president is on the ballot. Depending upon the popularity of an outgoing president, this can either help or hurt the nominee from the same party. So, for example, retrospective voting helped George H.W. Bush following Ronald Reagan in 1988; hurt John McCain following George W. Bush in 2008; and was more or less a wash for Al Gore following Bill Clinton in 2000. Of course, retrospective voting is hardly the only factor determining presidential elections. But it is powerful, and very real.

Barack Obama, to put it mildly, is no Ronald Reagan. In fact the current president’s popularity is not even comparable to Bill Clinton’s. And on foreign policy in particular, Obama’s approval ratings have been on average 38 percent or 39 percent for the past two years—which is where they stand today. To put this into perspective, that’s about the same foreign policy approval rating George W. Bush had at this point in his presidency. Of course, both Hillary Clinton and Obama would love to change the subject back again to George W. Bush next year. The only problem is we’ve had this other president, Obama, for several years now, and voters will probably want to reflect on how he’s done. For Hillary, this is a negative.

Ideology trumps evidence

Why do so many Americans disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy these days? Perhaps they increasingly see, to use a phrase of Hillary’s, that he has followed a foreign and national security policy where “ideology trumps evidence.”

Since first entering the White House, whatever the twists and turns, President Obama has pursued a foreign policy aimed at retrenching U.S. military power overseas, accommodating international rivals, and focusing on liberal domestic policy legacies. And while highly flexible tactically, Obama pursues his overarching goals with the absolute self-confidence of a true ideologue.

In the president’s case, this ideology happens to be a very orthodox contemporary American liberalism, which in foreign as in domestic policy does not recognize itself as any ideology at all. This blithe lack of self-awareness encourages gaping holes in American foreign policy strategy, and international competitors have seized upon them. The weight of evidence from the past six years suggests that America’s most assertive rivals and adversaries abroad have taken advantage of U.S. disengagement across multiple regions to press forward their various claims, and that American diplomatic concessions have been pocketed by numerous authoritarian regimes without much of a benign shift in their intentions. Yet Obama is clearly uninterested in evidence that contradicts his incoming orthodox liberal assumptions. Under his detached stewardship, the U.S. foreign policy disconnection between words and actions, capabilities and commitments, rhetoric and reality only grows more severe. Plenty of Americans notice, and find the pattern disturbing.

If Hillary Clinton has any fundamental objection to the Obama foreign policy record or approach, she has yet to say so. And of course this would be rather awkward, since she was after all the secretary of state for the first four years of his presidency.

As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes point out in their book HRC, Clinton’s time at State was extremely useful in rehabilitating her political capital after a devastating loss to Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. In fact, she received press coverage from 2009 to 2013 that was often absurdly favorable, even from many Republicans. Being secretary certainly gave her new life politically, and positioned her well for 2016. But what distinctive foreign policy approach did she advocate?

To begin answering that question, try examining Clinton’s foreign policy speeches over the past decade. They are filled with the usual liberal platitudes about soft power, global governance— and those wicked Republicans. Reading though Clinton’s recitation of liberal shibboleths, you might think international amity was as easy as saying “multilateral institutions” three times: click your heels, and you’re back in Kansas.

But what if serious international adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and jihadist militants take advantage of American retrenchment and U.S. diplomatic concessions to fill the gap and assert themselves overseas? When the treasured liberal foreign policy solutions fail, as they demonstrably have under Obama, what is Plan B? Clinton has never offered any answer.