Hillary the Hawk?

February 3, 2014 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Region: United States

Hillary the Hawk?

The controversy over Hillary's supposed "hawkishness" reflects broader confusion on the left about foreign policy.


In a recent article in these pages, Zane Albayati lambastes Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the Iraq war, and for subsequently changing her mind as she sought to win the 2008 primary. While the author is certainly right to argue that "[i]t is important that the Iraq War and its origins continue to be debated," his portrayal of Clinton's foreign-policy views is nonetheless highly oversimplified. Albayati's essay reflects a widespread perception on the left that Clinton is hawkish, militaristic, and willing to play hardball politics to hide this from dovish liberals.

But this perception reflects a misreading not only of Clinton, but also of the place that Clinton occupies on the Democratic spectrum when it comes to foreign policy.


Albayati paints Clinton as an unabashed proponent of regime change, linking her enthusiasm for the Iraq war a decade ago with her more recent role in encouraging intervention in Libya. Any contrition about her Iraq vote that occurred in between, the author contends, was probably political calculation rather than a genuine change of heart, because "almost everyone in Washington knows that a politician, especially one as seasoned as Hillary Clinton, rarely undergoes a real change of heart." She must, Albayati and other liberals insist, be just as "unapologetically hawkish" now as she was in 2002.

Aside from the absurdity of the claim that a seasoned politician is never entitled to change his or her mind, there are two problems with Albayati's argument. The first is the poor evidence used to make sweeping generalizations about Clinton's supposed pro-regime change philosophy. Libya is the only example offered to support the thesis that Hillary has held these views since 2003. But given the differences between both the actual interventions in Iraq and Libya and, crucially, the decision-making leading up to each one, it's a stretch to argue that Hillary's stances together amount to evidence of unabashed hawkishness.

The reality is more complicated. As Jim Arkedis pointed out in 2011, to place Iraq and Libya in the same category is to blur a very meaningful distinction between neoconservatives and progressive internationalists. The latter group, in Arkedis' reading, believes that the exercise of American military power can be legitimate, but that it should be backed whenever possible by exhaustive diplomatic efforts, consultation with allies, and the legitimacy afforded by international institutions.

Hillary's role in encouraging intervention in Libya fits squarely into such an interpretation, as does her support for limited airstrikes on Syria and her role in crafting the Obama administration's Iran policy. Moreover, as Michael Crowley has chronicled, Clinton received her foreign-policy education during her husband's time in the White House, and was greatly influenced by such liberal internationalists as Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger. In the late 1990s, First Lady Clinton played a key role in convincing her husband to go forward with the Kosovo bombing campaign, which became a classic example of a liberal interventionist's 'good war.'

And Clinton's Iraq vote fits into this worldview as well. Although the ill-advised war is now considered synonymous with neoconservatism, it was hardly neoconservatives alone who enabled the march into Baghdad. Albayati himself points out that Hillary actually couched her defense in the language of "liberal internationalism." As Roger Cohen wrote in 2007, for the anti-Bush left, "anyone who supported the Iraq invasion, or sees merits to it despite the catastrophic Bush-Rumsfeld bungling, is a neocon."

But that was hardly the case at the time. It's important to acknowledge, regardless of one's own views on the Iraq war, that many did, in fact, make their 'yes' votes as liberals who were comfortable with the use of American power to promote both humanitarian aims and American interests, broadly conceived. And Clinton was joined in that 'yes' vote by Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, Harry Reid, Tom Harkin, Dianne Feinstein, and many others who are not today considered paragons of hawkishness or militarism.

This brings us to the second, larger issue with the Hillary-as-hawk meme: on Iraq, Libya and all the rest, Clinton has been far from outside the mainstream. Indeed, the left tends to miscast Clinton's foreign-policy views as being somehow out of step with a more dovish liberal consensus—a consensus that simply does not exist. The liberal internationalism described above is at the core of the worldviews of most Democrats, from Bill Clinton to John Kerry to Barack Obama. Obama was able to fashion himself as the anti-Hillary in 2008 thanks to the Iraq war. But since then, he has proven to be more than willing to use force under certain circumstances—just like Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State, who no doubt had a hand in shaping her boss' approach.

The uncomfortable reality for many on the antiwar left is that there is, in fact, a legitimate middle ground between hawk and dove. The backlash against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld obscured that middle ground in recent years: liberals were, justifiably, more focused on emphasizing their opposition to the neoconservative worldview than on articulating a worldview of their own.

Now, though, with the Bush years in the rearview mirror, Democrats are finding that they need to explain what they stand for. And many are encountering a tension between the antiwar impulses of their base and the more centrist national security philosophy that they have espoused all along, one that allows for the use of force in a way that much of the public is no longer comfortable with.

This is what's at the core of the discomfort over Clinton's supposed hawkishness: anti-intervention liberals are skeptical of her precisely because they're skeptical of what is, for better or worse, the fairly mainstream school of foreign-policy thought in their party that she represents.

Many on the liberal left remains so disillusioned by Iraq that they have already disavowed Clinton for good: Esquire's Charles Pierce recently wrote of Clinton: "I still think a vote for that war still should be a deal-breaker in Democratic primaries."

That's a fair and principled stance for liberals to take. But if they do so, they must realize that they are effectively rejecting a worldview that is mainstream among Democrats. Iraq was a catastrophic blunder, but put into perspective, it fits in—for better or worse—with a relatively coherent worldview held by many liberals. If comfort with overseas intervention and the use of force is considered a point-blank disqualifier, liberals will find themselves with precious few options come 2016.

Usha Sahay is the Director of Digital Outreach at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Previously, she served as the organization’s Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter at:@ushasahay.

Image: Flickr/CODEPINK Women for Peace. CC BY-SA 2.0.