I recently wrote that Hillary Clinton remains a committed hawk, and the regret that she exhibited during the course of the Democratic primary in 2008 over her affirmative vote for the Iraq War was driven only by political necessity in an effort to win the nomination over Barack Obama, as opposed to a genuine change of heart over what would become the signature vote of her entire senate career. That thesis prompted a response from Usha Sahay, which asserted I was “oversimplifying” what really defines Mrs. Clinton’s worldview, particularly because I linked her Iraq War vote with her subsequent advocacy of ridding the world of Qaddafi in Libya. As I noted in my earlier essay, the objectives in both cases, regime change chief among them, were essentially the same, even if the means by which to achieve those objectives were considerably different. As a senator, Hillary Clinton supported toppling Saddam Hussein. In her later position as Secretary of State, she supported toppling Muammar Qaddafi. She was also more hawkish than anyone in the Obama administration when it concerned intervention in Syria.
Sahay continues on to write about “the absurdity of the claim that a seasoned politician is never entitled to change his or her mind,” which is what she suggested I had originally argued. That, however, is not what I had put forth. It would be absurd to believe that a politician, or anyone for that matter, is not entitled to a change of mind on any given issue. What I argued is that rarely is a politician’s transformation genuine, and that those changes of heart seem only to occur in the silly season of American elections. With that being said, politicians behaving politically for electoral gain is one thing. Voting for a war where the consequences are hundreds of thousands of deaths, including 4,489 Americans, and then running away from that vote in order to win a presidential nomination contest is something else entirely. In Clinton’s case, her subsequent support for intervention in Libya only served as further confirmation that not only had she not reformed when it came to promoting a policy of regime change, a reformation she had assiduously stressed on the stump and in the primary debates of 2008, but in fact, she had become even more enthusiastic about it, clearly evident during her joyous reaction (captured on video) upon first learning of Qaddafi’s death.
Sahay also stresses the “legitimacy” afforded the Libyan intervention, which the use of force in Iraq, she implies, lacked, and which also renders Clinton’s support for Qaddafi’s ouster somehow more suitable than, and different from, her support for Saddam’s. The simple fact is that Clinton played her own part in granting the Iraqi intervention its necessary legitimacy by voting to give President Bush the authority to commence war when and how he saw fit. The military action in Libya, on the other hand, was not buttressed by such a congressional resolution. President Bush also expanded the language of Resolution 1441, along with sixteen other similar resolutions that were passed unanimously by the UN Security Council following the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, when he settled on the course of invading Iraq. Though the Bush administration was not able to obtain a final resolution that would have unequivocally green-lighted the removal of Saddam, the unanimous adoptions of the seventeen previous resolutions did grant it at least a semblance of international legitimacy, largely because it could then claim that, given the U.S.’s permanent status on the Security Council, it was merely fulfilling the obligations put forth in those resolutions. It could also claim that Saddam’s perennial non-compliance over more than a decade constituted an exhaustion of diplomacy that necessitated the use of force. Hillary Clinton made much the same argument in her Senate speech, further legitimating military action in Iraq. In addition, Clinton helped kill the Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act of 2002, also known as the Levin amendment, introduced by Senator Carl Levin during Senate deliberations over whether or not to approve the White House’s own war resolution. The amendment would have required UN Security Council approval, with a few caveats, before hostilities against Iraq could be commenced. Clinton, that consistent believer in coercive diplomacy, international law, and the legitimacy that multilateral institutions provide, as Sahay strives to remind us, nevertheless voted against the Levin amendment and with President Bush. No oversimplification here, either.
The Libya intervention, by contrast, was predicated on a single UN resolution in which two permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China, abstained from voting on, a move both quickly came to regret once it became evident that the publicly-defined mission of protecting innocent civilians was really just a pretext for NATO to do away with Qaddafi. Before a resolution was even being contemplated at the UN, Clinton, along with President Obama, was publicly demanding Qaddafi’s demise. And reminiscent of the Iraqi case, once the Libyan resolution was adopted, an international mandate had been liberally interpreted to accomplish the removal of a pariah regime. If legitimacy is the gold standard for intervention, and Clinton’s justification for promoting it, as Sahay argues, then the case would actually be weaker with respect to Libya when contrasted with Iraq, given the lack of seventeen unanimously-backed UN resolutions, congressional approval, and a long history of what could fairly easily be, albeit manipulatively, labeled an exhaustive diplomacy, not to mention Qaddafi's compliance with the international community’s non-proliferation demands and the recent rapprochement with the Libyan dictator, who had pledged to assist the West in its fight against al Qaeda.
As I was accused of producing “sweeping generalizations” about Clinton’s foreign policy philosophy, Sahay does much the same concerning the American electorate. She essentially argues that a person must be a card-carrying member of Code Pink, or some other rabid antiwar organization, to believe that the invasion of Iraq was utterly disastrous for the United States without first putting the war into some kind of liberal-internationalist context, and more generally, to believe that any proposed military action should initially be greeted with a healthy amount of skepticism. The despair over Iraq and the incredulity surrounding intervention, however, isn’t confined to just the pacifist Left. It transcends party identification and manifests itself across the political spectrum, as opinion polls have consistently shown.
Sahay goes on to write that Clinton’s foreign policy views are in the mainstream of the Democratic Party and occupy the political center, yet that certainly wasn't the case late last year when the Obama administration contemplated striking Syria, an action Clinton, in her dual roles as private citizen and presumptive Democratic nominee, rushed to the White House to earnestly endorse.
Sahay concludes by writing that “if comfort with overseas intervention and the use of force is a point-blank disqualifier, liberals will find themselves with precious few options come 2016.” This is where Sahay commits her most egregious error. “Comfort” with intervention and the application of American military power abroad is not a quality any potential president should possess. The president, regardless of his or her political affiliation or philosophy, owes it to America’s fighting forces, their families, and the American people at large never to commit our brave men and women or our national resources into a theater of combat unless there is a compelling national interest at stake, one that can be both meticulously defined and painstakingly justified, all other potential diplomatic remedies have been tirelessly spent, and the use of force represents the very last resort. That is the ultimate lesson of Iraq, a lesson that Clinton did not seem to learn during her tenure at the State Department. Sahay writes that Clinton’s foreign policy views were heavily influenced by the likes of Madeleine Albright. It was Albright who, when lobbying for a broad U.S. intervention in Bosnia, famously asked then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” If Hillary Clinton does happen to win the presidency in 2016, it would be a stretch to believe, given her record and Sahay’s own admission that a comfort for intervention is inherent in her worldview, that she wouldn’t one day ask her own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs the same question.
Zane Albayati is a writer based in Washington, D.C.
Image: Flickr/Brett Weinstein. CC BY-SA 2.0.