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and “reckless warmongering” of Republicans, she advocates “progress” and “fresh thinking” against the GOP’s supposedly “out-of-date” and “partisan ideas,” where “ideology trumps evidence” on international as well as domestic issues.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.
If you read through Clinton’s memoir from her time at State, Hard Choices, you discover a campaign document meticulously written so as to dodge what might be called hard choices. She appears to have written (or had somebody write) this book in an effort to be so uncontroversial as to numb all possible criticism heading into 2016. And it must be said that she succeeds in this narrow effort: the book is very dull. As always, Clinton hints she would be slightly tougher than Obama on national security. But at the same time, she offers no real alternative to any of his policies.
Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state therefore remains something of a puzzle. It’s well understood that Obama centralizes foreign policy decision-making tightly inside the White House, out of an exceptionally high sensitivity to domestic political considerations. Even the most flattering accounts, like Kim Ghattas’ The Secretary, admit that Hillary was not inside Obama’s inner foreign policy circle. She tried to carve out niche issues, but the Clinton campaign finds it surprisingly difficult to point to any major international policy legacies distinctly of her own making.
The only sensible conclusion is the one she has never really disputed: she believed in Obama’s foreign policy, was a part of it, loyal to it, helped implement it, and had no real objection to it.
So what is the legacy of the years Clinton spent at State, helping to direct and implement Obama’s foreign policy? Let’s look at some of the key issues:
- Russia. Clinton and Obama came in eager to “reset” relations with Putin’s Russia, on the premise that the problem prior to 2009 had been American policy. They tried to accommodate Russian security concerns across the board. As it turned out, Putin had other plans; he took the concessions and ran, culminating in his 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Amazingly, Obama’s Russia policy continues to be primarily concerned with not provoking Putin, so the United States does relatively little while a major European state is systematically dismantled. The Clinton-Obama reset was an exercise in futility, but no serious U.S. Russia strategy has taken its place, and Clinton hasn’t offered one.
- Iran. Obama and Clinton came in looking for diplomatic outreach with Tehran. U.S. congressional sanctions against Iran, often imposed over the objections of the Obama White House, helped to bring increased leverage. The White House then threw away that leverage in agreeing to a deal that neither fully dismantles Iran’s nuclear program, nor promises complete inspections, but offers sanctions relief by which a bitter and determined adversary of the United States may ramp up its regional aggressions. Hillary Clinton supports the deal, and accuses even its most thoughtful critics of warmongering.
- Libya. In 2011, Clinton argues for and Obama favors U.S. intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds. Republicans focus on the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks in 2012, but arguably an even greater scandal is America’s Libya policy itself. Having barely toppled Muammar Qaddafi, the Obama-Clinton team demonstrates a complete inability to secure any worthwhile U.S. objectives on the ground. Libya is now a failed state and a playground for organized crime, warlords, and jihadist militants, including ISIS.
- China. Clinton and Obama start off by trying to accommodate Chinese concerns in the hopes of cooperation across a range of global issues. China offers little such cooperation and instead asserts its maritime claims against numerous U.S. allies and partners in East Asia. To her credit, Clinton then backs a new U.S. “pivot” to Asia. But the pivot is under-resourced, including via cuts to the U.S. Navy, and regional allies wonder whether the United States under Obama is really serious and engaged. On one of the few major initiatives designed by Obama to give the pivot some teeth—a new trade agreement with America’s Asian partners—Hillary fudges, for fear of offending her left-liberal political base.
Hillary Clinton has spent several years now talking about the virtues of “smart power”—the rather obvious notion that America should coordinate its military, economic, and diplomatic resources when it acts abroad. The attitude projected is certainly smug. But looking at her actual record, and that of Obama’s, the exercise of American power overseas hasn’t really been all that smart.