“Every Friday, just yards from a statue of Bill Clinton with arm aloft in a cheery wave, hundreds of young bearded men make a show of kneeling to pray on the sidewalk outside an impoverished mosque in a former furniture store.”
SANCTIONS HAVE been the favorite smart weapon of both Clintons. Iraq was the target country for Bill in the 1990s, as Iran would be for Hillary starting in 2009. The point of sanctions is to inflict pain, in response to which (it is hoped) the people will blame their government. The point is therefore also to create the conditions for regime change. Neither of the Clintons seems to have absorbed a central lesson of the Amnesty International Report on Cuba in 1975–76: that the “persistence of fear, real or imagined, of counterrevolutionary conspiracies” bore the primary responsibility for “the early [Cuban] excesses in the treatment of political prisoners”; and that “the removal of that fear has been largely responsible for the improvements in conditions.” Both Clintons have felt pressed to perform supererogatory works to show that liberals can be tough. For Mrs. Clinton, there is the additional need—from self-demand as much as external pressure—to prove that a female leader can be tougher than her male counterpart.
Landler’s account suggests that neither the Iran nuclear deal nor the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba would have been likely to occur in a Hillary Clinton presidency. When President Obama announced the thaw with Cuba in December 2014, he said that the United States “wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.” Clinton, by contrast, warned that the Cuban regime should not mistake the gesture for a relaxation of hostility; and on a visit to Miami in July 2015, she threw in a characteristic warning and proviso: “Engagement is not a gift to the Castros. It’s a threat to the Castros.” She thereby subverted the meaning of Obama’s policy while ostensibly supporting the measure itself.
“Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire” was the title and message of a New Republic essay by Robert Kagan, published in May 2014, about the time it became clear that President Obama would not be confronting Russia over its annexation of Crimea and would disappoint the neoconservative appetite for regime change in Syria. Writing in Hard Choices of the eastward expansion of NATO, Clinton concurred:
“In the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in early 2014, some have argued that NATO expansion either caused or exacerbated Russia’s aggression. I disagree with that argument, but the most convincing voices refuting it are those European leaders and people who express their gratitude for NATO membership.”
Those sentences are notable for a historical omission and a non sequitur. The NATO expansion that began under George H. W. Bush, was enhanced in the presidency of Bill Clinton and continued under George W. Bush and Obama, was not a widely appreciated moderate policy, as Mrs. Clinton implies. The policy was subject to skeptical challenge from the first, and one of its sharpest critics was George F. Kennan. (He described it, coincidentally, as “a tragic mistake.”) Leaving aside the abridgment of history, there is a disturbing logical jump in Clinton’s dismissal of the challenge regarding NATO. The gratitude expressed by newly admitted member states does nothing at all to “refute” the fact that Vladimir Putin, along with many Western diplomats, thought the post–Cold War expansion of a Cold War entity was a hostile policy directed provocatively against Russia in its own backyard.
It would do no harm to her persuasiveness if Clinton admitted a degree of truth in the case made by her opponents, whether on the Libya war, the advisability of repeating that experiment in Syria, or the innocent design of propagating democracy that drove the expansion of NATO. An incorrigible belief in the purity of one’s motives is among the most dangerous endowments a politician can possess. Her sentences about NATO could have been written by Tony Blair; and this explains why at least three neoconservatives—Eliot A. Cohen, Max Boot and Robert Kagan, in ascending order of enthusiasm—have indicated that a Clinton presidency would be agreeable to them. She is a reliable option for them. Her comparison of Putin to Hitler in March 2014 and her likening of Crimean Russians to Sudeten Germans were reminiscent, too, of the specter of Munich evoked by an earlier secretary of state, Dean Rusk, to defend the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965—the kind of tragic mistake that Hillary Clinton seems prepared to repeat for the most laudable of humanitarian reasons.
David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (Belknap Press, 2014).
Image: Hillary Clinton at AIPAC 2016. Flickr/Lorie Shaull.