The Clinton Doctrine of American Foreign Policy

January 27, 2013

The Clinton Doctrine of American Foreign Policy

by David Rohde@

The partisan political theater, of course, was top-notch. Senator Rand Paul’s declaration that he would have fired Hillary Rodham Clinton; her angry rebuttal of Senator Ron Johnson’s insistence that the Obama administration misled the American people about the Benghazi attack; Senator John McCain’s continued outrage at the slapdash security the State Department provided its employees.

Hillary ClintonBeneath the posturing, though, ran larger questions: what strategy does the United States have to counter the militant groups running rampant across North and West Africa? And what kind of secretary of state has Mrs. Clinton been? In her last Congressional hearing in that position, Mrs. Clinton expressed exasperation with Washington’s political trench warfare.

“We’ve got to get our act together,” she said. Mrs. Clinton has been a very good but very cautious Secretary of State, many analysts say – one who, for the most part, kept her distance from Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine and other seemingly intractable conflicts.

One State Department official, while praising Mrs. Clinton’s tenure, nonetheless looked forward to the arrival of Senator John Kerry, her designated successor: “I came to admire Clinton as Secretary of State, her focus on women and innovation in particular,” the official told me. “But am really happy to have someone in the job who does not retain political ambitions.”

In a recent assessment of Clinton’s tenure, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution argued that she had enjoyed some success, including restoring the United States’ image abroad, but she made no historic breakthroughs, he said.

Mr. O’Hanlon argued that Mrs. Clinton’s famed work ethic paid off. She made few mistakes, no major gaffes and did not “needlessly antagonize” friends or enemies. O’Hanlon called Mrs. Clinton’s role in the administration’s “pivot to Asia” and tough stance toward China arguably “her greatest and most memorable contribution.”

The problem, as last week’s hearing showed, is that the Middle East and the threat of terrorism continue to dominate American foreign policy. Even as the United States becomes more energy independent, terrorist attacks like the kidnappings in a remote oil facility in Algeria will make headlines and influence markets. And barring a massive shift in American domestic politics, Israel’s security will continue to be viewed as a vital interest of the United States.

Mrs. Clinton, to her credit, made forty trips to Europe that helped produce crippling new sanctions on Iran. Last fall, she helped broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But she failed to personally engage in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

To be fair, the Obama White House may have limited her options. After promising moreObama and Hillary open debate than occurred under President George W. Bush, the Obama White House tightly controlled the formulation of American foreign policy. Critics have also accused Mr. Obama of being overly cautious in foreign affairs. With the exception of the Libya intervention and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Mr. Obama was “coolly calculating and reluctant to engage” in his first-term foreign policy, The Economist magazine recently argued.

Mr. Obama, of course, is trying to avoid the over-reach his predecessor displayed in Iraq. He also faces enormous fiscal pressures at home. But there is a risk that the pendulum is swinging too far toward a smug isolationism in Washington.

As Mrs. Clinton departs, worrying trends are emerging in the way America engages with the world. The new U.S. weapon of choice is the drone strike – a tactic that carries zero political risk at home but spreads anti-Americanism abroad.

Complex foreign policy problems that threaten American security are increasingly seen as “entanglements” best avoided. And there is a convenient view that there are no “good guys” in the power struggles now unfolding in the post-Arab-Spring Middle East.

The potential lesson of the bruising political battle over Benghazi is simple: Take few risks, turn embassies into bunkers and avoid political firestorms at home. In her testimony, Mrs. Clinton passionately argued against that approach.

Declaring Somalia and Colombia success stories, she said the United States could counter militancy in Africa and the Middle East by working with regional organizations and training local security forces. U.S. funding and training of an African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, Mrs. Clinton said, had slowly succeeded in driving back al-Shabaab and other Islamist forces. In Colombia, the government has driven back FARC rebels and narco-traffickers.

There have been setbacks and the efforts in both countries are imperfect. But local security forces trained and funded by the international community slowly gained ground in painstaking efforts over many years.

“What we have to do is recognize that we’re in for a long-term struggle here,” Mrs. Clinton said at the hearing. “And that means we’ve got to pay attention to places that historically we have not chosen to or had to.”

John Mccain

During their heated exchange, Mr. McCain criticized Mrs. Clinton and the Obama administration for not doing enough to train Libya’s security forces. Secretary Clinton replied that House Republicans had put a hold on the funding the administration requested to train Libyans.

“If this is a priority and we are serious about trying to help this government stand up security forces,” she said, “then we have to work together.”

Mrs. Clinton is right. And so is Mr. McCain. Congressional politicking hinders the State Department. And the State Department executed terribly in Benghazi. But Mrs. Clinton, who I have criticized in the past, won the day.

“We are in a new reality,” she said, referring to the change sweeping across the Middle East. “We are trying to makes sense of events that nobody had predicted but that we’re going to have to live with.”

Mrs. Clinton called for the United States to show “humility” abroad and stop making national security issues “political footballs” at home. She said a Cold War style bipartisan agreement should be reached to launch a long-term American effort to strengthen local security forces and promote democracy across Africa and the post-Arab-Spring Middle East.

“Let’s be smart and learn from what we’ve done in the past,” she said. “Put forth a policy that wouldn’t go lurching from administration to administration but would be a steady one.”

“We have more assets than anyone in the world,” Mrs. Clinton added, “but I think we’ve gotten a little bit off track in trying to figure out how best to utilize them.”

A “little bit off track” is a euphemism for partisanship endangering national security. If the U.S. doesn’t get its act together, expect more Benghazis.

13 thoughts on “The Clinton Doctrine of American Foreign Policy

  1. An excellent analysis. One thing that America has to do is allocate its budgets better. We spend so much money on the military, but not enough on diplomacy, foreign assistance, cultural diplomacy, educational and intellectual exchange, and so on. If the #1 threat to America is terrorism, then I don’t understand why we need to spend so much money on aircraft carriers, tanks, and so on. Our military budget today is bigger than it was during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. I don’t get it.
    Ambassador Malott,

    There is great rivalry for resources between the State Department and Department of Defense. A number of books have been written on this subject. Although diplomacy should take center stage at this time, America needs to prepare for war when diplomacy fails.–Din Merican

  2. The Benghazi incident should not diminish Secretary Clinton’s legacy and her contributions to the making of American foreign policy under Obama. She is a very hardworking, astute and widely traveled No. I American diplomat with friends in Asia, the 21st century center of political and economic influence.

    She was tough on China and handled US-China relations with finesse and will be a hard act to follow for her successor, John Kerry. She joins, in my view, the ranks of her distinguished predecessors like Marshall, Acheson, Dulles, and Kissinger in the pantheon of great Secretaries of State, and is well ahead of Albright and Condi Rice. She is now taking a well deserved rest to prepare for the next stage of her political career. Good luck, Secretary Clinton. Look forward to reading your memoirs. –Din Merican

  3. She visited 112 countries. One of the countries she missed dropping by is Malaysia. Wonder why ?

    Let me proffer an answer. The same can be said of Obama. Both do not wish exploited by Najib for domestic politics. Furthermore our record on human rights, human trafficking and democracy and treatment of civil society leaders and Opposition parliamentarian and the emergence of religio-neofascist groups (PERKASA led by Ibrahim Ali), PEKIDA and other UMNO sponsored groups) worry them. The US is closely monitoring developments leading to G-13. After that, Obama Administration will decide what to do.It will be John Kerry’s turn.–Din Merican

  4. Yup, i agree with Bean. H. Clinton is no great shakes as a SoS.
    Just circling the great Wall of China as an adjunct to the SoD spending on hardware. I think Mme Albright did a better job and C. Rice was hard done by a recalcitrant, bowlegged, gunslinger POTUS.

    Look at what’s happening in Mali recently? Interesting times – imagine camel loving Tauregs versus al-Qaeda? And i always thought these were only in Hollywood scriptwriters wildest fantasies!
    I happen to disagree with you and Bean on Secretary Clinton. US Policy on Asia initiated by her is a major achievement. She has been able to present a more positive image of the US to Asians. Alright was too busy quarrelling Boutros Boutros Ghali, UN Secretary-General and pre-occuppied with Europe. Condi Rice was a Bush neo-con and defender and apologist for regime change who played a second fiddle role in Foreign Policy which was dominated by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. I read the memoirs of both Albright and Rice. You should if you have yet to do so. The same applies to Bean.–Din Merican

  5. Foreign Policy and Economics are bed fellas; be it Republican or Democrats. Not too long ago we had a gunslinger regime which the world all over knew it was about oil economics that made unfounded evidence of WMD for preemptive strike against IRAQ. What happened later all knew. Who was the Sec of State then? Somehow, administrations under Democrat regime seems always to prepare for peace while the Republic seems to prefer war preparation. Looking back into Carter, Clinton and now Obama, they don’t seem anywhere near trigger happy. Reagan championed the Star War program, Bush Senior saw Kuwait at war with Iraq, Bush Junior was deeply engaged with few wars from Iraq to Agfan to Pakistan. …………and leaving Obama to do the cleaning up.

    The president had to depend on his top guns to advise. Whom did Bush Jr had for Sec State an Sec Defense compare to the Obama administration? The world watches as these positions get filled.

    ASEAN boiling water is still seeking direction as emerging economies of PRC and India power house find their new bearings while the US cuts in between. With India (through Vietnam), PRC and US confluence into this region, each ASEAN foreign policy will be reshaped. Among the 10 ASEAN, whom other than Cambodia is counted not for the US? Even Burmese are said to favor US though Myanmar is a staunch PRC supporter and recipient of PRC aids.

    Hilary for 2016 seems good. She may no have the choice to reject unless heath supersede popularity. But before that,, how the US foreign policy reshape ASEAN political economics balance, we can only watch a step a time.

  6. U.S. government may not be war weary but make no mistake the American people are. They don’t have the stomach for another protracted military engagement anywhere. This is the new normal.

  7. You should if you have yet to do so. The same applies to Bean.–Din Merican

    Sorry Dato. I am busy writing my new book, “The Political Kamasutra – a new twist”

  8. An interesting piece on US foreign policy under President Obama.

    It does not matter who comes and goes as Secretary of State, the purpose of the foreign policy is to maintain, preserve and defend the core national interests of the US at all times. Foreign policy of any state is essentially the extension of domestic politics.

    The President remains in charge and the State Secretary is only the errand- boy/girl. Barrack Obama is a strong personality who wishes to leave behind a legacy. Mired in economic malaise and with the problem of financial cliff hanging at home, Obama is likely to focus more on domestic politics. He will avoid entanglements in stupid wars that Bush started in Iraq and Afghanistan. History will not be kind to Washington after the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan that also stained Obama’s hands with blood.

    President Obama has not taken the lead in Libya and Syria. In Mali, the US is smart enough to let the French to do the dirty job. The French will soon discover that it does not pay intervening in the ongoing civil wars in the Maghreb.

    The Mali tragedy will likely torment and undermine Francois Hollande’s Presidency of France as it struggles with a weak economy and massive unemployment at home.

  9. Din :
    I suspect Malaysia is a Non Player @ global politics. Its just Najib + Govt of the Day dok syok sendiri.
    Malaysia pales in comparison to Indonesia ( almost a bulwark against rise of China + Millitant Political Islam ) ; Thailand ( an economic lifeline to Myanmar + key actor @ Indo China ) ; Phillipines ( USA proxy ) and Myanmar ( the South Western SeaBoard of China and the New Great Game ).
    In other words , Chi Merica can well do without dealing with Malaysia. We have little to offer the New SuperPowers _ othe than Great Food.

  10. Yup, Isa. Uranium too. About 200k of the population are slaves.
    But it’s not the gold. The French are dismayed with the USofA’s snail like response, when they went in with their expeditionary forces to back the Taureg and wallop the other Ragheads away from Timbuctoo. The whole of Sub-Saharan Sahel is in danger of becoming a ‘Sahelistan’. The Americans are paying lip-service and disregarding a proactive role in a highly troubled area which can and will impact them, even when they isolate themselves into Fortress America. All the Frenchies were asking for were logistical and political support.

    Meanwhile, the US military advisers are loafing around in Uganda and probably South Sudan looking for that homicidal maniac of a militia called the Lord’s Liberation Army led by Joseph Kony, which is but a small fut in geopolitical terms. More like a PR exercise.

    Their foreign policies seem piecemeal and confused at the moment. The mess in Congo is another case to point.

    No one wants them to be the worlds policeman, but they have the gravitas as the only extant global super-power to be able to enforce arbitration and mediation instead of letting the whole region slide into anarchy. Selective diplomacy based on selfish interest is like relegating responsibility to bully boys.

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