January 27, 2013
The Clinton Doctrine of American Foreign Policy
by David Rohde@http://www.nytimes.com
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.
Beneath 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 more 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.”
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.