Let’s talk policy. 2016 is a Presidential election year. So who should we vote for? What I thought I’d do is look at the campaign websites for all the major candidates, and see what they actually have to say on the major issues of the day. I don’t care much about personalities or who said what where or voting records. I care about policy.
I’ll grant you that the most important qualities in a President aren’t easily identified. When George W. Bush ran for President, he had no idea that his Presidency would be defined by a massive terrorist attack on our biggest city. Obama didn’t initially run in order to fix a major world-wide financial crisis. The policies this year’s candidates advocate now are also likely to be overtaken by events. But by looking at the policies they favor now, we do get a window into their thinking, their priorities and their approach.
I want to be open about my biases. I call myself ‘a playwright with wifi.’ I am a retired Theatre Professor, working now as a free-lance playwright, director, and critic. My PhD is in history, albeit the history of entertainment. I call myself a liberal Democrat, but I really see myself as a pragmatist. I also have a background in economics, not because I have any academic training in the field, but because I had to spend two years researching a play I once wrote about Keynes and Hayek. I read broadly and widely, and I try to apply a scholar’s rigor to the issues I consider. I also am more than willing to admit it when I’m wrong. So if I’m wrong, tell me.
So, I want to start by looking at Hillary Clinton, and the ‘national security’ section on her website:
“I believe the future holds far more opportunities than threats if we exercise creative and confident leadership that enables us to shape global events rather than be shaped by them.”
My guess is that this statement tested well. It’s got all kinds of feel-good language: ‘creative and confident,’ ‘opportunities,’ ‘shape events.’ But that last clause gives me pause. “Shape global events rather than be shaped by them.” This suggests an interventionist foreign policy. In our history, this hasn’t often worked out very well.
While Clinton was Secretary of State, the US intervened in Libya–supported one faction in a civil war–and the result is, today, a failed state. We tried to intervene in Syria–supported pro-Western Syrian militias–and that couldn’t not have worked out much worse. The Arab Spring looked like an opportunity to ‘shape events.’ But it’s difficult to see that we accomplished much. Egypt went from a military dictatorship to . . . another military dictatorship. Iraq is still a mess. ISIS controls much of eastern Iraq and northern Syria. We tried to reshape the Middle East, and we accomplished very little. (I’m not saying, BTW, that either John McCain or Mitt Romney would have done much better).
I suppose the US can claim some successes in Tunisia, where in 2008, we supported the secular and leftist Ennahda party. Tunisia held free elections in 2011, and for once, someone we liked won: Moncef Marzouki. That led to trade agreements with the European Union, and today, Tunisia’s economy is growing. But, really, Tunisia’s comparative success has a lot more to do with the Tunisian people than with US support. And, of course, Tunisia is badly threatened by the instability in its larger neighbor, Libya.
Clinton was there for the early negotiations in what would become the Iran nuclear deal. That deal is a clear win. It took years of patient, painstaking negotiation, but the result is a genuine deterrent to Iran’s nuclear program, and has led to better relations with the Iranian regime. It was successful, though, mostly because of the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, and his appointment of American-educated, pro-Western scholar Mohammed Zarif as Foreign Minister. There’s a misconception in the US about the nature of Iran’s government. We tend to think the mullahs run everything. In fact, they mostly have veto power, which, in regards to the Iran nuclear deal, they have not exercised.
As these examples show, I think, American foreign policy has to be, at least to some extent, reactive. Every nation on earth conducts foreign policy according to its government’s perception of national interest. We were able to make a good deal with Iran because Iran’s leadership believed that a nuclear deal was in Iran’s best interests. That deal would not have been possible with the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
(This is the point Mr. Trump seems to have difficulty grasping. Mexico won’t build a wall because we insist on it. They’ll only do so if the Mexican government concludes that building one is in Mexico’s best interests. Which it isn’t. So they won’t. Granted, Donald Trump is not a serious person running a serious campaign. He’s a buffoon. But the basic principle is worth remembering. We can’t make other governments do anything they don’t think is good for their people.)
Let’s look at the other main points on Clinton’s website. She wants to “establish a strong foundation.” By that, she means that domestic policies affect foreign policies; fair point. But in that section, she also says she stands for free trade. That’s a big positive; international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are immensely beneficial.
“Keeping our homeland secure.” In other words, she’ll continue the ‘war on terror,’ and she’ll continue Obama’s drone attacks on terrorist targets. She’s running for President, and can’t say anything else, but this is actually pretty depressing. Drone attacks are terrific recruiting tools for ISIS and other terrorist groups. What we’re doing doesn’t work; let’s try something else. Something more creative, perhaps.
“Make sure our military is on the cutting edge.” Again, I understand that she’s running for office, but this is pretty depressing. We spend more on defense than the next eight countries combined. One proposal that I think is worth looking at is service consolidation. Why does the Navy train pilots; why do we have four different branches of Special Forces? It’s inefficient, and unnecessarily expensive.
“Following a vision for America that is centered on our core ideals.” That one’s a little interesting. She identifies gender equality and LGBT rights as ‘core ideals.’ I think that’s great, but it’s a little weird as a foundation for foreign policy. But I’m generally supportive, if we could see some specifics on how that would work. We are, after all, still allies with Saudi Arabia.
“Defeating ISIS.” That entire section’s a mess, because ISIS is a mess, a horrible intractable problem. She does say she won’t deploy ground forces: good. The difficulty is that ISIS is a Sunni group, and the most effective fighters on the ground right now tend to be Shi’a: the Iraqi army, the Iranians. Or Kurdish. What’s needed is a major military commitment from a Sunni power in the region. Who? Don’t hold your breath on much Saudi involvement. Right now, we’re bombing, and training the feckless Iraqi army. That’s pretty much what’s possible.
“Holding China accountable.” China is an ally, but an ally intent on pursuing its own national interests. You know, like every nation on earth does. And China’s economy is struggling right now. Obviously we need to continue to negotiate on major questions: climate change, intellectual property agreements, free trade, human rights. But what can we offer the Chinese in exchange? With their stock market tanking, there may be some opportunities there.
“Standing up to Putin.” Right now, Russia’s economy is in freefall, and they’re bogged down in Ukraine. While she was SecState, she was effective in negotiating reducing oil sales from Russia with our European allies; I imagine she’ll keep doing that. Russian instability is certainly something that we need to keep an eye on.
From there, Clinton’s website spends a lot of time talking about building alliances. That’s great. That’s what an effective foreign policy does.
Generally, Clinton’s foreign policy strikes me as pragmatic, mostly realistic, but distinctly uncreative. I don’t really see any new ideas on her website, and I think she’s likely to continue Obama’s policies, for good and for ill. Give her a C+. She gets a grade that high mostly because of her support for the TPP and for the Iran deal. As I continue this exercise, that’s also a much better grade than anyone else running will receive.