Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with the media at the United Nations Office at Geneva following the June 30, 2012 meeting of the Action Group for Syria
Hillary Clinton is vying to become the seventh Secretary of State to ascend to the presidency in over 160 years and, rightfully so, her time as the nation’s top diplomat is being closely examined. Mrs. Clinton, as the lone candidate with foreign policy experience on either side of the aisle, is being held to a higher standard than her opponents on matters of international concern. Critics of her tenure as Secretary generally fall into two camps: those who say she has nothing to show for in terms of diplomatic achievements and those who accuse her of being too hawkish in her policy preferences. There is truth in the latter point, but to say Hillary Clinton does not have any achievements as Secretary or failed at each of her initiatives is to willfully misunderstand the craft of diplomacy and mistakenly recall her tenure.
To start, a common known fact about Mrs. Clinton’s time as Secretary is her record-breaking travel, surpassing that of all of her predecessors. While traveling in itself is not an accomplishment, this speaks to Mrs. Clinton’s philosophy of people-to-people diplomacy and the value of being present in order to maximize the effectiveness of diplomacy.
Mrs. Clinton’s first test of her people-focused philosophy came nine months into her term as Secretary. In October 2009, Mrs. Clinton attended a signing ceremony in Switzerland to show U.S. support for an agreement reached by Turkey and Armenia to restore diplomatic relations, open their borders, and create an international commission to research the Armenian genocide by Turkey. Eleventh hour disagreements over wording in statements nearly caused a breakdown in the signing, prompting the Secretary to jump in as an impromptu mediator to salvage the agreement (apparently appealing to her Turkish and Armenian counterparts face-to-face and working two cell phones at once).
In the latter half of 2012, Mrs. Clinton proved her mettle as a worthy diplomat and competent foreign policy practitioner by orchestrating a last-minute Gaza cease-fire, preventing an full-scale ground war from taking place after a bus bombing in Tel Aviv. Mrs. Clinton demonstrated her aptitude for shuttle diplomacy by traveling to Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt (all within a twenty-four-hour period), meeting with the respective leaders of each country to broker an agreement.
Mrs. Clinton’s belief in people-to-people and government-to-people diplomacy manifested itself alongside her travels with the intimate town halls she held in countries she visited, many of them in regions where U.S. credibility had sharply declined, such as in Pakistan, Kenya, and Iraq. Mrs. Clinton placed heavy emphasis on meeting with civil society members, students, women’s groups, and local leaders to promote democracy, a free press, human rights, and bridge ties with the U.S. The former Secretary’s tireless people-focused approach to foreign policy might well have contributed to the notable increase in global U.S. favorability, which suffered greatly during the George W. Bush Administration.
When the Gloves Come Off
Shortly after the world powers reached a historic nuclear accord with Iran in July 2015, Mrs. Clinton praised the deal and defended its imperfect nature by saying “Diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection — it is the balancing of risk.” However, in the same breath, she issued a stark warning to Iran, stating: “We should anticipate that Iran will test the next president. They’ll want to see how far they can bend the rules. That won’t work if I’m in the White House.” Mrs. Clinton went on to say she “would not hesitate to take military action” against Iran, noticeably blunter rhetoric than President Obama, who often says “all options are on the table.” Secretary Clinton can take credit for having put together a coalition of states to apply crippling sanctions on Iran, thought to be the defining action that finally brought Iran to the negotiating table. This was quite a feat given that she was able to bring even Russia and China on board.
The example of Iran illustrates Mrs. Clinton’s overall approach to foreign policy. When available, Mrs. Clinton will extend a hand, neatly covered by a velvet glove, to find common ground with America’s adversaries and allies. However, the moment it appears that this approach may not yield the desired results, the velvet glove comes off, revealing an iron-fist approach to securing the interests of the United States.
Mrs. Clinton holistically believes in applying force and economic pressure in order to coerce those who reject diplomacy to reconsider it as an option. This was apparent in the case with Iran, and also with Afghanistan in 2009 when President Obama deployed an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan amid a deteriorating security situation and a growing insurgent threat from the Taliban. General Stanley McChrystal, the chief military officer in Afghanistan, favored a much larger deployment of 40,000 troops. Secretary Clinton agreed with General McChrystal and lobbied the president on this viewpoint, believing that military pressure would ultimately bring the Taliban to the negotiating table (as it eventually did).
Afghanistan’s current situation tells a compelling story about Mrs. Clinton’s belief that American militarism and political capital can shape the country’s future, while President Obama remains cautious in his approach not to overcommit. His recent decision to keep a fighting force of 5,500 troops in Afghanistan through 2017, after repeatedly vowing to end America’s longest war, begs the question of whether he could have maintained stability in Afghanistan had he implemented the Secretary’s proposal for more troops.
In Syria, Mrs. Clinton also relied on her iron-fist approach by advocating for the arming of moderate Syrian rebels to combat Bashar al-Assad. The ultimate goal, as Secretary Clinton saw it, was not to oust Assad from power, but to convince him that negotiating an end to the Syrian Civil War would be his best option after suffering military losses against the rebellion.
It is abundantly clear that a “Hillary Clinton Doctrine” treats military force and economic coercion as positive instruments of reinforcement in setting diplomacy in motion, her preferred, but not only, tool in conducting foreign affairs.
2016 and Beyond
The 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be one where foreign policy takes a central role. With Martin O’Malley officially out of the picture, Mrs. Clinton’s main rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, will seek to contrast himself with the Secretary and argue that experience does not necessarily equate to sound judgement. Mrs. Clinton’s Iraq War vote and her role in leading U.S. forces in an allied military campaign to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya represent two big blemishes on her record. These critical decisions should not be overlooked and should be judged harshly for the damage they have caused.
However, the current debate about the candidates’ foreign policies cannot be confined to a single vote, as Senator Sanders hopes it will. The next president will encounter numerous challenges in the world that reach far beyond Iraq or Libya and will require a comprehensive understanding of historical grievances, world leaders, and the current diplomatic climate in the global community. For U.S. voters seeking a Commander-in-Chief with tested foreign policy credentials, Hillary Clinton more than fits the bill.
Larry Ornez Harris, Jr. is a second-year graduate student at American University’s School of International Affairs.
Image Attribution: “Secretary Clinton Speaks With Press Following Action Group for Syria Meeting” by United States Mission Geneva, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0