by ANDY GOTTLIEB
WASHINGTON — “We need a Commander in Chief who sees how all of these dynamics fit together – someone who sees the whole chessboard, as Hillary Clinton does.” So ends a letter by 10 former diplomats and national security officials criticizing Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy credentials. The common refrain throughout the campaign has been that international relations is Clinton’s strong suit. Yet, as Sanders has repeatedly pointed out, there is a crucial difference between knowledge and judgment.
The establishment approach that Clinton personifies is ripe for criticism. During her tenure in the Obama Administration, she continued longstanding U.S. support for “friendly” autocratic regimes, both morally reprehensible and a strategic self-inflicted wound. She persists in the thinking that by maintaining our network of Middle Eastern despots we protect ourselves from terrorists. Propping up dictatorships only makes America the enemy in the eyes of a suffering populace, spurring them toward extremism.
In the latest Democratic debate, Clinton said, “I was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better – better than anybody had run it in a long time.” Getting a compliment from Kissinger is nothing to brag about; it’s akin to being praised by the fox for managing the henhouse so efficiently. In 2014, Clinton also wrote a sickeningly glowing review of Kissinger’s latest book. Indeed, nothing screams establishment folly quite so much as fealty to the architect of Nixon and Ford’s authoritarian foreign policy. Such an attitude was, unfortunately, on full display here in December when Kissinger official biographer and alleged historian Niall Ferguson spoke at SAIS. Dean Vali Nasr asked exclusively softball questions (one was literally about baseball), allowing Ferguson to pontificate to his heart’s delight without being challenged on his unsupported claims, much as Clinton has largely gotten a free pass on her “expertise” in international affairs.
Clinton, in retelling her political career, likes to recall her “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. What she doesn’t like to bring up is how, in 2009, she stated that economic cooperation takes priority over human rights in Sino-American relations. To complete Clinton’s syllogism: women’s rights are human rights, but I don’t especially care about human rights. That Clinton doesn’t put her money where her mouth is shouldn’t have come as a surprise; after all, she and her husband vigorously supported delinking human rights and trade by normalizing trade relations with China in 2000.
Misrepresenting her actions yet again, Clinton claimed in the first debate that her much-vaunted “reset with Russia” was successful because Dmitry Medvedev was president then instead of Vladimir Putin, somehow absolving her of not foreseeing Russia’s revanchist pursuits. To anyone even casually following Russian politics, this was a blatant falsehood. It was abundantly clear from 2008 to 2012 that Putin was still the one pulling the strings, just as Ayatollah Khamenei didn’t become a shrinking violet as soon as Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran. Clinton only had to look as far as the 2008 war in Georgia, during Medvedev’s term, to realize that Putin is in control whether he is officially president or prime minister.
Sanders has been vocal in tying Clinton’s Wall Street donations to her lax record on financial regulation, to great effect. He would do well to espouse a parallel argument on foreign policy. Last year, the International Business Times studied government donations to the Clinton Foundation and found a strong correlation between monetary giving and increased U.S. arms sales to those nations during Clinton’s time as secretary of state. It doesn’t reflect well on Clinton either that the countries in question are serial human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
I have some qualms about Sanders’ foreign policy. His prescriptions are vague and lean a little too isolationist for my taste. I cringe every time he quotes the autocratic King Abdullah in the debates. I wince when he suggests that Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran should be part of a grand anti-IS coalition, when each of those countries has exacerbated the Syrian Civil War to suit their own selfish ends.
I’ll admit that my ideal candidate for the Democratic nomination would have been Russ Feingold. He combines Sanders’ bedrock progressive record with extensive international experience as an 18-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and nearly two years as Special Envoy to the African Great Lakes region. He has the moral wherewithal to stand up to unjust establishment consensus (most famously, being the lone Senate vote against the PATRIOT Act) and, unlike Sanders, Feingold has supported commonsense security measures like NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. Feingold could provide a meaningful and principled alternative to Clinton’s foreign policy.
Alas, I still trust Sanders more than I do Clinton. He voted against the Iraq War when she voted for it. Clinton took 12 years to admit she was wrong, and that’s simply too long for a maximum eight-year presidency. Sanders could grow into the job, but Clinton’s error-ridden path is predetermined.
Clinton’s experience is valuable in one sense: we know exactly how she handles herself on the world stage. I, for one, am not calling for an encore.