By Barbara Slavin
The Washington foreign policy establishment is salivating at the thought of a Hillary Clinton presidency, which promises to be more interventionist than Barack Obama’s administration and more open to elite views than a Donald Trump White House would be.
Think tanks are churning out papers on a variety of topics and pushing them under the noses of Clintonistas who are considered likely to land important positions assuming most polls are correct and Clinton beats Trump on November 8.
Many of the studies presume Clinton will be a hawk relative to Obama and carry out campaign promises to set up a safe zone in northern Syria for displaced Syrians, for example.
A recent paper from the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank closely associated with the Democratic Party, also advocates new outreach to traditional Middle East partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel and a tougher line against Iran.
But Clinton may have more freedom of maneuver than the armchair hawks assume.
Running against Trump instead of a neoconservative like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Clinton has only had to occupy a sensible middle ground that demonstrated her superior knowledge of world affairs. Indeed, neoconservatives such as Max Boot and Robert Kagan have endorsed Clinton and run in horror from Trump’s neo-isolationism, as have many mainstream Republican foreign policy experts who served in prior GOP administrations.
Trump’s criticism of Clinton for voting in favor of the Iraq war authorization fell flat after audio was produced of him supporting the Iraq invasion. Trump’s attack on Clinton for backing intervention in Libya might have had more traction if the New York real estate magnate had not already advocated for intervention in Libya, embraced Russian leader Vladimir Putin and expressed xenophobic and bigoted opinions about ethnic and racial minorities. Trump’s assertion that he knows “more than the generals” about the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has become a punch line in Clinton campaign speeches.
Clinton’s first priorities are likely to be domestic – immigration reform, increasing infrastructure spending and correcting considerable flaws in the Affordable Care Act – as well as nominating senior staff who need to be confirmed by the Senate.
Like previous administrations, a Clinton White House will likely also order up reviews of past foreign policies – especially on complex issues such as Syria — before implementing new ones.
Some actions that might have made sense not long ago may be overtaken by events by January 20, 2017, for example, if Russia, Syria and Iran succeed in flattening eastern Aleppo and crushing rebel forces there. Clinton will also likely want to consult with allies, especially fellow members of NATO, before undertaking steps that would directly impact their security as well as the interests of the United States.
In deference to her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who has advocated a new authorization for military force for the war against ISIS, Clinton may be reluctant to significantly increase the U.S. troop presence abroad without such legislation. This may be particularly the case if Mosul has been recaptured from ISIS by the time she takes office and the terrorist group is on the run in Syria.
Clinton’s policy toward Iran has also been the subject of much intellectual ferment in Washington.
The CAP study urges the next president to “proactively counter Iran’s negative influence” in the region and “conduct intensified diplomatic outreach with long-standing regional partners, with the goal of organizing a regional conference [excluding Iran] by early 2018 on a shared long-term vision for the Middle East.” It would more closely embrace the Saudis and other long-time Arab partners of the United States and seek to create an Arab intervention force based in Egypt to deal with regional crises.
In contrast, a new report for the Atlantic Council to which this analyst contributed, would advise the next president to be more open to opportunities to build on the landmark nuclear agreement achieved with Iran last year.
The report, authored by Ellen Laipson, a distinguished former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council and former president of the Stimson Center (yet another Washington think tank), says that the next administration “will be able to use the newly established connections to some of Iran’s key decision-makers to address areas of disagreement before they become disputes or deep misunderstandings.” Laipson also supports enhanced people-to-people ties on areas of shared concern such as the environment and public health.
In formulating policy toward Iran, Clinton must be mindful of the views of European allies whose agreement to impose sanctions on Iran – under pressure from then Secretary of State Clinton – were instrumental in the election of an Iranian government more willing and able to negotiate a nuclear accord.
Once the U.S. presidential elections are over, European banks and other businesses may conclude deals with Iran that have been in limbo while the U.S. election campaign has been in progress. Europeans – and the Russians and Chinese – will also likely oppose new sanctions on Iran absent some egregious violation of the nuclear agreement by Tehran.
As a former Secretary of State, Clinton appreciates the value of diplomacy and has promised to use force only as a last resort. Apart from the Washington foreign policy elite, she will be under little pressure to intervene militarily abroad from an American electorate weary of war after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.