In her speech in San Diego last Thursday on Donald Trump’s “dangerously incoherent” foreign policy, Hillary Clinton struck a decisive body blow against her presumptive Republican rival, putting him on the defensive and reassuring Democrats who feared that Clinton might not have the mettle to take on Trump. Yet, while there is much to cheer in the crisp and cutting way that Clinton characterized Trump’s reckless behavior and policy preferences, liberals have good reason to be disquieted by the alternative that Clinton offered.
While presenting herself as the heir of Barack Obama, and generously praising the president’s decisiveness in ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Clinton also sent a clear message that she was in many ways closer to Obama’s hawkish neoconservative critics. The contrast between Obama and Clinton was underscored by the president’s own foreign policy speech delivered earlier that day, which took up many of the same themes, but in a strikingly different tone and tenor. The two speeches were clearly meant to be complementary, but there were enough significant differences to make clear that Clinton intends to be a much more hawkish president.
Obama and Clinton both took the same stance against Trump (he went unmentioned by Obama, but was clearly part of the subtext). Both argued against Trump’s pessimistic vision that the United States was in decline, and affirmed that America remained a great power and the essential pillar of the international order. But running through Obama’s speech was an awareness of the dangers of America over-extending itself, as well as an attempt to draw a simple lesson from the failed wars in Vietnam and Iraq: that the country must be prudent about using military force.
The themes of prudence and international co-operation, which were notably absent in Clinton’s speech, were sounded throughout Obama’s speech:
Of course, leading wisely also means resisting the temptation to intervene militarily every time there’s a problem or crisis in the world. History is littered with the ruins of empires and nations that overextended themselves, draining their power and influence. And so we have to chart a smarter path. As we saw in Vietnam and the Iraq War, oftentimes the greatest damage to American credibility comes when we overreach, when we don’t think through the consequences of all of our actions. And so we have to learn from our history. And that also means we’re doing right by our men and women in uniform...
And we lead not by dictating to other nations, but by working with them as partners; by treating other countries and their peoples with respect, not by lecturing them. This isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s in our self-interest. It makes countries more likely to work with us, and, ultimately, it makes us more secure.
Obama’s emphasis that the military is the solution of last resort includes an explicit defense of one policy where he and Hillary Clinton differed, in Syria. “My decision not to conduct strikes against Syria after it used chemical weapons was controversial among some in Washington,” Obama said. “But because we seized a diplomatic option, backed by our threat of force, nations came together and we accomplished far more than military strikes ever could have—all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons were successfully removed.” Clinton, of course, was a strong advocate of a larger military intervention in Syria.
Finally, Obama took pride in crafting openings to Cuba and Vietnam, exercises in diplomacy that Clinton didn’t mention, even though she could claim some credit for them as Obama’s secretary of state.
The main thrust of Obama’s speech was, in his own words, the advantages of using “diplomacy, not war.” Clinton’s speech took a very different tack. She effectively criticized Trump’s volatility, but juxtaposed it with her resolute toughness, not her diplomatic skills. When talking about other nations, her constant refrain was that she was strong enough to bend them to America’s will. There was none of Obama’s worry about the dangers of lecturing other countries.
Even when taking pride in the diplomatic success of the nuclear deal with Iran, Clinton framed it in military terms, assuring listeners she would use military force if the deal was violated: “Now we must enforce that deal vigorously. And as I’ve said many times before, our approach must be ‘distrust and verify.’ The world must understand that the United States will act decisively if necessary, including with military action, to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
At times, Clinton situated herself to the right of Donald Trump. Thus she criticized Trump for allegedly saying “he’ll stay neutral on Israel’s security.” In fact, what Trump had promised was to be an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians in peace talks, a position also taken by Bernie Sanders and well within the mainstream of American foreign policy. Clinton said Trump was too favorably inclined towards the leaders of Russia and China, in contrast to the way she had “gone toe-to-toe” with those countries.
Topping it all off was Clinton’s repeated references to the United States as an “exceptional” country. “I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country,” Clinton declared. She later added, “America’s network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional.”
The use of the word “exceptional” was clearly a dog whistle aimed at neoconservatives who have frequently criticized Obama for his alleged aversion to the idea of “American exceptionalism” and supposed indifference to America’s longterm decline. Appealing to neoconservatives is a smart political play for Clinton. Many of them are frankly scared of Trump’s foreign policy heresies, and receptive to voting for Clinton. Although small in number, neoconservatives could pull with them a larger body of Republicans who are alienated by Trumpism.
If the goal of Clinton’s speech was to win over the right, it clearly worked. She drew rave reviews from many conservative pundits. Noah Rothman, writing in National Review, hailed Clinton as “a defender of the legacy of Ronald Reagan.” In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin argued, “In sum, her purpose was to paint Trump as a menace to the country and herself as an experienced, sober leader. She succeeded entirely with the former, and to the surprise of many of her critics, made a strong argument for the latter. That should be of comfort to the millions of Republicans and independents who cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump.” These sentiments were widely echoed on the right.
But this should worry liberals who have supported Obama’s foreign policy or are to the left of the president. The Clinton of the San Diego speech hasn’t internalized any of the lessons of the Iraq War. She’s given every indication of being more likely, as president, to use large-scale military force than Obama. As the primary comes to a close, liberals are facing the grim realization that the only alternative to Trump’s frothy isolationism is Clinton’s liberal hawkishness, which has more in common with neoconservatism than the Obama doctrine of prudent restraint.