Will Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Match Her Campaign Rhetoric? Or Her Record?

A number of outspoken hawks have praised Hillary Clinton’s approach to foreign policy over the past few months, with at least one stepping up to raise funds for her campaign. This might be surprising if one assumes that hawks tend to support Republicans. It also doesn’t make sense if one believes Donald Trump’s contention that Clinton’s approach to the world is identical to Barack Obama’s, and that Obama is a naïve and foolish dove.

It is not surprising that hawks prefer Clinton over Trump, however, if you realize that Hillary Clinton supported every one of the last seven U.S. military interventions abroad, plus two others we ended up not fighting. Given this, it seems that the members of America’s interventionist class doubt that she would be as reluctant to initiate new wars, or expand the current ones, as her campaign rhetoric has suggested.

For much of her career, Hillary Clinton has been one of the most hawkish Democrats in Washington, and one of the more hawkish American politicians, period (my Cato colleague Caroline Dorminey helped compile an early report card here). Clinton has supported the use of the U.S. military for a range of issues, not simply or primarily to advance U.S. national interests, but also to defend the security of other countries and pursue humanitarian objectives.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote, “It’s impossible to know which national security crises she [Hillary] would be forced to confront, of course. But those who vote for her should know that she will approach such crises with a long track record of being generally supportive of initiating U.S. military interventions and expanding them.”

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton encouraged her husband to intervene in Bosnia in 1995–1996, and then again in Kosovo in 1999. Two years later, Senator Hillary Clinton voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) following the September 11th attacks, and then for the Iraq war AUMF in September 2002, a vote she now claims to regret. Notably, she also regrets voting against the Bush administration’s Iraq “surge” in January of 2007.

Perhaps chastened by the Iraq surge vote, Clinton as Secretary of State supported a similar troop increase in Afghanistan in 2009. She initially argued for 10,000 more boots on the ground than the President and Secretary of Defense were prepared to send, before eventually falling in line with Obama’s request. It seems that, if given a choice between more troops or fewer, more is better.

Clinton also pushed to send lethal arms to anti-Assad rebels in Syria, and later for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea that could have brought U.S. pilots into direct contact with Russian aircraft in contested airspace. And when it came to balancing against Russia directly, she supported the controversial expansion of NATO to include countries like Georgia and Ukraine, and also called for providing financial and military assistance to Ukraine in 2015.

Her support for Obama’s drone wars is by far the hardest to tally in this count because it covers interventions already mentioned (e.g, Iraq and Afghanistan), but also includes at least five other countries in which America is not officially at war; Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have all been subject to U.S. drone strikes at various times. The evidence during her time as Secretary of State suggests that she is strongly supportive of the use of drones, including sometimes over the objections of American diplomats.

All told, the United States is, and has been, involved in many military operations simultaneously, and Hillary Clinton has supported them, as well as the ones we didn’t undertake. No wonder the hawks like her.

Clinton comes by her instincts partly from the people she trusts on the topic. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was an influential voice during Bill Clinton’s second term, and she and Hillary Clinton appear to have developed an enduring relationship. More recently, Jack Keane, one of the architects of the Iraq surge, is, according to the New York Times’ Mark Landler, “perhaps the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues.”

Clinton and her very large circle of like-minded advisors worry that if America takes a step back from trying to solve every local dispute another country might take the reins. After 20 years of war, many thousands of U.S. servicemen and women killed, and trillions of dollars spent, many Americans hope that they will.

And yet, despite such firm public opposition to greater U.S. involvement abroad, Clinton seems loathe to let others take the lead. “We will be left behind,” she fretted, when it appeared that France and Britain might take action against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in March 2011. In the end, she prevailed on President Obama to take the lead, and later boasted with a laugh, “We came, we saw, he died.” Given the chaos that has ensued since Qaddafi’s overthrow, and the blame that has fallen so heavily on her shoulders, she might now wish that we had sat out that particular civil war.

More generally, it is possible that Clinton has had a genuine change of heart about the wisdom and necessity of frequent U.S. wars. Perhaps her stated opposition to sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS, for example – “that is off the table, as far as I’m concerned” she said on Monday – is driven by more than pure political calculation. Perhaps once she enters the office that she has aspired to occupy for so long, she will be true to the less-than-completely-hawkish stances that she has adopted during this campaign season.

I mostly worry, however, that once Hillary Clinton is freed from the obligation of actually having to campaign for the presidency, she will revert to the foreign policy approach that she has favored most of her public life, and surround herself with advisors equally enamored of the U.S. military’s supposedly magical powers for solving all manner of problems.