The Duck of Minerva

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The First Democratic Debate: Clinton and Foreign Policy

October 14, 2015

My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.

In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced,  and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.

Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.

Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:

Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.

At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.

I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”

O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:

I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons.

First, here’s Clinton on the Libyan intervention:

CLINTON: Well, let’s remember what was going on. We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands, as I’m sure you remember, threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, “We want you to help us deal with Gadhafi.”

Our response, which I think was smart power at its best, is that the United States will not lead this. We will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line. We did not put one single American soldier on the ground in Libya. And I’ll say this for the Libyan people…

COOPER: But American citizens did lose their lives in Benghazi.

CLINTON: But let — I’ll get to that. But I think it’s important, since I understand Senator Webb’s very strong feelings about this, to explain where we were then and to point out that I think President Obama made the right decision at the time.

And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things, there was turmoil to be followed.

Connor Friesdorf points to the many problems with this answer, so I won’t repeat his comprehensive account here.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the officials who advocated for American-led intervention in Libya. As Gaddafi’s forces approached Benghazi, everyone expected a massacre. What good is American power, they must have thought, if it cannot engage in a targeted effort to prevent mass violence? How do you live with that kind of blood on your hands, especially for those laboring under a specific understanding of American failures in Bosnia and Rwanda?

The answer, I think, is that unless you’re planning to actually limit the campaign to protecting Benghazi—or willing to commit significant American resources to cleaning up the mess likely to follow from destroying a dictatorial state—you recognize that the results of intervention might very well prove disastrous.

Worse than that, Clinton’s answer was political in the worst way. It was thoroughly message tested (“American blood on his hands”; they “voted for moderates”). It avoided any admission of mistakes or reckoning with what Libya means for future American foreign-policy choices.

Second, here’s Clinton answer on Russia and the Rest:

Well, first of all, we got a lot of business done with the Russians when Medvedev was the president, and not Putin. We got a nuclear arms deal, we got the Iranian sanctions, we got an ability to bring important material and equipment to our soldiers in Afghanistan.

There’s no doubt that when Putin came back in and said he was going to be President, that did change the relationship. We have to stand up to his bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important — and I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict.

And, to — provide safe zones so that people are not going to have to be flooding out of Syria at the rate they are. And, I think it’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position, which is what I’m advocating.

I agree that the United States got a lot of business done, and that it got that business done when Medvedev was President. But I’m largely unconvinced by the implied causal relationship. Certainly, those working in my circles never for a moment believed that Putin and his small circle weren’t in charge of Russian foreign policy when Medvedev was President and Putin Prime Minister. Medvedev likely proved an easier intermediary to deal with, but he was not calling the shots.

Indeed, I’m not sure what bothers me more: the way this answer sidesteps any important discussion of the successes and failures of the Reset, or the possibility that important officials at the State Department really believed that Medvedev represented a major difference from Putin when it came to foreign policy.

Now, I agree that things started to go south as Putin geared up to once again become President. But this had very little to do with a supposed political difference between Putin and Medvedev. Rather, the timing had much to do the regime’s domestic political repertoire.

Attacking the United States works well for the Kremlin as a campaign strategy. It allows the regime to portray itself as guardians of Russia’s honor against a foreign power that tried, in the narrative, to bring the country to its knees during the 1990s. It also provides a basis for cracking down on, harassing, and discrediting liberal opponents. The only real question at the time was whether or not business would ‘return to normal’ after Putin’s inevitable triumph at the polls.

And indeed, it took longer for the Reset to completely unravel. And the reason was straightforward. The Obama Administration adopted a transactional approach to building better relations with Moscow. This involved cooperation on “low-hanging fruit” with the hope of gradually upgrading to more difficult disputes. The Reset succeeded on a number of fronts, including Afghanistan and Iran. But it stalled out because, at heart, Washington and Moscow could not build from transactional cooperation to tackling deep disagreements. Moscow increasingly concluded that Washington was not going to budge on fundamental issue of international order. That is, Washington’s vision of how Russia should act as a great power and its underlying sympathy for “color revolutions” against Moscow clients and fellow autocratic regimes.

From a policy perspective, the Reset accomplished a great deal. Beyond actual cooperation with Russia, it also greatly strengthened the position of the United States with allies and partners. The simple act of trying to repair relations made it difficult to blame Washington for ongoing tensions between Russia and the West. For example, it helped convince NATO to make territorial ballistic-missile defense a core mission, and otherwise facilitated the European Phased Adapted Approach.

In other words, one can—and should—defend the Reset as prudent, and even somewhat successful, policy. But one really shouldn’t argue that it was good policy because of Medvedev. The Reset was simply not predicated on any kind of assumption that Medvedev represented a break from Putin. In fact, if it had been, that would have rendered the policy rather foolish.

What does this all mean? Probably not much.

Assuming that she wins the nomination, Clinton will face a more hawkish GOP nominee—one more predisposed to the use of force than she is. I doubt that the subtleties of the Reset policy will matter much in the 2016 campaign.

In sum, I certainly expect to enthusiastically support Clinton if she prevails. But I still found these answers troubling, and I hope that she makes a better case in the future.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.