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Hillary the hawk: Clinton’s vast international experience has taught her some wrong lessons

She believes in the self-serving and self-blinding notion of American exceptionalism.

Hillary Clinton speaking at a campaign event at Rutgers University's Newark campus in Newark, N.J., on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Adrees Latif

I have one big problem with the idea of Hillary Clinton as president and commander-in-chief.

She’s a hawk. She believes in the — to me — ridiculously self-serving and self-blinding notion of American exceptionalism. In domestic and historical terms that phrase means something else, but in foreign policy terms it means that the United States is justified in going to war, against nations that have not attacked us, and that the rest of the world should accept our doing so because we are an exception to the rules that otherwise govern international relations.

Today, according to this Washington Post piece, she will give a speech in California arguing that Donald Trump is unfit to be commander-in-chief. And unnamed aide told the Post of the speech: “Clinton will rebuke the fear, bigotry and misplaced defeatism that Trump has been selling to the American people. She will make the affirmative case for the exceptional role America has played and must continue to play in order to keep our country safe and our economy growing.”

We don’t want to get too involved in word choices from an unnamed spokester, although I question whether Trump can be accurately described as a defeatist. He seems to want to pick a fight with anyone who won’t give him what he wants at the price he wants it at. Clinton herself has called him an “unqualified loose cannon,” a far more defensible line of attack. My problems with Clinton’s hawkishness have nothing to do with a belief that Trump would be a better choice.

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Clinton has far more traditional qualifications, having served as a senator and secretary of state (and first lady, too, although that is not a traditional qualification). I’m sure she can mop up the floor with Trump on the history of the U.S. role in the world, the current alliance structures, the names of the leaders of our allies and adversaries and the background of the various crises. But Clinton’s experiences in these roles seem to have taught her some wrong lessons, at least according to someone like me who believes that the United States has gotten itself into far more wars than it needed to, many of which have done great harm to ourselves and millions of innocent victims of our “exceptionalism.”

Iraq War vote

She voted to authorize the Iraq War. That was a disastrous misadventure. (First, for Iraqis who have lived in a hell of permanent war now for 13 years, and yes, I know, Saddam Hussein was a despicable murderous tyrant; second, for the entire region around Iraq; and third, for the United States, which continues to spend blood and treasure with no end in sight.) It took Clinton until 2015 — a date suspiciously close to her current candidacy — to label the vote a “mistake.” She previously used other murkier words to express regret, mostly blaming President George W. Bush for starting the war she voted to authorize him to start. (It was called “Authorization for the Use of Military Force.”)

Her Senate floor speech announcing and explaining her vote (video of it here), was a disaster of murkiness. She spoke against a unilateral U.S. action without U.N. authorization but voted for exactly that. She expressed hope that such a Senate action might make it more likely that the U.N. would authorize the action, which she hoped would force Saddam to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq. But her “aye” vote on the resolution authorizing force did not attach any strings, and Bush started the war even though the U.N. had not authorized it and even though Saddam had allowed the inspectors back in and was giving them full cooperation and they could not find any weapons of mass destruction. When Bush warned the inspectors to leave Iraq because the U.S. bombing was about to begin, Clinton did not object then or for many months afterward.

It’s possible that when Clinton’s vote on the Iraq resolution comes up, you think to yourself: Well, everyone voted for it. But that’s a major exaggeration. This was no Gulf of Tonkin Resolution situation. The Tonkin resolution, which authorized the use of force in Vietnam, passed the House unanimously by 416-0. It passed the Senate by 88-2. In contrast, the Iraq War Resolution drew opposition from a majority of Democrats in the House who voted no by 126-82. In the Senate, all Republicans but one — Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island — voted to authorize the use of force. But the vote among Democrats was close, with  29 voting aye and 21 voting no. Both Minnesotans — Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton — voted no. When I look at the list of those who voted aye, I always notice that almost every Democrat who harbored presidential ambitions — including Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Biden — voted aye.

As I mentioned above, Clinton waited a decade before saying that her vote had been a mistake. In the meantime, she had been defeated for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 by Barack Obama, who had publicly opposed the war in Iraq before it started. (Trump, by the way, claims to have opposed it, but that is untrue.)

Secretary of state

Obama made Clinton his first-term secretary of state. He also developed a doctrine on the use of U.S. military power that he summarizes as: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” (There’s an uncensored version in which a different s-word replaces “stuff.”) Obama is not a pacifist (nor am I) but I have taken his slogan to mean that the United States should be reluctant and cautious about letting loose the dogs of war.

When asked about that recently, Clinton replied: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

As secretary of state, Clinton continued to advocate for hawkish positions, even in situations where she differed from Obama. New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler recently published a book-length review of the Obama-Clinton partnership during those years, titled “Alter Egos,” in which he makes clear that Clinton was the hawk of the two and even that her first reactions to world events were guided by what he called her “inner hawk,” compared to Obama whose reaction is generally to view military action as something closer to a last resort.

This makes me very nervous. Not so nervous that it makes Trump an acceptable alternative. But I believe that especially in the current era of no-compromise across party lines, where presidents have difficulty taking action that requires legislation, it’s more important than ever to try to understand what a potential president would do with his or her commander-in-chief powers.

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I’ll be interested to see what Clinton does with her speech differentiating her view of those powers with Trump’s.