It has become conventional wisdom to label Bernie Sanders weak and Hillary Clinton strong on foreign policy. Yet, besides Ms. Clinton’s characteristically cautious tenure as secretary of state, in the foreign-policy arena she is mainly known for her 2002 vote for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. In the process of outlining the reasons Clinton supporters excuse that vote at Foreign Policy in Focus, Stephen Zunes provides crucial insights about what that vote revealed about Clinton.
It was widely assumed that Clinton either saw the writing on the wall and that resisting would only hurt her political future or, more proactively, that it would give a boost to her political fortunes (especially because it ostensibly showed that, as a woman, she could be tough enough for higher office). For her sake, let’s hope it was just that cynical because otherwise she was exhibiting some mighty poor judgment. Zunes:
To have believed that supporting the invasion would somehow be seen as a good thing would have meant that Clinton believed that the broad consensus of Middle East scholars who warned of a costly counterinsurgency war were wrong — and that the Bush administration’s insistence that U.S. occupation forces would be “treated as liberators” was credible.
After all, for the war to have been popular, there would have had to be few American casualties, and the administration’s claims about WMDs and Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda would have had to be vindicated. Moreover, some sort of stable pro-Western democracy would have emerged in Iraq, and the invasion would have contributed to greater stability and democracy in the region.
If Clinton believed any of those things were possible, she wasn’t paying attention. Among the scores of reputable Middle East scholars with whom I discussed the prospects of a U.S. invasion in the months leading up to the vote, none of them believed that any of these things would come to pass.
Then from what foreign-policy well of expertise did Clinton drink? In 2007, for the New Republic, Michael Crowley wrote:
It’s hard to get a handle on Clinton’s foreign policy. That’s partly because it’s hard even to get a handle on the identity of her foreign policy advisers. “Look, I don’t fucking know!” barks one former Clintonite when queried about whom Clinton relies on. “No one knows!” The topic breeds deep paranoia, as Hillary’s campaign has been known to rebuke those who speak publicly without explicit license. The result is a confounding omerta code: Whereas other politicians eagerly expound on their worldviews and policy deliberations, asking Democrats about Hillary’s foreign policy consultations sometimes feels like inquiring after Whitey Bulger in Irish South Boston.
… The flattering image presented by Hillary’s circle is of a policy mastermind who mainly calls in people with specific expertise when she needs to fill small gaps in her knowledge on particular regions or threats.
(Clinton is more transparent today. In April 2015 Politico reported that she named her foreign-policy team for her candidacy.)
Meanwhile, as, among others, Crowley wrote at the time:
What if the hawkish Hillary of 2002 wasn’t just motivated by political opportunism? What if she really believed in the war?
A willingness on her part to accept both the short-term benefits of supporting a popular president and the long-term consequences of having supported a war even more misbegotten than most would have been the kiss of death for her most progressive supporters. But, for her centrist supporters, especially those abiding by realpolitik, the alternative was equally frightening — that she failed to anticipate how the vote would come back to haunt her future political aspirations. In other words, as a politician, she was either unconscionable or incompetent.
Returning to Clinton’s foreign-policy experience, let’s remind ourselves that the word “experience” does not come equipped with a value judgment. Experience can be a springboard for learning and growth or interpreted as evidence that your worldview shouldn’t be tampered with. Meanwhile, a candidate such as Bernie Sanders, whose positions spring, for the most part, directly from his conscience and who conducts himself with integrity on the campaign trail, inspires trust that he can compensate for his lack of experience in foreign policy by demonstrating the same good judgment when seeking counsel on world affairs.