In March 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about 100 CODEPINK women dressed in pink slips weaved in and out of congressional offices demanding to meet with representatives. Those representatives who pledged to oppose going to war with Iraq were given hugs and pink badges of courage; those hell-bent on taking the United States to war were given pink slips emblazoned with the words “YOU’RE FIRED.”
When we got to Hillary Clinton’s office, we sat down and refused to leave until we got a meeting with the New York senator. Within an hour, Clinton appeared. “I like pink tulips around this time of the year; they kind of remind ya that there may be a spring,” she began, looking out at the rows of women in pink. “Well, you guys look like a big bunch of big tulips!”
It got even more awkward after that.
Defending the Iraq War
Having just returned from Iraq, I relayed that the weapons inspectors in Baghdad told us there was no danger of weapons of mass destruction and that the Iraqi women we met were terrified about the pending war and desperate to stop it. “I admire your willingness to speak out on behalf of the women and children of Iraq,” Clinton replied, “but there is a very easy way to prevent anyone from being put into harm’s way and that is for Saddam Hussein to disarm and I have absolutely no belief that he will.”
We thought the easiest way to prevent harming women, children and other living things in Iraq was to stop a war of aggression, a war over weapons of mass destruction that UN inspectors on the ground couldn’t find — which were, in fact, never found, because they didn’t exist. Clinton, however, was steadfast in her commitment to war: She said it was our responsibility to disarm Saddam Hussein, and even defended George W. Bush’s unilateralism, citing her husband’s go-it-alone intervention in Kosovo.
Disgusted, CODEPINK cofounder Jodie Evans tore off her pink slip and handed it to Clinton, saying that her support for Bush’s invasion would lead to the death of many innocent people. Making the bogus connection between the September 11, 2001, attacks and Saddam Hussein, Clinton stormed out, saying, “I am the senator from New York. I will never put my people’s security at risk.”
But that’s just what she did, by supporting the Iraq war and draining our nation of over a trillion dollars. That money could have been used for supporting women and children here at home. It could have been rerouted to the social programs that have been systematically defunded over the last few decades of Clinton’s own political career. Not to mention the war ultimately snuffed out the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers — for absolutely no just cause.
Intervening in Libya, Surging in Afghanistan
If Clinton supported the Iraq war because she thought it politically expedient, she came to regret her stance when the war turned sour and Senator Barack Obama surged forward as the candidate opposed to that war during the presidential race in 2008.
But Clinton didn’t learn the main lesson from Iraq — to seek non- violent ways to solve conflicts. Indeed, when the Arab Spring came to Libya in 2010, Clinton was the Obama administration’s most forceful advocate for toppling Muammar Gaddafi. She even out-hawked Robert Gates, the defense secretary first appointed by George W. Bush, who was less than enthusiastic about going to war. Gates was reluctant to get bogged down in another Arab country, insisting that vital U.S. interests were not at stake But Clinton nevertheless favored intervention.
When Libyan rebels carried out an extrajudicial execution of their country’s former dictator, Clinton’s response was sociopathic: “We came, we saw, he died,” she laughed. That sent a message that the United States would look the other way at crimes committed by allies against its official enemies.
In a weird bit of rough justice, the political grief Clinton has suffered over the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi that killed four Americans might never have occurred had Clinton not supported the U.S. intervention in Libya’s civil war. While Republicans have focused relentlessly on the terrible deaths of the U.S. diplomats, the larger disaster is the ensuing chaos that left Libya without a functioning government, overrun by feuding warlords and extremist militants. In 2015, the suffering of desperate refugees who flee civil unrest — many of whom drown in the Mediterranean Sea — is a direct consequence of that disastrous operation.
Libya was part of a pattern for Clinton.
On Afghanistan, she advocated a repeat of the surge in Iraq. When the top U.S. commander in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal, asked Obama for 40,000 more troops to fight the Taliban in mid-2009, several top officials — including Vice President Joe Biden — objected, insisting that the public had lost patience with a conflict that had already dragged on too long. But Clinton backed McChrystal and wound up favoring even more surge troops than Defense Secretary Gates did. Obama ultimately sent another 30,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan.
Clinton’s State Department also provided cover for the expansion of the not-so-covert drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen. Clinton’s top legal adviser, Harold Koh, exploited his pre-government reputation as an advocate for human rights to declare in a 2010 speech that the government had the right not only to detain people without any charges at Guantanamo Bay, but also to kill them with unmanned aerial vehicles anywhere in the world.
Escalation in Syria
When it came to Syria, Obama’s top diplomat was a forceful advocate for military intervention in that nation’s civil war.
When Obama threatened air strikes in 2013 to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, for example, Clinton publicly supported him, ignoring polls showing that more than 70 percent of Americans opposed military action. She described the planned U.S. attack on Syria as a “limited strike to uphold a crucial global norm,” although one of the clearest global norms under the UN Charter is that a country should not attack another country except in self-defense.
Clinton advocated arming Syrian rebels long before the Obama administration agreed to do so. In 2012, she allied with CIA Director David Petraeus to promote a U.S.-supplied-and-trained proxy army in Syria. As a U.S. Army general, Petraeus spent enormous amounts of money training Iraqi and Afghan soldiers with little success, but that did not deter him and Clinton from seeking a similar project in Syria. Together, they campaigned for more direct and aggressive U.S. support for the rebels, a plan supported by leading Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. But few in the White House agreed, arguing that it would be difficult to appropriately vet fighters and ensure that weapons didn’t fall into the hands of extremists.
Clinton was disappointed when Obama rejected the proposal, but a similar plan for the U.S. to “vet and train moderate rebels” at a starting cost of $500 million was later approved. Some of the trained rebels were quickly routed and captured; others, more concerned with toppling Assad than fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) defected to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. In September 2015, the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, told an incredulous Senate Armed Services Committee that the $500 million effort to train Syrian forces had resulted in a mere four or five fighters actively battling ISIS. Undeterred, Clinton said that as commander-in-chief, she would dramatically escalate the program.
In October 2015, Clinton broke with the Obama White House on Syria by calling for the creation of a no-fly zone “to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” she said in a TV interview on the campaign trail.
While the Obama White House has approved air strikes against ISIS, it has resisted creating a no-fly zone on the grounds that the effective enforcement to prevent Assad’s planes from flying would require large amounts of U.S. resources and could pull the military further into an unpredictable conflict.
Clinton’s position is at odds not only with President Obama, but also with the position of Bernie Sanders, her main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders has warned that a unilateral U.S. no-fly zone in Syria could “get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region,” potentially making a complex and dangerous situation in Syria even worse.
Clinton did come out in support of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, but even that position comes with a heavy load of bellicose baggage.
Back in April 2008, Clinton warned that the U.S. could “totally obliterate” Iran in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Israel — prompting Obama to warn against “language that’s reflective of George Bush.” In 2009, as secretary of state, she was adamant that the U.S. keep open the option of attacking Iran over never-proven allegations it was seeking the nuclear weapons that Israel already has. She opposed talk of a “containment” policy that would be an alternative to military action should negotiations with Tehran fail.
Even after the agreement was sealed, she struck a bullying tone: “I don’t believe Iran is our partner in this agreement,” Clinton insisted. “Iran is the subject of the agreement,” adding that she would not hesitate to take military action if Iran attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon. “We should expect that Iran will want to test the next president. They will want to see how far they can bend the rules,” she said in a September 2015 speech at the Brookings Institution. “That won’t work if I’m in the White House.”
To bolster her tough stance, Clinton suggested deploying additional U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf region and recommended that Congress close any gaps in the existing sanctions to punish Iran for any current or future instances of human rights abuses and support for terror.
It’s true that the Iran nuclear agreement allowed for additional possible sanctions unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program, but it also required parties to avoid action “inconsistent with the letter, spirit and intent” of the deal. Clinton’s call for new sanctions violates the deal’s intent.
Meanwhile, Clinton has positioned herself as more “pro-Israel” than President Obama.
She vows to bring the two nations closer together, promising to invite the right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the White House within her first month in office. She has distanced herself from Obama’s feud with Netanyahu over the prime minister’s efforts to derail the Iran nuclear deal and his comments opposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Referring to Obama’s policy toward Netanyahu, Clinton said that such “tough love” is counterproductive because it invites other countries to delegitimize Israel. Clinton promised the people of Israel that if she were president, “you’ll never have to question whether we’re with you. The United States will always be with you.”
Clinton has also voiced her opposition to the Palestinian-led nonviolent campaign against the Israeli government called BDS — standing for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. In a letter to her hardline pro-Israel mega donor Haim Saban, she said BDS seeks to punish Israel and asked Saban’s advice on “how leaders and communities across America can work together to counter BDS.”
As secretary of state, Clinton missed opportunity after opportunity to shine as the nation’s top diplomat.
In July 2010, she visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Standing at the site of the most militarized border in the world at a time of great tension between North and South Korea, she could have publicly recognized that the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting on the Korean peninsula was supposed to be followed up a few months later by a real peace treaty but never was. Clinton could have used this occasion to call for a peace treaty and a process of reconciliation between the two Koreas. Instead she characterized the decades-long U.S. military presence in Korea as a great success — a statement hard to reconcile with 60 years of continuous hostilities.
Clinton also failed miserably in her attempt to “reset” the U.S. relationship with Russia. Since leaving office, she has criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to contain Russia’s presence in Ukraine since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She put herself “in the category of people who wanted to do more in reaction to the annexation of Crimea,” insisting that the Russian government’s objective is “to stymie, to confront, to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.”
It was only after Clinton resigned as secretary of state and was replaced by John Kerry that the State Department moved away from being merely an appendage of the Pentagon to one that truly sought creative, diplomatic solutions to seemingly intractable conflicts. President Obama’s two signature foreign policy achievements — the Iran deal and the groundbreaking opening with Cuba — came after Clinton left. These historic wins serve to highlight Clinton’s miserable track record in the position.
When Clinton announced her second campaign for the presidency, she declared she was entering the race to be the champion for “everyday Americans.”
As a lawmaker and diplomat, however, Clinton has long championed military campaigns that have killed scores of “everyday” people abroad. As commander-in-chief, there’s no reason to believe she’d be any less a war hawk than she was as the senator who backed George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, or the secretary of state who encouraged Barack Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan.
Clinton may well have been the administration’s most vociferous advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues — Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid — she took a more aggressive line than Defense Secretary Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.
Little wonder that Clinton has won the support of many pundits who continually agitate for war. “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, told the New York Times. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” he said, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Let’s call it what it is: more of the interventionist policies that destroyed Iraq, destabilized Libya, showered Yemen with cluster bombs and drones, and legitimized repressive regimes from Israel to Honduras.
A Hillary Clinton presidency would symbolically break the glass ceiling for women in the United States, but it would be unlikely to break through the military-industrial complex that has been keeping our nation in a perpetual state of war — killing people around the world, plenty of them women and children.
This essay appears in False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, forthcoming June 14.