Hillary Clinton is by far the best known commodity on either side of the U.S. presidential primaries, and that’s both her greatest asset and her biggest liability. She’s also a liberal interventionist of the old school — the only candidate in the field to have advanced the decapitation of a dictator — and that foreign policy philosophy means she stands alone in the field of candidates for the U.S. presidency, even though Republican presidents are its better-known latter-day flag-wavers.
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Clinton on the Democrat's ‘far right’
Indeed, liberal interventionism isn’t so popular on the left. When Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran and rising star in the party, recently resigned her leadership role in the Democrat National Committee (whose leadership must stay neutral in the primary) to endorse Bernie Sanders, that endorsement focused solely on foreign policy — rejecting Clinton’s platform. The only mention of the Middle East in the debate between Sanders and Clinton before Sanders’ surprise upset in the Michigan primary this week was Sanders slamming spending on the Iraq war, trillions he deemed could have gone to rebuilding infrastructure in places like Flint and to education in ‘collapsing’ public school systems like in Detroit.
Gabbard’s endorsement and resignation is the manifestation of a much-discussed dynamic in this election so far — that Hillary Clinton is far to the right of her party, especially the base, on foreign policy. Gabbard said that, “As a veteran of two Middle East deployments, I know firsthand the cost of war...We need a commander in chief who will not waste precious lives and money on interventionist wars of regime change.” She didn’t mention Clinton by name but alluded to her voting in favor of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and her interventionist leanings in Libya and Syria.
Of the five major candidates left in the race, only Clinton clings to the decades-old foreign policy dynamic that has pervaded Washington since WWII — classic liberal interventionism. Clinton’s worldview, bolstered by hundreds of foreign policy advisors, asserts that the United States must “lead” the world to maintain liberal values internationally.
Clinton’s globocop approach is more easily associated today with Republicans, since George H.W. Bush co-opted it from the Democrats in his "New World Order" speech before the first Iraq war. On September 11, 1991, speaking before the U.S. Congress, Bush said, “The cost of closing our eyes to aggression is beyond mankind's power to imagine. This we do know: Our cause is just; our cause is moral; our cause is right.” Speaking at the end of last year before the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton declared “that America must lead a worldwide fight” to defeat ISIS and “radical jihadism,” which “will require a sustained commitment in every pillar of American power.” Indeed, her language familiarly echoes that employed by Bush Jr. in his speech to Congress after 9/11 when he promised to “direct every resource at our command — every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war — to the destruction and to the defeat of the [Al-Qaida] global terror network.”
Trump, Cruz, Sanders don’t want to intervene
Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, running as establishment outsiders in the race, have shied away from declaring a “generational” struggle against radical Islam and have warned against any kind of repeated, prolonged intervention abroad, consistently attacking Clinton on the U.S.’ failures in Iraq and Libya. Their anti-interventionism also has an economic aspect: protectionism. All three have also come out strongly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which further commits the U.S. to open trade in the global market — a deal that Hillary helped broker. Sanders has repeatedly called for U.S. policy to focus more at home on the middle class and less on foreign intervention, going as far as saying the U.S. should not lead the fight against ISIS.
The only candidate in the race who is pushing for increasing the U.S.’ role abroad and further strengthening the American military is Marco Rubio. Rubio has embraced a strong neoconservative platform, advocating for regime change in Syria and supporting dissidents in countries like China and Russia, which he perceives as threats to American hegemony. But this neoconservative, hawkish rhetoric has resonated infinitely less than Donald Trump’s tough-talking, yet often isolationist rhetoric. A typical Trump comment that illustrates his position: He openly denounced the war in Iraq as “one of the worst decisions in the history of the country.”
It should be noted that Cruz and Trump’s aversion to U.S. troops on the ground overseas doesn’t equal a capitulation to ISIS, even though it’s not clear yet how they would act against Islamist terror without committing military forces to do so. Ted Cruz has repeatedly said he would bomb the Middle East back to the "stone age" and when laying out his plan to defeat ISIS before the Republican Jewish Coalition: "Our strategy should be very simple, we win, they lose." When asked by CNN about deploying troops on the ground, he retorted saying we already have boots on the ground, "the Kurds." Donald Trump’s tough talk on foreign policy has run the gamut from saying we should "take out terrorists" families’ to "doing worse than waterboarding" and letting Putin fight ISIS for the U.S. in Syria.
Sanders scratches the Iraq war scar
Clinton’s campaign has worked hard to wrap her in the cover of Obama policy, but on foreign policy it's been a tough sell. Clinton is more hawkish on foreign policy than President Obama. She is credited with being the deciding factor that tipped Obama towards joining the British and French intervention into Libya to oust Gaddafi and she is on record as having supported arming the Syrian rebels and increasing the U.S. military presence in the Syrian conflict. Clinton is on record as calling for the ouster of Assad, but by diplomatic means in order to stabilize the country, “There is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad’s rule.”
Luckily for her chances of attracting the soft edges of the Democratic left, Bernie Sanders, her only rival, has near zero foreign policy experience and his campaign has been largely based on domestic issues, and Clinton has barely faced off with him on foreign policy, which would have positioned her even more clearly on the right.
When Sanders and Clinton have debated on foreign policy, Sanders has managed to land some strong blows by slamming Clinton’s friendship with Henry Kissinger, a symbol of failed and bloody U.S. intervention abroad, and continuing to slam her judgment for voting for the Iraq war — the very issue that many credit with costing her the 2008 presidential nomination. Hillary has since distanced herself from that vote, saying “I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple.”
Who loves Israel more?
On Israel, Clinton’s positions are similar to that of a typical, let’s say pre-Trump era, Republican. As a U.S. Senator, Clinton supported the separation barrier between Israel and some Palestinian areas, “This is not against the Palestinian people. This is against the terrorists. The Palestinian people have to help to prevent terrorism. They have to change the attitudes about terrorism." Clinton, since leaving the State Department, has said in retrospect the Obama administration’s 2009 settlement freeze (imposed on Netanyahu with some strong-arm tactics) was a tactical mistake, saying peace negotiations cannot have preconditions. She often cites her strong advocacy for the two-state solution, but carefully frames the endgame of Palestinian statehood “in the long-term best interests of Israel, as well as the region.”
While Trump declares his love of Israel and cites being “Grand Marshall of the Israel Day Parade” in New York City as evidence, Hillary writes of her personal committment to Israel going back to 1981, where “Bill and I fell in love with Jerusalem as we walked the ancient streets of the Old City.”
Hillary diverges with the Republicans in the race in not explicitly declaring she will move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on day one (although she did make such a declaration in 1999 in her New York senate race) and her support for the Iran nuclear deal.
Hillary’s readiness to sit down with both the Israelis and Palestinians mirrors her husband's pro-active approach to the region, as does her closeness to Israeli leadership – something far different from Trump’s recent dust-up with Netanyahu over a potential visit and his desire to remain ‘neutral’ when negotiating. Given her propensity for intervention and willingness to use American military power for long-term engagements, Hillary’s approach to the Middle East will likely be far more pro-active and involved than that of her main rivals Sanders, Trump or Cruz – all of whom have warned repeatedly against the U.S. getting bogged down again in Middle Eastern strife.
Come November, if the choice on the Republican ticket is between the nativist, isolationist foreign policy ramblings of Donald Trump or the watered down version offered by Ted Cruz, many Republicans, especially more moderate Republicans who care about conserving the party’s classic approach to foreign policy in general and Israel in particular, may find themselves overcoming their initial distaste and beginning to feel less unease in Hillary’s foreign policy camp.
Alexander Griffing is the director of digital outreach at Haaretz English edition. He has a master's degree from Tel Aviv University in political science. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexGriffing