At a moment when the state of our world is in frightening disarray, three out of the four major presidential candidates have little or no interest in issues of foreign policy. As the primaries move east, where I live, I find this to be a stunning and sobering development.
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At precisely the time when American foreign policy challenges are greater than they have been in a generation, foreign affairs are a fringe issue for Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. Their minds are elsewhere. And that is why I am supporting Hillary Clinton. (Note to John Kasich fans: Sorry, he is not a major candidate.)
I am not saying that only Hillary is “pro-Israel.” All of the candidates can claim to be pro-Israel, more or less. But being pro-Israel has little meaning if it is not related to a broader view of the world. The question is: Does the candidate have a reasonable approach to shaping the international political system in a way that advances American values and interests? And as I see it, only Hillary Clinton has shown that she really cares about such things and has sensible policies to propose.
It is not a surprise that domestic concerns predominate at the moment. Americans have experienced 20 years of stagnant living standards. Like most Jewish Americans, I have strong views on America’s economy and on changing demographics and social values here at home. Still, I know that while foreign affairs and Israel are not the only issues, they are essential ones. And together with most Jews, I recognize that anyone lacking mastery in these areas should not receive Jewish support—and should not be president.
Let’s begin with Bernie Sanders, an admirable man with an important message on income equality. He is a single-issue candidate in the best sense of the term, rousing America’s conscience on a matter of fundamental injustice. But he has had little interest in national security, and foreign affairs are an afterthought in his campaign. And his pronouncements on Israel are mixed, at best. He is right to oppose settlements and support two states, but he seems to lack genuine sympathy for Israel and is obsessed with presenting a “balanced” accounting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His approach to Gaza is particularly disturbing. Yes, the Gazans are suffering and Israel’s government has made many mistakes, but there is no equivalence here. Hamas, a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction, bears primary responsibility for the violence—something that Sanders has failed to say. http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/1.687198
Donald Trump’s view of Israel and the world lacks both coherence and clarity. One searches in vain for a moral message, or any message at all, in his foreign policy rants. An American Firster by instinct, he is happy, apparently, to have the South Koreans, the Japanese, and the members of NATO fend for themselves. The only thing that he is absolutely sure of is that he, personally, can be the deal-maker on the international scene, bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians and all who will rely on his negotiating skills. There is nothing anti-Israel here, but neither is there anything to reassure supporters of Israel. It is impossible to see how the Jewish state will benefit from Trump’s America, which reduces its military commitments and disengages from its long-term allies.
And Ted Cruz’s foreign policy pronouncements are hardly better. Like Trump, he is a quasi-isolationist. Unlike Trump, he has made a stab at producing a policy, contained in a speech to the Heritage Foundation last December. But the speech is a hodgepodge, the purpose of which is to talk tough while avoiding any commitments of American resources or troops. Cruz begins with immigrant bashing, calls for a wall on our southern border, and cheerleads for second amendment rights. According to Cruz, these are the key elements needed for America’s defense. He then proceeds, in all seriousness, to praise the late Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and regret that Hillary Clinton was complicit in removing him rather than working with him to combat terrorists. For good measure, he adds a few words about how Bashar Assad can be an asset in the war on terror. When all is said and done, despite his strongly pro-Israel rhetoric, Cruz, like Trump, advocates for a new version of fortress America.
And what of Hillary Clinton? In her long public career, she has been a champion of what David Brooks calls “prudent globalism.” In short, she is everything that Sanders, Trump, and Cruz are not. A successful Secretary of State, she was both highly competent and right most of the time. She opposed the unilateralism of George W. Bush and shared Obama’s view that America should not jump quickly into direct intervention in military conflicts. Still, she was prepared to use American power and often played, in the words of Michael Hirsh, the “realist hawk” on the foreign policy team. She prodded President Obama into imposing severe sanctions on Iran and tentatively supported a CIA plan—ultimately vetoed by the president—to arm the Syrian rebels.
On Israel, she opposes settlements and supports a two-state solution, as did every president since Oslo. And if an Israeli Prime Minister does something foolish, she is not afraid to say so. But she is a pragmatic centrist on all things, including the Middle East, and has no illusions about the Palestinians. She also appreciates that only an Israel that trusts America will make compromises—and that means above all trusting the American president’s word and resolve. As president, she is committed to developing that trust.
Clinton’s enemies in the Democratic Party call her a dangerous hawk with “interventionist impulses,” but this is nonsense. Chastened by her errors on Iraq, Hillary is well aware of the limitations on a president’s freedom of action. At the same time, she accepts that interventions are sometimes necessary, dictated by American interests or humanitarian concerns. Given the immense complications of our foreign policy situation, she refrains from offering a single grand strategy, but she understands the world and believes in American leadership. And the fact that she has not been deterred by critics within her own party reflects the principled convictions that underlie her views.
Sanders, Trump, and Cruz have all been clear about where they stand on foreign policy. If any of them is elected, he will be able to claim a mandate for America to pull back from the world.
Hillary Clinton has been clear about her stand as well. If she is elected president, she will be cautious but resolute, supportive of our allies, and ready to use America’s wealth and diplomatic clout to advance American values and the cause of peace and freedom in the world.
If Russia were to collapse, or Assad were to fall, or Israel were to be attacked, I would want the steady hand of Hillary Clinton directing America’s response. That is why, with the primaries moving to my neighborhood, Hillary has my support.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.