Election 2016

Hillary the Foreign Policy Hawk Returns

The 2016 Democratic frontrunner turns to the right.

Photo Credit: www.hillaryclinton.com

In a week where Bernie Sanders aligned himself with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on safety nets and economic justice, Hillary Clinton moved to the center-right.

At last Saturday’s Democratic debate, she defended her biggest Wall Street donors and six-figure speaking fee patrons. On Tuesday, her top aides trashed Sanders’ single-payer health plan. On Thursday she called for more aggressive military interventions in Syria—imposing a non-fly zone, more special operations troops and an intelligence surge. On Friday she proposed new middle-class tax cuts. Taken together, Hillary Clinton has recast herself as a domestic centrist and military hawk.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given the terrorist attacks in Paris, which boosted Donald Trump’s popularity in early GOP primary states—even though he declared that American Muslims might need to be tracked by the federal government. There also is the dismaying fact that nearly 50 House Democrats voted Thursday to freeze America’s minuscule Syrian war refugee program.

Astute observers say no one should be surprised, given Clinton’s prior skepticism of Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran, her “unbreakable bond” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and her reputation as the flustered hawk in Obama’s White House when secretary of state. But Clinton herself has made a great effort to say she is not the same person she was the last time she ran for president and that includes her belligerent stances criticizing Obama’s anti-Iraq sar record as “missing in action."

Americans who saw the first nationally televised 2016 Democratic candidate debate might remember that Hillary declared, “I don’t take a backseat to anyone when it comes to progressive experience and progressive commitment.” She spent the spring and summer taking positions that were to the left of Bill Clinton’s administration, such as criticizing his criminal justice policies that imposed mandatory sentences for many low-level crimes. Many people thought perhaps they should give her a second look, in fairness, as she has done many big things since 2008.

That suspension of disbelief crumbled this week. There is really no separating domestic and foreign policy agendas into two unrelated spheres that do not influence each other. Even Sanders said that in his long speech on Thursday at Georgetown University, when he explained what democratic socialism meant for him and what it would mean for America if he were elected president. Sanders said his priority would be reviving America from within, by boosting the economic security and dignity of average Americans, while not injecting the U.S. into wars where the fight is about “the soul of Islam."

“I am not running for president to pursue reckless adventures abroad, but to rebuild America’s strength at home,” he said. “I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will never send our sons and daughters to war under false pretense, or pretenses about dubious battles with no end in sight.”

Contrast that with Clinton’s proposal to seriously escalate U.S. military involvement by taking on ISIS and international terrorism. Parsing her speech at the New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton’s priorities seem to be the inverse of Sanders. She wants to assert U.S. dominance abroad, not just in Syria, but also with Russia, and then attend to domestic matters, not the other way around.   

Perhaps that’s what the Democratic frontrunner must do. She leads Sanders by 24 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.com’s most recent polling average. The leading GOP candidates—especially Trump—are taking extreme stances, such as saying some U.S. mosques might have to be closed or American Muslims should be tracked in a security state database.       

Even if Clinton simply is being pragmatic, it's still disappointing, at least to progressives, who note that many of Sanders’ proposals are backed by a majority of Americans. But what’s most distressing is that Clinton's latest campaign makeover suggests American politics will remain in its rut.

If elected president, Clinton's expanded war on ISIS and other enemies abroad would likely require an increase in military spending. How would a GOP-controlled House led by Paul Ryan respond? They likely would give the Pentagon whatever it wants and then try to freeze or cut all domestic discretionary spending—for education, social services, environment, science and the safety net. That’s essentially what Ryan has previously proposed as House Ways and Means Committee chairman.

In early 2008, Clinton stood on a stage in Waco, Texas, surrounded by more than a dozen retired generals to unveil her latest TV ad. It featured a red phone ringing in the middle of the night next to the president’s bed. “I understand completely when that phone rings at 3am,” she told the audience, including this reporter. “There isn’t any time to convene your advisors, to take a poll. You need a person to make decisions… We need a president ready to decide.”

The attack on Paris didn’t just change the tone of the 2016 race. It ushered in a new phase in the Democratic race. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the attacks revealed that Hillary Clinton is much the same person she's always been—a can-do but hawkish Democrat.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).