News & Politics

Of Course Clinton Has Foreign Policy Experience, But Her Experience Has Been a Total Disaster

Hillary's foreign policy experience is a series of bellicose missteps.

On Tuesday the Clinton campaign released a signed letter by 10 prominent diplomats and career national security wonks backing Clinton for president and calling Sanders' foreign policy expertise into question. The letter was both unsurprising and underwhelming. Unsurprising because it was signed by former Bill and Hillary Clinton appointees (half of whom have connections to weapons contractors and all of whom will be looking for work in January 2017). Underwhelming because she could only muster 10 signatories. There are certainly legitimate critiques of Sanders’ foreign policy experience, but as the Democratic primary race heats up with only days until the first primary, Clinton and her partisans are doubling down on the conventional wisdom she can pass the Commander-in-Chief test due to her foreign policy experience.

It's a consensus widely shared by registered Democrats, 72% of whom trust Clinton over Sanders on matters of foreign policy. There’s only one problem: this consensus is entirely without objective merit.

The entire notion of foreign policy experience is based more on vague impressions than reality. What matters above all, as Obama rightly insisted in 2008, is judgment, not experience. In the case of Clinton, there hasn’t been a major foreign policy decision in the Middle East she pushed for that didn’t end up being a disaster at home and in the countries involved.

The most commonly cited mistake was her support for the Iraq war, which is one of the main reasons she lost the nomination the first time around. But the choices she’s made after 2008 show she not only didn’t learn any lessons from that war, but has only grown more bellicose and hawkish. From advocating regime change in Libya to arming dubious opposition forces in Syria to undermining peace with Iran, Clinton has consistently been wrong on foreign policy.

Politics deals in impressions and approximates, and nowhere is this more clear than on matters of foreign policy, a topic where those who are wrong are more likely to rise to the top. William Kristol, Thomas Friedman and Dan Savage, all of whom were wrong about the Iraq war, are currently working in cushy pundit jobs while those in the media who sounded the alarm like Peter Arnett and Phil Donahue were relegated to obscurity.

Longtime Clinton ally Ann Marie Slaughter was asked on Bill Maher's show in October what achievements Clinton could point to as Secretary of State. Her answer? Clinton's championing for regime change in Libya, a foreign policy decision that has reduced Libya to a failed state run largely by ISIS and other jihadists. A point Sanders himself made, going after Clinton aggressively in the December debates over the matter. In fairness, Sanders did tacitly support the invasion, and the fact that one of Clinton’s most notable boosters can only point to the bombing and destruction of another country as evidence of foreign policy achievement says more about the toxic nature of the U.S. national security consensus than Clinton. But those insisting she has come up the ranks in some type of foreign policy development league and thus has some essential experience still have their work ahead of them.

One does not need to look as far back as Libya in 2011 to see Clinton embracing hawkish positions in the Middle East. As of this moment Clinton is calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, which would by definition, involve the US potentially shooting down not just Syrian planes but Russian planes as well. If this looks like regime change, that’s because it almost certainly is. According to one 2013 Defense Department estimate, a no-fly zone over Syria would entail bombing Syrian military infrastructure and would require over 70,000 servicemen—and this was before Russia entered the war last fall. The costs are almost certainly much higher now.

A no-fly zone is a vaguely liberal way of calling for the air invasion of another country. It’s a position, though embraced by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both Sanders and Obama have dismissed out of hand for being irresponsible and unrealistic. Even here Clinton attempts to weasel out of this neocon stance by insisting, as she did to ABC moderator Martha Raddatz in December’s democratic debate, that implementing a no-fly zone in Syria would not require shooting down Russian planes because Russia would “join us.” This is absurd. Why would Russia betray its ally of 44 years and become a US client state on a dime? It wouldn’t, which perhaps explains why Clinton dropped the no-fly zone rhetoric altogether in the subsequent debate on Sunday night.

Even longtime liberal hawk Jeffrey Goldberg was confused, tweeting, “Still trying to understand Hillary’s point re: no-fly zone shared with Russia, which supports Assad’s air force. Not getting it.” Once again, Clinton’s posture is built primarily around using presidential sounding terms like no-fly zone rather than bothering to make any sense. To make matters worse, her bellicose posturing on Syria could well be undermining efforts for peace. 

Clinton is also working, albeit more subtly, to undermine Obama’s position on Iran. The day the U.S. and Iran celebrated finally lifting sanctions that had crippled Iran for years, Clinton proposed more sanctions to appease neocons in Washington and look “tough” on Iran. And, again, what kind of message does this send the Iranians - whom Ms. Clinton says she’s proud to call “enemies” - while Obama is finally putting an end to the years-long row. Clinton does nominally support the Iran Deal (not doing so would certainly be too far) but she has taken many opportunities to level passive aggressive criticism of it all while proposing even more sanctions on Iran, a position even former Iranian political prisoner Shane Bauer called “totally irresponsible.” In 2008 Clinton mocked Obama for saying he would talk directly to Iran, a decision that allowed the nuclear inspections to ultimately, seven years later, to be put in place. Again, her judgement was wrong on a key foreign policy issue which, because she now supports the deal, means this is the case even by her own standards.

When asked at a campaign rally Tuesday if he thought Clinton had foreign policy experience, Sanders replied, “No one can deny that Secretary Clinton has a lot of foreign-policy experience. But experience does not necessarily equate to judgment. Dick Cheney had a hell of a lot of experience.”

It’s a harsh pot shot but an entirely fair one. Experience simply means one has been in politics enough to keep busy and not get involved in a meaningful scandal. Washington doesn’t punish being wrong, it punishes being bad at politics and public relations. What matters, or at least what ought to matter to voters, is judgment—how often someone is right. On Iraq, Libya, proxy wars in Syria, and her support of Saudi and Egyptian tyrants, Clinton has frequently been on the disastrous and disabling side of history. “Experience,” Oscar Wilde once quipped, “is the name everyone gives to their mistakes,” and it’s increasingly clear that too many people have suffered from Clinton's experience for us to consider it anything other than a downside.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.