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War drums are rumbling in ways strangely reminiscent of the world a century past. Nations with chips on their shoulders and something to prove have engaged in foreign adventurism. Would a second Clinton presidency succeed in quelling those drums, or have eight years of flailing foreign policy made us stumble towards some greater conflagration?
The 9/11 Attacks happened on George W. Bush’s watch, but it is clear the attack was planned and orchestrated in the years prior, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. One of my own first thoughts upon seeing the burning remains of the World Trade Center on TV was “Well, it finally happened.” After eight years of Clinton’s hamfisted foreign interventions, poor responses to repeated violations by Iraq and attacks on US troops and facilities (the USS Cole being the most prominent in my memory), I was expecting (at least) a serious bloody nose in some form from the Middle East. We had endured eight years of weakness in victory with a president who was overeager to spend a “peace dividend” he did not earn, and we have paid for that since with 15 years of war and misery (and the poor souls who inhabit Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are paying a still higher price). A strong response to Iraq or to Islamic terrorism in 1996, or a strong spine even in 1994 might have spared us much.
Set aside for a moment the problems in Iraq from 2005-2007, prior to the Surge (during which time I would argue we returned to a weak response form), our initial reaction to 9/11, followed by our toppling of Saddam Hussein, was swift and powerful, determined and grim, and almost of the form delivered by Exeter to the French King in Henry V, “Bloody Constraint:”
Bloody constraint indeed. American military might, delivered with efficiency and rapidity, against a nation (Iraq) and a tribal melange (Afghanistan) who had directly threatened our interests.
Looking to today, though, the US has again fallen back on weak responses, even to the point of paying blackmail to return our troops captured in an act of war by Iran. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that we engage in a hot war with Iran, but Reagan at least shelled the Iranians from time to time, and this was enough to keep them wary. That we have avoided worse today is in no small part a legacy of George W Bush, who afforded a luxury of time to Obama and Hillary that they squandered much as Bill Clinton did 20 years ago.
And so we come to the possibility of another Clinton presidency. A consistent refrain from Clinton’s supporters is that she has foreign policy experience, and that Trump has none. We know she has experience, but of what sort? As secretary of state, she presided over a series of disasters, from Libya to Syria, from Iraq to Ukraine (Kerry has merely had the misfortune of inheriting a situation set up before him). What might we expect? Much as I understand the criticism that Trump’s bloviating an ineptitude might back us into war through an unforced error, I have a far greater fear of Clinton actually stumbling into a war.
Otto von Bismark predicted “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” The chains of alliances, coupled with weak-minded and foolish statesmen, did indeed ripple into The Great War over what should have been a regional conflict. In our own time, the early 21st century, we have any number of “damned foolish things” that could trigger a general war, again because of chains of alliances.
Hillary Clinton has lodged us into a strange situation in Syria, one that has put us out as a target for Russian adventurism in a way that could blunder us into a real war. 2009 saw the now laughable “Reset” with Russia, a direct repudiation of the policies of Bush — policies that at least kept Putin’s aggressions limited to small forays like Georgia (whom he attacked only when Bush was on his way out). Since that risible Reset, Putin has invaded Ukraine and there is no end of talk about whether he’ll try for the Baltic republics next. Is Clinton up for the challenge of restraining Putin, or will she talk tough while trying soft power, or will her response be an inchoate flailing that trips us into a war we do not expect or want Given her history, I fear the latter is the most likely scenario.
The war drums are rumbling. A strong leader might be able to silence them, but a weak leader will not heed them until it is too late. I cannot say that a Trump foreign policy would be sound and strong, but I need only look at Bill Clinton’s, Barak Obama’s, or Hillary Clinton’s to know that hers is weak and ill-conceived.