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Is Hillary Clinton really the foreign policy super-hawk she is portrayed to be?

Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, arrives in Libya in 2011.
KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty

Late on Thursday, the New York Times magazine published a lengthy profile of Hillary Clinton under an illustration of her as a toy soldier and the headline "How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk."

The profile, by Mark Landler, traces her evolution on foreign policy, explores her legacy as secretary of state, and seeks to deduce a Clinton worldview. It's fascinating, deeply reported, and well worth reading. It also reiterates what is perhaps the defining piece of conventional wisdom about Hillary Clinton and foreign policy: she is a super-hawk.

"For all their bluster about bombing the Islamic State into oblivion, neither Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has," Landler writes.

"Unexpectedly, in the bombastic, testosterone-fueled presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton is the last true hawk left in the race," he adds.

A few hours after the piece went online, something else was published comparing the presidential candidates on foreign policy. And the story it told could not have been more different.

It was a simple scorecard, assembled by a non-partisan nuclear nonproliferation group called Global Zero, comparing the five remaining candidates on a battery of eight foreign policy issues.

On every issue that Global Zero measured, Clinton is indicated as far less hawkish than all three of the Republican candidates, and as basically tied with Bernie Sanders. She supports the Iran nuclear deal; the Republicans all oppose it. She supports using diplomacy to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis; John Kasich is the only Republican to do so. She supports negotiating with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons; no Republican candidate does.

This measured only policies related to nuclear weapons, and so is far from comprehensive. But on these major geopolitical challenges — including the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, which seem among the few crises that could plausibly draw the US into war — Clinton is significantly more dovish than all three Republican candidates.

How to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory stories about Hillary Clinton's foreign policy, in which the conventional wisdom portrays her as a super-hawk surpassing every remaining Republican, whereas a straight reading of her policies often suggests almost the exact opposite?

(Landler's piece, to be fair, is far more nuanced than the one line I've quoted. I bring it up only to illustrate the degree to which this has become conventional wisdom.)

Put another way: Is the conventional wisdom right? Is Clinton really the biggest hawk in the race?

That turns out to be a difficult question to answer. But it's not impossible. We have three distinct ways of evaluating a candidate's foreign policy, and you really need to look at all three: her past record, her current policies, and her larger worldview.

Taken together, in Clinton's case, these three metrics give a more complicated view of her foreign policy than the conventional wisdom suggests.

They reveal Clinton as someone who is exceptionally enthusiastic about the merits and potential of American engagement in the world. She is indeed, more than any other candidate in the race, a true believer in American power.

But Clinton's policies and past record suggest that her vision of power includes military force as well as diplomacy, so that while she is more likely to act in foreign affairs, she is also more likely to do so peacefully.

While the Republican candidates express greater skepticism about engagement with the outside world, they tend to argue against diplomacy and to emphasize, much more then Clinton, imposing order through force and coercion.

Evaluating Clinton on these three metrics shows some ways in which she is indeed quite hawkish in her belief in American military force, but others in which she nonetheless seems less likely than the Republican candidates to actually lead the US into war. They reveal just how difficult it can be to compare candidates on "hawkishness" — a word that can have many different meanings — or to make black-and-white categorical determinations on foreign policy at all.

Clinton's record of hawkishness and dovishness

Clinton's past record is the area where she does indeed appear the most hawkish. She has, by far, the longest record of any candidate of supporting or participating in military interventions. But she also has by far the longest record of supporting or participating in diplomatic efforts meant to avoid or reduce conflict.

In both cases, one big reason for this is that she simply has the longest record of working directly in foreign policy. So it is difficult to know how to compare her to other candidates.

Of the five candidates, for example, only Hillary Clinton actively participated in planning and executing the 2011 Libya intervention. But only Hillary Clinton has held a job where it was even possible to do such a thing. John Kasich has not participated in launching any military interventions during his five years as Ohio governor. Neither has Donald Trump in his zero years of government service. Does that make them less hawkish than Clinton?

Let's look at her record and see what it suggests.

Clinton, as first lady, supported her husband's 1990s military interventions in Yugoslavia. She voted in 2002 in support of the Iraq War. As secretary of state, she supported the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan, the 2011 intervention in Libya, and a 2012 proposal to arm Syria's rebels.

That is just a large number of wars or military interventions, and it's easy to see why Clinton has been judged as hawkish as a result. But her record also includes some of the most dovish actions of any candidate.

As secretary of state, she supported and led the "reset" with Russia — a diplomatic effort that is still derided by Republicans as weak. She met Chinese aggression in the South China Sea by organizing regional diplomatic organizations to counterbalance China. In 2009, she met with Mutassim Qaddafi, the highest-level meeting between Libyan and American officials in years, as part of an outreach to the country. In 2012, she quietly opened talks with Iran, which would culminate in the nuclear deal.

Hillary Clinton meets with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2012.
JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

These diplomatic efforts are worth considering as counterweights to the narrative of Clinton as a down-the-line hawk. In dealing with hostile or adversarial regimes, she has tended to prefer conciliation and compromise over confrontation.

This is a huge contrast with Republicans, including the party's presidential candidates, who typically argue that hostile regimes are irrational or implacable and can only be deterred by coercion and threats. In this sense, Clinton is far more dovish and far less likely to lead the US into conflict.

Clinton's record of supporting military interventions tends to focus on failed states or ongoing civil wars where she wants the US to help reimpose order or push that conflict toward her desired outcome, and in this way she does stand out from other candidates as unusually inclined to military force.

So Clinton is very hawkish if you judge her one kind of foreign policy challenge, but more dovish if you judge her on another.

The Iraq question

For critics of Clinton's hawkishness — and for a small number of neoconservatives who are preparing to support her over Donald Trump — Clinton's 2002 Iraq vote is perhaps the defining issue. And it is difficult to argue that she should not be judged for supporting a war that has been so costly.

There are two ways to think about Clinton's 2002 Iraq vote. One is consequential: She supported a war that killed thousands of Americans, far more Iraqis, devastated a nation, and helped open the way for ISIS. In the consequentialist view, Clinton should be judged, and critics would argue disqualified, on those grounds.

The other is deductive: What does Clinton's 2002 vote tell us about her future policies, about how she would behave as president?

Slate's Fred Kaplan has made probably the strongest argument for considering Clinton's Iraq vote to be a lapse — in other words, as something that does not reliably predict her future behavior. Kaplan cites Clinton's 2002 speeches, in which she said that hers was "not a vote to rush to war" but rather to pressure Saddam Hussein to allow UN weapons inspectors so as to avoid war.

Kaplan calls this "the height of naïveté" and stresses that it "doesn’t vindicate her vote back in 2002," but rather suggests that it "should not be seen as the indicator of her stance or judgment on armed intervention generally."

Whether you buy this argument depends on whether you see Clinton's 2002 vote as proof of Clinton's core hawkishness or as a lapse of judgment. It also depends on whether you see Clinton's changing stance — she defended the vote at first, and now says she considers it a mistake — as cynical politics or as proof that she earnestly learned from her mistake. In other words, do you see Clinton as trustworthy?

That's not a foreign policy question, but it is key for how you judge her record and what it tells us about her likely behavior as president, which goes to show just how much we rely on guesswork and subjective deductions in judging a candidate's foreign policy.

Clinton's current policies: significantly less hawkish than Republicans

The distinction in Clinton's record — hawkish on failed states, civil wars, and humanitarian crises; dovish toward adversarial or hostile states — seems to apply to her policies as presidential candidate as well.

Clinton supports continuing the Iran nuclear deal, for example. On Russia, she defends the reset but argues the US has to impose more pressure on Vladimir Putin. She still supports diplomacy with Russia on nuclear issues, for example. And she supports using diplomacy, rather than force, to address the North Korean nuclear program.

The Republican candidates, however, emphasize hard-line confrontation toward all of these countries. (With the exception of Donald Trump's outspoken embrace of Russia's Putin.)

Given that Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China are the countries most likely to challenge the United States over the next four years — and thus the countries with which military conflict are the most plausible — it seems awfully salient that Clinton's policies toward these countries are so much more dovish than the Republicans.

Clinton's policies are after all mostly just promises to maintain the status quo of Obama administration policies, many of which are her policies.

One exception is Syria on ISIS, on which Clinton has positioned herself as more hawkish than President Obama, for example by arguing for a limited no-fly zone over part of Syria. But Republicans have also proposed this policy.

It's hard to know how seriously to take such proposals, given that no-fly zones would be mostly symbolic and are unlikely to substantially alter the war. It is also difficult to say how much this is a real policy difference versus an election-year attempt at political positioning.

Conventional wisdom holds, for example, that Clinton pushed hard for arming Syria's rebels, something Clinton herself now suggests. But contemporary accounts tell a more modest story. The Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous, in an exhaustive 2013 story on the administration's Syria debates the previous year, wrote that CIA Director David Petraeus mostly pushed for arming Syrian rebels. Clinton, he writes, "spoke in favor of the initiative but her remarks were brief." She "didn't in the end aggressively push for the initiative."

So it is difficult to say whether Clinton would substantially alter American strategy on its ongoing intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But it seems much safer to conclude that, in dealing with adversarial states from Iran to China to North Korea, she would emphasize diplomacy and multilateralism over confrontation and unilateralism. It is difficult to square these policies with the conventional wisdom of Clinton as a super-hawk.

Measuring foreign policy is uniquely difficult

Unlike with domestic policy, where candidates can lay out an all-encompassing plan and make specific promises about how, say, health care would work under that plan, we understand that this is just not possible on foreign policy, that no candidate can make specific promises about global affairs over a four-to-eight-year span.

This is because whereas the US government can at least nominally control domestic policy outright, international affairs is a realm largely beyond American control. It's also because domestic policy is much easier to plan for — people will get sick and require health care; kids will enter school age and require education — whereas foreign policy is more about responding to unforeseen events, so a president's most important decisions are often how they respond in a crisis.

When we judge a candidate's domestic policy plans, we can ask questions like, Will their health care plan bring down the uninsured rate? Will their tax plan increase or decrease revenue? How will their energy plan affect greenhouse gas emissions? These are questions we can answer objectively.

But judging how a candidate will conduct foreign policy is much more deductive and thus more subjective. In a confrontation with a hostile state, is the candidate more likely to emphasize diplomacy or coercion? If a small country falls into civil war, will the candidate use military forces to intervene and restore order? How will the candidate respond to a terror attack launched from within a chaotic failed state?

Candidates can't present white papers explaining their policies for these sorts of hypothetical foreign policy crisis. So we are left to judge them by making inferences from their past policies and from how they seem to think about foreign policy more broadly. These are the best tools we have, but they are highly subjective and abstract.

It is pretty easy to determine whether a presidential candidate will expand or shrink, say, access to health care while in office. It is much harder to say whether that candidate will expand or shrink American military engagement in the world.

When we ask, say, about Hillary Clinton's reputation for hawkishness, there is no agreed upon thing we are measuring or metric by which to measure it. Different people can look at the same candidate and reach widely different conclusions based on the same data. But, looking at Clinton, it seems that the reality is more complicated and less categorical than the reputation.

Correction: Due to a copy editing error, Mutassim Qaddafi was changed to read Muammar Qaddafi. The article has been corrected.


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