What Hillary Said. . .and Should Say


Several good friends close to Senator Clinton were surprised by my post suggesting a “Nixon-Lite Strategy” as a guiding direction for some of her foreign policy thinking. To be fair, when I wrote a critique of Senator Obama’s first major foreign policy address, I got similar nudges from his team.
But I do want to be fair as I like much of what Hillary Clinton says and stands for. I view a major presidential candidacy like I do any presidential administration — as a lesson in schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. There are some dominant personalities and others that are subordinate — and they shift.
It is my view that some of Hillary’s foreign policy advisors see value in highlighting the world’s bad guys and using general disdain for them as a way to rally support. This was a tactic of PNAC. It’s part of the “high fear”, “we live in a dangerous world”, “watch out for terrorists” motif that organizations like “Family Security Matters” exploit on the political right.
But the fact is that these so-called bad guys and thugs are the same kind of thugs America has had to deal with for decades. In fact, until 9/11 and the Bush administration’s wrong-headed and counterproductive invasion of Iraq as the key feature of its “global war on terror,” America and the West had a pretty good “thug management system” in place.
The interesting, unspoken reality about Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, Bashar al-Assad, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is that they are all rational actors. They are each unique in their own way and have different concerns but most of them have to do with power or security.
Mancur Olson, one of the leading proponents of rational choice theory, found dictatorships to provide useful metaphors to explain to lay audiences the dynamics of self-interested, rational, utility-maximization in a political system.
To deal with any of these people and their governments, rationality and predictability as well as carrots and credible sticks are needed.
To satisfy various supporters of Senator Clinton, let me reprint what exactly she said during the YouTube/CNN debate:

CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration.
And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.
And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.

There is a “cautious calculation” in Hillary Clinton’s response that any president should make a constant feature of his or her decision-making process. However, there is a need for a rational, clear-headed assessment of where America is in the world today and how we are going to use this time of upheaval and instability to leap into a new global framework that is both good for American interests and good for global interests and stability.
Hillary Clinton did talk about the importance of diplomacy, and that is great. But the zinger that everyone on both sides of this debate is focusing on is whether we should talk to the world’s problematic leaders or not. Even in her response yesterday to John King on CNN, she emphasized the names of the various leaders that give her pause. This is part of a “I’ll be tough on them” framing of this issue that some of Hillary Clinton’s advisers have been advocating.
As an example, I’ve been waiting to hear from Senator Clinton how her strategy on Cuba would differ from a long line of administrations who have failed to achieve any of their objectives in achieving regime change in Cuba. My sense is that we are long overdue for a major overhaul in US-Cuba relations that puts American interests overall ahead of any political cartels inside the US who have controlled that relationship for far too long and at great detriment to American interests. Regime change efforts that America has engaged in have backfired over and over and over again — but regime change remains the official position of the United States toward Cuba and remains the unofficial policy of the US towards Iran.
Opening up travel and some trade to Cuba — a nation that is now exporting doctors rather than guns and revolution — may have numerous positive affects. The mere fact that the Soviet bloc fell and stopped supporting Cuba has had an enormous impact on the minds and lives of Cubans — and as they see China’s global ascension and the manner in which China has increasingly absorbed market capitalism, they are reconsidering their own national growth strategies. Cuba’s economy grew by about 10% last year — and virtually none of that growth benefited the US.
Changing the dynamics with Cuba could have a very good impact on Latin America as a whole that frankly is not too thrilled with the bravado and bluster from Hugo Chavez. Take Cuba from him and his pretensions and Latin American nations will also find ways to resist Chavez’s revolutionary charms. But we should still meet with Chavez and negotiate with him.
Diplomacy — which Hillary Clinton says she supports — is knowing what battles to lose so that the major wars can be won. It is not a binary process.
Clinton is right to not necessarily sign on to unconditional meetings with all of these leaders — but she should have said that it would be a high priority for her to meet them, to communicate America’s views and positions, to see where opportunities might be exploited, and when a tougher edged policy was called for.
This whole debate would be different if she had said that meeting with the world’s thugs is important and should be made the kind of priority that it is not in this administration. Shunning and isolating our enemies is in character for the Jesse Helms/Richard Cheney wing of Republican national security circles. It should not be a dominant feature of Hillary Clinton’s profile.
More on Obama later. I’m glad that he is willing to meet those in the world who are working vigorously against American interests. But we still have yet to hear from him a “hard choices” speech on the multiple prongs of a strategy he’d deploy to get America’s national security portfolio back in shape.
Both Obama and Hillary Clinton support the growth of the size of the military by another 92,000 personnel — and in my mind, that just compounds the problems they are supposed to be fixing. We already have an over-militarized engagement with the world and we need something different. And when a nation spends as much money on defense and security as America does and still does not feel safe, the problem is not the number of troops — it is “bad management.”
That is something that Obama and Clinton, as well as the other candidates, might reflect on as well.
— Steve Clemons


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