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“What Matters Most Is What We Do”: If Having a Foreign Policy Doctrine Is So Important, Why Won’t Hillary Clinton Spell Hers Out?

Jeffrey Golberg has an interview with Hillary Clinton which is being billed as a rebuke of, or maybe a distancing from, her old boss, Barack Obama. While you’ll probably think that an overstatement when you read the transcript, she does express a desire for a foreign policy “doctrine” of her own, even if she doesn’t actually deliver it. While there are a few unsettling things in the interview (her comments on Israel could have come from Bibi Netanyahu himself), the doctrine question is worth paying attention to.

As I’ve argued before , President Obama doesn’t have a foreign policy doctrine, and that’s by design. He explicitly rejected the idea that it was necessary to have some kind of bumper-sticker-ready idea guiding all his foreign policy decisions, a single phrase or sentence that sums up everything he’d be doing in foreign affairs. Even though doctrines don’t have a particularly good track record of late, in this interview, Clinton says that a doctrine is necessary (though she doesn’t use that word). The trouble is, she won’t actually say what hers would be, other than to say she’d have one:

But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.

During a discussion about the dangers of jihadism (a topic that has her “hepped-up,” she told me moments after she greeted me at her office in New York) and of the sort of resurgent nationalism seen in Russia today, I noted that Americans are quite wary right now of international commitment-making. She responded by arguing that there is a happy medium between bellicose posturing (of the sort she associated with the George W. Bush administration) and its opposite, a focus on withdrawal.

“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”…

She said that the resilience, and expansion, of Islamist terrorism means that the U.S. must develop an “overarching” strategy to confront it, and she equated this struggle to the one the U.S. waged against Soviet-led communism.

Why, precisely, do “great nations need organizing principles”? Is it because during the next crisis, no one in the White House or the State Department will know what to do if they don’t have that organizing principle tacked up to their bulletin board, perhaps on a poster? I’m all for having an overarching strategy to confront Islamist terrorism, but we’ve been thinking about that for 13 years (or more, depending on how far back you want to go), and terrorism still exists. If Clinton has figured it out, she ought to share what she knows with the rest of us.

This isn’t strategizing, it’s meta-strategizing, strategizing about whether and why to have a strategy, rather than formulating the strategy itself. Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy doctrine might be the very soul of wisdom or it might be the height of foolishness, but we won’t be able to judge until she tells us what it is. And it’s worth noting that Bill Clinton had no discernable foreign policy doctrine (almost any president would agree with what passed for one during his term).

The appeal and the danger of doctrines is that they simplify decision-making, assuring you that there’s only one reasonable choice in complex situations and unintended consequences aren’t something to worry your head over. What would the Bush doctrine tell us to do right now about the Islamic State? Go git ’em! But that would mean pulling the United States back into Iraq at a large scale all over again, with all kinds of negative results sure to follow. On the other hand, if we don’t do enough the result could be a victory for IS, which would be a horrific outcome for the people who will find themselves under its boot. On the other hand, the more we fight them (as opposed to helping others do so), the more interested they’re likely to become in striking at the United States. On the other hand…well, you get the idea. Whatever doctrine you applied to this situation, chances are it would obscure important considerations and give you unwarranted confidence that everything will turn out fine.

When asked pointedly what her “organizing principle” is, Clinton responded, “Peace, progress, and prosperity,” then elaborated as though the question were about domestic policy. The particular views she expresses in the interview are more hawkish than the Obama administration, but people whose memories go back more than a few years will recall that Clinton has always been a hawk on military and foreign affairs. If she decides to distance herself from Obama, it will almost certainly be in that direction, because that’s who she is and what she’s always believed.

If you’re going to criticize her for that, it shouldn’t be because of any alleged lack of loyalty. Having served in a president’s administration doesn’t make you obliged to defend everything he did forevermore, particularly if you held a different view at the time. The question is whether she’s right on the merits of whatever question is at hand.

Finally, on a relatively minor note, the “we don’t tell our own story very well” is something people have been saying for years, and it’s hooey. What matters most isn’t the “story” our government tells the world—”Hey, did you know America stands for freedom? Well it does!”—what matters most is what we do. You know who’s pleased right now with the story America is telling? The Yazidis and the Kurds in Iraq, because we’re helping them. There are some other peoples who aren’t too psyched about America’s story. I hope that by now Hillary Clinton understands that success in foreign affairs isn’t about storytelling.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 11, 2014

August 12, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Hillary Clinton, Syria | , , , | Leave a comment

“Speaking Volumes About The GOP”: Does John McCain Care More About Deaths in Syria Than Gun Violence in America?

Please read these two statistics and notice your emotional reaction to them. Do they make you angry? Do they make you eager for government action? When you digest these roughly equivalent numbers, do they stir you equally?

  • A Human Rights groups says more than 150,000 civilians, rebels, and members of the Syrian military have been killed in the nation’s three-year conflict.
  • A U.S. gun-control group says more than 100,000 Americans are shot every year in murders, assaults, suicides, and suicide attempts and accidents.

For Sen. John McCain, the hawkish Republican senator from Arizona, the first number makes him spitting mad, literally—as judged Wednesday from my front-row seat at the Harvard Institute of Politics forum, where he answered questions from a moderator and students.

“The Syrian decision has reverberated around the globe,” McCain said, linking President Obama’s blurred red line over Syria to aggressiveness from Russia, China, and Iran. He dismissed suggestions that Americans are war-weary—noting that Ronald Reagan grew the U.S. military in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War—and harshly criticized Obama for dithering on calls to arm Syrian rebels.

Visions of the dead and dying, women and children, lined in the streets after chemical attacks, keep him awake at night, McCain said.

“I am emotional,” declared the infamously temperamental senator, his face reddening with anger. “I’m guilty. I’m emotional.”

Contrast that reaction to the one a few minutes later when a Harvard student pressed McCain on gun control. With a shrug of his shoulders, the two-time presidential candidate noted that he had supported a bill that would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns. It failed in the Senate.

His tone, passionate and aggressive on Syria, turned professorial and passive-aggressive on guns, as McCain explained that while the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms, gun violence is “an emotional issue.” Congress needs to grapple with the issue somehow, he said, noticeably uncomfortable with his wishy-washiness.

“I know that’s not a good answer,” McCain said, “I wrestle with it all the time.”

So this is how McCain reacts to those two sets of numbers: Go to war for Syrians. Wrestle for America.

Disclosure: I briefly considered working for McCain in 2007, and respect his service to the nation as well as his willingness to compromise with Democrats. On the other hand, I opposed intervention in Syria, support gun regulations, and object to the policies and tactics of the NRA.

And so as McCain hemmed and hawed on gun violence, I turned to the person sitting next to me, Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., and whispered, “Where’s the emotion he showed on Syria?” Kennedy nodded.

The contrast of emotion may speak as much about the Republican Party as it does about McCain. The GOP is lurching so far to the right that this Arizona conservative is considered a “RINO,” a Republican in Name Only, and there is no room for commonsense policies that uphold the Second Amendment while curbing gun violence.

After supporting one war fought on false pretenses in Iraq, McCain is still rattling U.S. sabers over the deaths of 150,000 Syrians in three years. Normally, that would hardly be notable: McCain, after all, is a consistent interventionist. But laid against the shootings of 100,000 Americans annually, McCain’s peculiar lack of emotion about gun violence seemed to speak to the sorry state of U.S. politics. And made me sad.


By: Ron Fournier, The National Journal, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Gun Control, John McCain, Syria | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“So What If the Syria Solution Is Messy”: President Obama Got Putin And Syria To The Table, And That’s What Matters

The U.S. came close (we are told, anyway) to bombing Syria in retaliation over the alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war there. Since then, democracy-challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped in, and is helping to broker a deal by which another bad actor, Syria, would give up its weapons.

That should sound like a pretty good outcome, if it works out. But in Washington, the conversation has been all about image and what has become known in Beltway speak as “messaging.”

President Obama has been criticized for looking weak – first, more than a year ago, for not being tougher on Syria, and now, for vocalizing his understandable reluctance to bomb a Middle Eastern country. He’s been accused of offering mixed messages, by saying the U.S. needed to enforce the “red line” against chemical weapons, but then saying he took no pleasure in doing so. He was criticized for thinking about bombing without consulting Congress, then chided as indecisive for listening to those criticisms and asking for Congress’s opinion (though not its advance approval, Obama was quick to note).

Then Putin wrote a critical op-ed in The New York Times, criticizing the U.S. for its assertion of “exceptionalism,” and saying the rest of the world had grown tired of being pushed around by America.

There is some legitimacy to much of this criticism. But the more important point is, so what?

Who cares if Obama didn’t deliver an unequivocal, we’re-going-to-bomb-them speech, especially if such a speech would lock us more securely into a wartime box? Was it the threat of an attack that got Syrian leader Bashar Assad to talk to Putin? Was it Putin’s desire to gain some level of legitimacy and credibility on the world stage that led him to talk to Assad? Was it Putin’s own concerns about chemical weapons being used by insurgents in his own country that led him to get involved? Who cares?

Being an adult, being a diplomat, and, yes, being a leader means staying focused on the final goal – not on how you got there. So what if Putin wags his finger at the U.S. in an American newspaper? He can bully us on Facebook if he wants. Does it matter, if the end result is Syria giving up chemical weapons without the U.S. having to risk American lives or spend American dollars to make it happen?

Obama had indeed gotten himself into something of a box by drawing a “red line” against chemical weapons (and it should be noted that many of his critics on the right were some of the ones pushing him to get tough on Syria). But Assad was in a box, too. He didn’t want to get bombed. He threatened retaliation if he was bombed – and didn’t really have much to back that up. But politically, he couldn’t be viewed as giving in to Obama or to Secretary of State John Kerry. His only face-saving measure was to deal with someone like Putin – an “imperfect messenger,” to borrow a phrase from Anthony Weiner. But Putin was probably the only person who could deliver it.

Style points do matter, sometimes. But they are not an end in themselves. Looking tough or decisive is not success. Getting rid of the chemical weapons is what will count as a win.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, September 20, 2013

September 22, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Shot Not Heard”: How President Obama Left The Neocons Feeling Foolish

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

–Winston Churchill, June 26, 1954

Before you make the mistake of taking President Obama’s most strident critics regarding the Syrian deal too seriously, ponder this: With few exceptions, those calling the Russian-American agreement to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s nerve gas arsenal a capitulation, a sellout, and a shameful retreat also think bombing Damascus wouldn’t have been nearly enough.

Nothing short of a boots-on American invasion of Syria would have satisfied these jokers. Prominent among them is Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who views the diplomatic breakthrough as “an act of provocative weakness on America’s part.”

McCain, who has vigorously supported all nine of the nation’s last three wars on about 316 TV talk shows, is never happy unless the U.S. is attacking somebody. Only violent solutions strike him as realistic. That’s probably the single biggest reason he never became president.

Then there’s Eliot A. Cohen, founding father of the Project for a New American Century, a now-defunct Washington pressure group whose messianic schemes for a U.S. empire stretching from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan inspired the Iraq War. Featuring such luminaries as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, to these geniuses, overthrowing Saddam Hussein was only the beginning. Next on their agenda was Iran, in case you wonder why the mad ayatollahs have been tinkering with nukes.

So anyway, just as President Obama was getting ready to ask Congress to endorse a punitive strike against Syrian chemical weapon sites, Cohen published a Washington Post column scolding Americans for their cowardice. The families of the war dead, he allowed, were entitled to their sorrow.

“But for the great mass of the American public,” he wrote “for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, ‘war-weariness’ is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world…Americans can change the channel if they find the images too disturbing.”

Got that citizens? Shut up, pay your taxes and avert your eyes.

Next the Obama administration pulled a large Russian rabbit out of its hat, leaving the neocons feeling foolish. For all the hugger-mugger about “red lines” and the White House’s odd decision to position a naval task force within striking range of Damascus before deciding to ask congressional permission, the end result was nevertheless remarkable.

Clumsy? Definitely. But it’s not a Bruce Willis movie; it’s a foreign policy.

“By hook or by crook,” Kevin Drum writes “Obama (a) raised the issue of Assad’s chemical weapons to an international level, (b) got Vladimir Putin (!) to take a lead role in reining them in, (c) got Assad to join the chemical weapons ban and agree to give up his stockpiles, and (d) [did] it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot.”

In other words, for all the nonsensical talk of “appeasement,” the very crafty President Putin and the Syrian dictator now own this deal. Meanwhile, U.S. military options remain unchanged. President Obama has bought himself considerable freedom of action.

Mike Tomasky has it right: “If Assad is mad enough to use [chemical weapons] again, Obama won’t mess with Congress or even Russia. He’ll be credited by most observers…for having shown restraint the first time, and more people will agree at that point that Assad must be punished.”

Then there’s Charles Krauthammer, the Post columnist who accuses Obama of “epic incompetence,” complaining that the Russians prefer to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. He worries that “Assad is the key link in the anti-Western Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus and Beirut to the Mediterranean.”

Hmm… Isn’t something missing here? Let’s go to the maps. It’s roughly 900 miles from Tehran to Damascus via, oh yeah… Baghdad. See, it’s precisely the U.S. invasion of Iraq championed by Krauthammer and his chums that created this supposedly scary alliance. Sectarian strife among Sunni and Shiite Muslims has erupted there at irregular intervals for almost 1,400 years. Shouldn’t these brilliant thinkers have thought of that before now?

So what do the Russians want? In a word, stability. Unlike the U.S., Russia has a large Muslim minority. Roughly 1 in 6 Russians is Muslim. Like the Tsarnaev bothers of Boston, MA, nearly all are Sunni. What Putin definitely doesn’t want is Chechen separatists getting their hands on nerve gas. Driving overland, Syria’s roughly as close to Chechnya as to Iran.

Can Putin be trusted? To do what’s good for Russia, yes. As President Obama explained to George Stephanopoulos, the Cold War is over. “I don’t think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do,” he said. “But what I’ve also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable.”

And he also quoted Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, September 18, 2013

September 19, 2013 Posted by | Middle East, Syria | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“For The Sake Of Complaining”: The Right Struggles To Hide Its Disappointment With Diplomatic Progress In Syria

A couple of years ago, after the United States and its allies used military force to help remove the Gadhafi’s government from Libya, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued one of my favorite Republican press releases ever. The two senators, who had eagerly spent months touting U.S. military action in Libya, issued a joint statement commending the “British, French, and other allies, as well as our Arab partners, especially Qatar and the UAE.”

McCain and Graham eventually said Americans can be “proud of the role our country” played, but they nevertheless condemned the Obama administration’s “failure” to act in Libya the way the GOP senators preferred.

It was striking at the time for its bitterness — the United States had achieved its strategic goals, but instead of celebrating or applauding Obama’s success, Republicans pouted and whined.

It’s funny how history sometimes repeats itself. Over the course of six days, the Obama administration pushed Syria into the chemical weapons convention, helped create a diplomatic framework that will hopefully rid Syria of its stockpiles, successfully pushed Russia into a commitment to help disarm its own ally, quickly won support from the United Nations and our allies, and did all of this without firing a shot.

Republicans are outraged.

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today released the following statement on the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria:

“What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement — they see it as an act of provocative weakness on America’s part.”

McCain wasn’t scheduled to appear on “Meet the Press” yesterday, but he was nevertheless added at the last minute. It was, after all, a Sunday.

It’s not just McCain, of course. Over the weekend, it seemed as if much of the chatter out of the Beltway was an effort to spin a diplomatic resolution as necessarily disappointing and evidence of a presidential mistake, if not outright failure.

It’s difficult to take such talk seriously.

In fact, Fred Kaplan’s take seemed compelling to me.

And so, assuming all goes according to plan, Assad loses his stash of deadly chemicals — but he stays in power, at least for the time being, and the Russian Federation re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics. A win-win-win for Putin.

At the same time, Obama can cite his threat to use force as the reason Putin suddenly swung into action (this might even be true, to some extent). He can thus take at least joint credit for ridding Syria of chemical weapons and upholding international law. And he is saved from having to make good on letting Congress vote on whether to authorize the use of force — a vote that he seemed all but certain to lose. A win-win-win for Obama.

I’d just add that Obama also gets the benefits that come with not using military force — while the diplomatic course moves forward, the White House won’t have to fear the unknown and unpredictable consequences of dropping missiles on another Middle Eastern country.

At this point, Republican complaints made a right turn at unpersuasive and landed at unseemly. Many on the right urged Obama to engage in saber-rattling against Syria, then complained when the president did just that. Many on the right urged Obama to take the issue to Congress, then complained when the president did that, too. Many on the right said they supported military intervention, right up until Obama agreed with them. Now Republicans seem to be complaining … just for the sake of complaining.

Neil Irwin had a worthwhile item over the weekend, asking, “Was Obama’s Syria strategy brilliant or lucky?” It’s not an unreasonable question, but note that the choices are predicated on an assumption: the outcome is good for the U.S. in general and the Obama administration in particular.

If the right could at least try to hide their disappointment, it might be easier to take their views on foreign policy seriously.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 16, 2013

September 17, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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