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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


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