Monday, February 25, 2008

Olive branches and broken arrows: Hillary at GWU

Hillary's foreign policy speech at George Washington University today sketches out a reasonable if rather anodyne balance of hard and soft power (central trope: use both the arrows and olive branch) and includes a sharp, fair attack on Obama. But there's a hole in the heart of the speech. It's here:
On my first day in office, I will announce, as I have repeatedly in this campaign, that the era of cowboy diplomacy is over. That includes the doctrine of pre-emptive war. I have been against that for many years. I believe it led us into a blind alley and I don’t think I need to remind the retired flag officers here today how difficult the choices made by the president have been for American military. We need a new national military strategy that employs military power wisely instead of squandering it (emphasis added).
Against pre-emptive war for many years? The sad part about this claim is that it's true -- in theory. When Hillary says in this speech, "yes, we must use force when necessary but as a last resort, not a first resort," she is echoing precisely the language of her Oct 2002 speech in support of the resolution to use force in Iraq. In that speech, her support of the resolution was amply hedged with admonitions to seek U.N. support , try inspections first, not go to war unilaterally or preemptively.

The problem is that when Bush ignored her admonitions, Hillary lacked the courage of her convictions. She ended up being for a rush to war after she was against it. As recounted in a prior post, she never called Bush out as he "led us into a blind alley." As the Daily News reported on the eve of war, March 20, 2003:

Sen. Hillary Clinton wishes President Bush had lined up more nations in his "coalition of the willing" against Iraq - but she won't second-guess him as war approaches.

, outspoken on major issues such as homeland security, defended her near-silence yesterday over Bush's failed diplomatic efforts to rally UN backing to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by force. "I think everybody wishes we had more international support for this action," Clinton said in an interview.

But, she added, "I don't think it's useful now to go back and Monday morning quarterback."

Maybe that failure to rush the passer four years ago explains the rhetorical blockage in the passive-voice swipe at "the choices made by the president" (and unchecked by me....). It's all very well to speak of being ready to make decisions "when that 3 a.m. phone call comes," but where's the evidence that Hillary has ever made a key decision under pressure? There's no bridge from having "had a pretty good inside view, over eight years in the white House and now over seven years in the Senate, of what the president goes through" or even from having "travel[led] to more than eighty countries representing the United States" having taken any difficult stands or made any difficult decisions.

Hillary's critique of Obama's too soft/too hard foreign policy pronouncements does have some bite:

If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage, once again, to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators. Raul Castro, for example, has a stark choice. He can continue to stifle human rights and economic freedom in Cuba, or he can chart a new course toward democratic reform. We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rogue regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

The clearest example of that is what just happened in Pakistan. The Pakistani people essentially repudiated the Bush administration’s policies and created a new dynamic that could lead to greater freedoms and democracy or to a greater crisis with implications for the war in Afghanistan.

One thing the American people can be sure of, I will not broadcast threats of unilateral military action against a country like Pakistan just to demonstrate that I am tough enough for the job. We have to change our tone and change our course.

I've been distressed to watch Obama continue to dig deeper into the hole he slipped into in the YouTube debate, when he said he'd meet five rogue leaders in the first year of his presidency. I suspect he didn't fully absorb the question and didn't mean to say that he'd meet all five personally within a year--just that, on principle, it makes sense to be willing to meet when there's something to be negotiated. But in post-debate dueling he went the other route and tried to suggest that Hillary wouldn't be willing enough to negotiate with rogues. He's been at it ever since -- most recently in the Austin debate, when he said he would meet Raoul Castro without preconditions (albeit with 'preparation') , handing Hillary yet another opportunity to spell out the conditions under which a president should meet with an adversarial leader. And on the other end of the spectrum, I think Hillary's right that Obama was essentially saber-rattling in declaring his willingness to order unilateral U.S. military action inside Pakistan's borders.

If those arrows hit home at all, it's likelier that McCain will reap the benefit than that Hillary will.

Related posts:
Hillary Gets Motherly II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics

1 comment:

  1. Clinton got the war wrong and deserves to lose the nomination battle because of that.

    But her comments supporting the president on the eve of war are supposed to be damning? You got to be kidding.

    Look it's ridiculous to say that dissent should be silenced in the name of troop morale - mostly. In the period leading up to conflict, however (one month or so in front of an attack?) there's a very good argument to be made that politicians should at least refrain from starting new lines of argument against the conflict.

    If that means they lie through their teeth about their true thoughts then so be it - it's the right thing to do.