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- 2016 Democratic Presidential Candidate
- 2008 Democratic Presidential Candidate
- U.S. Senator (D-NY) (2001–2009)
- Secretary of State (2009–2013)
- Wellesley College: BA, Political Science
- Yale Law School
Hillary Clinton, secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term and a former U.S. senator (D-NY), was the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. She lost to Donald Trump in the November 2016 elections.
A key aspect of Clinton’s platform was foreign policy, which was regarded as much “more hawkish than Obama—possibly much more hawkish.” Another commentator, writing in The Atlantic, argued, “Again and again, Clinton pointed to instances overseas where she would have taken a tougher stance than Obama, from arming Syrian rebels to confronting an expansionist Russia. … Clinton is more bellicose, which is to say, more conspicuously vocal about her aggression and willingness to fight.”
Clinton has a clear track record of supporting aggressive U.S. foreign policies. She voted in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a senator, and advocated for an array of interventionist policies concerning Libya, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere as secretary of state.
However, some commentators, like Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast, argue that while Clinton is more hawkish than Obama in key ways, she has nevertheless been more nuanced than many of her critics recognize. Tomasky wrote that although she “wants a bigger American footprint in the world than Obama seems to” she is “actually pretty nuanced about it. She does not mean, as people to her left reflexively seem to think she means, going bombs away.”
In 2014, Clinton proclaimed that while she “had acted in good faith,” she “got it wrong” with respect to voting to authorize the Iraq War. During her 2008 presidential campaign, however, she was unapologetic about her vote in favor of the war, opining: “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.”
In many respects, Clinton espouses a worldview that could be described as “liberal interventionist” and she maintains a strong belief in the purportedly indispensable role of the United States in maintaining global peace and security. As noted foreign policy scholar James Mann wrote in 2014: “Hillary Clinton resorts to the ‘American leadership’ and ‘indispensable nation’ phrases as much as any politician in this country. This is not, for Hillary Clinton, merely a matter of slogans; she clearly and deeply believes that America can and should play the same role in the world as it did in 1945 or 1989.”
On the Campaign Trail
Clinton staked out hawkish positions on numerous foreign policy issues during her 2016 presidential campaign. One writer said of her approach to foreign policy during the Democratic primary: “She has few firm convictions, but foreign policy aggressiveness is one of them.”
At a speech before the Brookings Institution in September 2015, Clinton highlighted what her approach would be to many foreign policy issues. She declared she would “deepen America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security” by in part selling Israel “the most sophisticated fire aircraft ever developed, the F-35.” She also stated one of her first actions as president would be to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House to “talk about all these issues and to set us on a course of close, frequent consultation.”
Clinton called for a “concerted effort to up the costs on Russia and Putin,” stating that she is “in the camp that we have not done enough” in regards to Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine. While she expressed her support for the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, she opined that in contrast to Reagan’s “trust but verify” approach to the Soviet Union, she would “distrust and verify” with Iran. She also promised to “confront them [Iran] across the board,” adding that she would “not hesitate to take military action if Iran attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
One observer noted that this was a “a deliberately stronger formulation than Mr. Obama’s ‘all options are on the table’” with respect to Iran.
Clinton also stated that as president she would “sustain a robust military presence in the [Persian Gulf] region” and “increase security cooperation with our Gulf allies.” Simultaneously, however, she stated that Saudi Arabia was responsible for fostering much of the Muslim extremism in the world. “Much of the extremism in the world today is the direct result of policies and funding undertaken by the Saudi government and individuals. We would be foolish not to recognize that,” she declared.
During the Democratic primary, Clinton also quarreled over foreign policy with her main rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VI). In January 2016, the Clinton campaign released a letter signed by 10 national security experts that denounced Sanders’ positions on foreign policy, particularly on bettering relations with Iran. “Senator Sanders’ call to ‘move aggressively’ to normalize relations with Iran—to develop a ‘warm’ relationship—breaks with President Obama, is out of step with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that has been working for the United States and if pursued,” the statement read, “would fail while causing consternation among our allies and partners.”
The letter added: “We need a Commander in Chief who sees how all of these dynamics fit together—someone who sees the whole chessboard, as Hillary Clinton does.”
Sanders said in response to the letter: “On the crucial foreign policy issue of our time, it turns out that Secretary Clinton—with all of her experience—was wrong and I was right … there is a difference between experience and judgment. Not only did I vote against the war in Iraq, I helped lead the opposition to that war.”
Clinton has has ties with prominent neoconservatives. For instance, Robert Kagan served on Clinton’s foreign affairs policy board during her tenure as secretary of state. Kagan’s track record includes cofounding with neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol the ultra-hawkish Project for the New American Century as well as its successor organization the Foreign Policy Initiative.
“I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Kagan has said. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Neoconservative writer Max Boot has also voiced support for Clinton, praising her in 2014 for being a “principled voice” in the Obama administration on “controversial issues, whether supporting the Afghan surge or the intervention in Libya.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is renowned for being one of the Senate’s more staunch hawks, once described Clinton as a “rock star” and said it would be a “tough choice” to support either her for president or—should he to become the Republican nominee—non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).  Mark Salter, a former chief of staff to McCain who has been described as a “neocon fellow traveler,” also said that if Paul were to win the Republican nomination, “Republican voters seriously concerned with national security would have no responsible recourse” but to support Clinton.
“These neocons have a point,” read a July 2014 op-ed for the New York Times by historian Jacob Heilbrunn. “Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels; likened Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Adolf Hitler; wholeheartedly backs Israel; and stresses the importance of promoting democracy.”
Secretary of State
During her tenure at State, Clinton gained a reputation for acting “as Obama’s bad cop.” For instance, according to Foreign Affairs’ Michael Hirsh, Clinton “corralled a troupe of advisers” to “convince Obama to support a NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.”
On Syria, she decisively broke from President Obama by voicing support for arming Syrian rebels in 2012. After leaving her post as secretary of state, she stated that by failing to “build up a credible fighting force” in Syria, a “big vacuum” was created “which the jihadists have now filled.”
Forbes contributor Doug Bandow said in response to Clinton’s statements on Syria: “We are to believe that if only the people who brought us the Libyan imbroglio had the chance in Syria they would have given the right weapons to the right insurgents at the right time. The result would have been a united, democratic Syria with Islamists staying home and accepting the new order. It sounds like a Hollywood fantasy.”
As secretary of state, Clinton admonished people who believe the United States should end its interventionism overseas in favor of focusing on domestic needs. She stated in a 2011 interview that she worried about “people who rightly are concerned about our own domestic economic situation … who are saying … let’s just do nothing but stay right here and tend to our own garden.” She added: “That would be, in my view, a great mistake.”
During her first several years as secretary of state, Clinton advocated a hardline on Iran. In 2009, she sought to develop a “policy to unite the Arab autocracies in an anti-Tehran bloc,” an idea that was shot down by the White House. Clinton was also regarded as a central force prodding President Obama to impose unprecedentedly severe sanctions on Iran during his first term.
On the other hand, Clinton has sought credit for initiating a diplomatic process with Iran that eventually led to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. In 2012, her then deputy chief of staff, Jake Sullivan, established back channel communications with Iran via Oman, which have been hailed as an “important step in the path to” a nuclear agreement with Iran.
“The overture to Iran started while she was in office with Jake Sullivan, her then-deputy chief of staff, who remained on the negotiating team until November. Sullivan, now her senior policy adviser, was more skeptical than others. If need be, Clinton can still distance herself from the deal reached in July by disagreeing with how it is finalized,” the New York Daily News has reported.
After leaving the State Department, Clinton largely supported the Iran nuclear negotiations and publicly supported the comprehensive agreement reached in July 2015, stating: “I support this agreement because I believe it is the most effective path of all the alternatives available to the U.S. and our partners to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
During the negotiations, she opposed congressional measures to impose additional sanctions on Iran while the negotiations were on-going, saying that “we should do everything we can to test whether they can advance a permanent solution.” She also criticized a March 2015 Republican letter spear-headed by hawkish Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to Iran’s leaders as “out of step with the best traditions of American leadership.” Clinton also greeted the April 2015 Lausanne framework agreement with Iran as an “important step,” but added that “the devil is always in the details.”
In April 2015, Clinton’s position on the Iran nuclear negotiations gained media attention after hardline “pro-Israel” billionaire Haim Saban, a top Democratic donor, said in response to a question about Hillary’s position on the Iran talks: “I can’t reveal to you things that were said behind closed doors. She has an opinion, a very well-defined opinion. And in any case, everything that she thinks and everything she has done and will do will always be for the good of Israel. We don’t need to worry about this.”
Clinton has occasionally disagreed with Saban. During a December 2014 discussion between her and Saban at the Brookings Institute, Clinton dismissed Saban’s suggestion that the Obama administration had offered “too many carrots” in its negotiations with Iran. “My bottom line is that a deal that verifiably closes all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon—and the key there is verifiably, and all, including covert efforts—that is what is at the center of this negotiation,” she said in response to Saban.
Since stepping down as secretary of state in 2013, Clinton has on various occasions criticized President Obama’s foreign policy. In a widely noted August 2014 interview with Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton assailed Obama for his “failure” in allegedly not giving enough support to Syrian rebels and rebuked Obama’s supposed approach to foreign policy—“don’t do stupid stuff”—by proclaiming that “great nations need organizing principles” and that “’don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Summarizing the Clinton interview, Goldberg wrote: “[S]he 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.”
Clinton has a “pro-Israel” record. According to a November 2014 piece for Foreign Policy by Aaron David Miller, “Both Bill and Hillary are so enamored with the idea of Israel and its unique history that they are prone to make certain allowances for the reality of Israel’s behavior, such as the continuing construction of settlements.” Miller has also argued that “should she become president, on one level, better ties with Israel are virtually guaranteed.”
Other observers have noted Clinton’s strong ties to influential constituencies going back to her time as a U.S. senator for New York as playing a role in her views on Israel. “Her tenure as senator would establish two important New York political constituencies that continue to influence Clinton’s political destiny: the strongly pro-Israel Jewish community and Wall Street bankers, both of them political retainers that pull strings and are now potential political liabilities to manage in a long, expensive campaign,” Daily Kos opined in May 2015.
However, as secretary of state, Clinton also censured the Israeli government over its expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Clinton told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in July 2014: “I’m a strong supporter of Israel, a strong supporter of their right to defend themselves. But the continuing settlements, which have been denounced by successive American administrations on both sides of the aisle, are clearly a terrible signal to send if, at the same time, you claim you’re looking for a two-state solution.”
In March 2010, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the construction of new settlements on the same day as Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, Clinton reportedly had a “furious” 45-minute phone conversation with Netanyahu in which she stated Israel had violated the understanding it had with the United States to freeze its settlement construction.
David Bromwich of Mondoweiss stated about Clinton in February 2013: “If one adds it up, the evidence suggests that for as long as Obama fought any sort of battle against Israeli expansion and militarism, his secretary of state was the strength and stamina of his policy. Obama, of course, bore the ultimate responsibility for the policy, but he appears to have been a more hesitant and recessive figure in U.S. dealings with Israel.”
Clinton also warned about the dangers of continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands for Israel’s future in a 2010 speech at the Brookings Institute: “The long-term population trends that result from the occupation are endangering the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Israelis should not have to choose between preserving both elements of their dream. But that day is approaching. … We conclude without a shadow of a doubt that ending this conflict once and for all and achieving a comprehensive regional peace is imperative for safeguarding Israelis’ future.”
On the other hand, during her August 2014 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton claimed that “you can’t ever discount anti-Semitism” when it came to the “enormous international reaction against Israel” during the 2014 Gaza war. “This reaction is uncalled for and unfair,” Clinton opined. The conflict cost the lives of over 2,200 Palestinian civilians, including over 500 children, as well as of six Israeli civilians.
Clinton told Goldberg that if she were Benjamin Netanyahu, she would not relinquish the security of the West Bank to the Palestinians, in effect signaling at the very least her opposition to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the present time. Clinton proclaimed: “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”
In July 2015, Clinton wrote a letter to Haim Saban in which she affirmed her staunchly “pro-Israel” stance and expressed “alarm” over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) against Israel. “I have made it clear that America will always stand up for Israel—and that’s what I’ll always do as President,” she proclaimed.
Clinton also noted in the letter that she is “very concerned by attempts to compare Israel with South African apartheid” and again raised the specter of anti-Semitism as being behind some of the criticism of Israel. “[A]t a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world—especially in Europe—we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people,” she said.
Clinton has voiced support for President Obama’s controversial use of drones against targets overseas, which have been blamed for many civilian deaths. She wrote in her 2014 book, Hard Choices, that Obama’s use of drone strikes was “one of the most effective” aspects of his strategy against “al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists.”
Clinton has also struck a hardline on Russia in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukraine conflict. She spurred widespread criticism after she compared Russian president Vladimir Putin to Adolph Hitler in March 2015. “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” Clinton was reported as having said. According to the Washington Post, Clinton’s remarks “drew swift rebukes … from U.S.-Russia policy experts—including some who served under her husband, former president Bill Clinton—while attracting rare notes of support from hawkish Republicans in Congress.”
Analyst Ian Bremmer said of Clinton’s comments: “Hillary’s too smart to actually believe that Putin’s actions are remotely close to anything that Hitler did. The only reason she would say that is that she believes she was vulnerable in having been the architect of the failed ‘reset’ and wants to show that she’s harder-line than anybody else.”
Clinton later walked back her words somewhat, saying in mid-March 2015: “I’m not making a comparison, certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.”