Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State means her reputation is inextricably bound to Obama's doctrine of retrenchment, but Mark Landler argues her own foreign policy is much more hardline
The eight years of the Obama presidency have fundamentally changed the international system and America’s place within it. In the final months of his presidency the Obama doctrine has again become hotly contested because Hillary Clinton’s reputation is fundamentally intertwined with it. Mark Landler’s Alter Egos is an engaging rather than revelatory insight into the relationship between a President obsessed with his place in history and a Secretary of State obsessed with being President. The book is most interesting not in terms of what it says but what it is trying to do; an ambitious attempt to repackage Clinton’s foreign policy position. Landler casts her as Dean Acheson to Obama’s Harry Truman: united in preserving a lawful world order, differing in how to do so.
This will undoubtedly be recalled as one of the ugliest presidential elections in living memory but it will also be memorable for more important reasons. As the international system becomes worryingly anarchic on the back of Obama’s retrenchment, the next President’s choice between continuing isolationism or engagement might be the last time that America proactively makes such a choice.
Both Clinton and Trump are more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past ten presidential cycles. This isn’t just polarisation of politics, as Democrats opine. If so, both candidates would also have strong approval ratings; they do not. The election will be decided by voters consciously choosing the lesser of two evils.
Fortunately for Clinton it is sometimes easy to forget her tenure as Obama’s first Secretary of State. She left office in 2013, her record obscured by what Landler reveals as endless campaigning for the presidency since her 2008 nomination defeat. Landler notes: “Never before had the nation’s seat of diplomacy been so unabashedly political.” So while Clinton consistently took a harder line than Obama on Russia, would have retained troops in Iraq and opposed the decision to ignore the Red Line in Syria, in practice these differences became simply a matter of bureaucratic infighting. Even worse, in some matters, such as support for a no-fly zone and arming rebels in Syria, her position lacked thought about repercussions, increasing the sense that she was prioritising political expediency. Indeed, the detail of the book closely examines their enduring political competitiveness, reducing Obama’s central policy, the “Pivot to Asia”, to a race to publish first in Foreign Policy.
Despite the manoeuvring, Landler is forced to overplay the differences between his characters. Clinton was too savvy to let real differences emerge while in office. This leaves the spiritless non-conclusion that they “agreed more than they disagreed. Both preferred diplomacy to brute force. Both shunned the unilateralism of the Bush years . . . preserving the rules-based order that the United States put in place after 1945.” This wasn’t realism versus liberal internationalism as Landler suggests. In reality, Clinton’s fear of hindering her presidential ambition was more opportunistic than realistic. Obama thinks of himself as a realist intervening only where he sees vital interests at stake; the problem is that he didn’t see US interests at stake anywhere. He is better characterised as an isolationist with a penchant for special forces and drones.
If Clinton achieved little in office due to a combination of her own politicking and an overly hands-on president, it is unsurprising that Landler must look elsewhere for evidence of her hawkishness. He finds it in anecdotes about her time as First Lady. Her conversion to hawkishness developed through Elie Wiesel’s advice on intervention in the Balkans. Another episode sees Hillary urging Bill’s staffers “Don’t let him sneak out of this one” when it came to a raid on suspected WMD sites in Iraq. There is little doubt that Clinton has forged strong links to the military, her chosen stars being Generals Petraeus and McCrystal.
Given the opprobrium Clinton attracts, Landler’s narrative matters a great deal. The most persuasive passage of the book is where he puts distance between Obama and Clinton’s political roots. Landler notes Clinton’s Republican upbringing, quoting her as saying: “My political beliefs are rooted in the conservatism that I was raised with.” As important, according to Landler, are “the fourteen years that separated them [and] put Obama and Clinton on opposite ends of the Vietnam War”, highlighting the generational divide that defeated Clinton once before. Obama’s unexpected presidency, the relative success of Clinton’s Democrat rival Bernie Sanders and Trump’s hijacking of the Republican party are symptomatic of this populist rejection of establishment politics.
Landler returns to Clinton’s position during the culture wars of 1960s campus politics. He quotes a classmate of Hillary’s, Greg Craig, later White House lawyer during Bill’s presidency and notable defector to Obama in 2008: “Many of us were heavily involved in efforts to end the war in Vietnam . . . I don’t remember Hillary having much to do with that.” This is the core of Landler’s rehabilitation of Clinton, differentiated from her peers in combining social liberalism with hawkish foreign policy. “Can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?” he quotes her, as saying, adding the explanation: “The dichotomy between mind and heart . . . explain[s] why her outrage over Vietnam did not move her to take to the streets — flows through Clinton’s foreign policy, as it does through her politics.” In other words, the very issue that made Hillary lose the presidential nomination in 2008 is now being recycled in an attempt to seize Republican ground.
Landler has been part of that process himself, writing a series of articles for the New York Times under such nakedly political headlines as “How Hillary Clinton became a Hawk” and “For Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Divergent paths to Iran Nuclear Talks.” Landler quotes a Clinton adviser: “There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton’s more muscular brand of American foreign policy is better matched to 2016 than it was to 2008.”
In between writing and publication, Trump’s unexpected triumph has made that assumption far weaker. Part of his appeal is that he challenges so many core bipartisan foreign policy assumptions. The effect on how far her foreign policy beliefs will outweigh her pragmatism is unclear. To counter Trump, Clinton will have to provide a far clearer explanation of why his limited view of American engagement is wrong and why a more traditional foreign policy remains vital for US security. Landler gives Clinton the last word; America may not.