Hawkish roles reversed in US campaign
Washington - Since the 1970s, US Republican Party presidential candidates have typically expressed greater willingness to use military force than their Democratic counterparts. This year, however, is likely to see the reverse, as Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has staked out a more interventionist foreign and security policy than Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican pick.
Clinton, despite being labelled by detractors as an unabashed liberal, was a hawk as a US senator and later as secretary of State.
US Senator Bernie Sanders, her Democratic presidential challenger, regularly reminds the party base that she voted for the Iraq war resolution of 2002 — enabling president George W. Bush to launch the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — when 22 of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate, plus one independent, voted against the war.
Although Clinton has since called her vote on the war resolution a “mistake” that she “regrets”, she has never apologised for the vote, which Sanders has called the worst foreign policy blunder in modern US history.
As secretary of State in President Barack Obama’s first term, Clinton was an early advocate of US military intervention in Syria and was disappointed when Obama decided not to use force after Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.
During the current presidential campaign, Clinton has supported the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria, which would require more military assets than the United States has employed, again incurring opposition from Sanders.
Clinton remains antagonistic towards Iran despite her support for the nuclear deal signed in 2015. During a debate she called the signing of the deal the “one good day” in the 35-year troubled US-Iran relationship and said she was not in favour of restoring diplomatic relations with Tehran. She has previously said the United States should never take the military option off the table when dealing with Iran, suggesting that she might use force over other unresolved issues.
On Libya, Clinton was among those in the Obama administration who advocated the use of force against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Libya quickly descended into chaos as militias effectively took over the country.
Although it is not surprising that Sanders has criticised Clinton for her 2002 Iraq war vote, accusing her of exercising poor judgment, it is somewhat surprising that Trump has essentially echoed Sanders.
In the early stages of the Republican presidential debates, Trump lambasted the decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003 as a way to take down his then-chief rival, former Florida governor Jeb Bush. And when Bush waffled on the war, giving three different answers in the course of one week to the question of whether he would have followed his brother’s decision to go to war, Trump went for the jugular.
Trump and Sanders instinctively understood the mood of the American people on the Iraq war. Bucking the neo-conservatives within his party who supported intervention, Trump called the Iraq war a disaster that destabilised the Middle East.
He also understood that Americans make a distinction between “good and bad” wars and with countless deployments of US military personnel to Iraq and with hundreds of billions of dollars spent on a war that had no good outcome, the majority of the American people, even conservatives, saw the war as a waste of lives and money.
In the coming months, Trump is likely to greatly criticise Clinton for her Iraq war vote, seeing this as a vulnerability to exploit.
Although Trump has been hawkish in opposing the Islamic State (ISIS) because it poses a threat to the US homeland, his foreign policy remarks suggest that he would be much more constrained than Clinton on using force abroad.
His “America First” approach includes building up the US military so other countries would not be tempted to challenge the United States (though he does not say how he will pay for such a build-up). He sees interventions abroad as sapping economic resources needed domestically.
Trump also advocates a kind of economic nationalism and has said that allied countries must pay their fair share to NATO, suggesting that if they do not, the United States should not pick up the tab.
Clinton has called Trump’s foreign policy proposals naive and dangerous and claims that her experience and views are more suited to the real world. Trump, however, is tapping into a deep strain in the American body politic that says the United States must take care of domestic issues instead of engaging in costly and dubious foreign interventions.
Trump’s criticism of Clinton’s hawkish views may make the presidential election in November more competitive than some pundits suggest.