Hillary Clinton's glaring vulnerability: Why Bernie Sanders must call out her militant foreign policy

Her saber-rattling Iran speech last week was only the latest sign: Clinton hasn't abandoned her hawkish ways

Published September 14, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Carlo Allegri/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Carlo Allegri/Photo montage by Salon)

As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battle it out for the Democratic nomination, much will be said of their differences on domestic policy and economic issues. These things matter, of course, and so we must talk about them. But the contrast between Clinton and Sanders is arguably clearest (and, for Clinton, most problematic) on foreign policy.

Although Clinton has more experience working in international affairs than Sanders does, Sanders does have a record on foreign policy, and it’s far better than Clinton’s. In the last fifteen years or so, Sanders has consistently opposed military interventionism, with the exception Afghanistan after 9/11 – a justifiable conflict if there ever was one. As Vermont's U.S. representative, he declined to rubber stamp Bush’s war in Iraq -- one of the few members of Congress, on either side, to do so. As a senator, he also wisely denounced Obama’s plan to fund and train 5,000 “moderate” (whatever that means) rebels in Syria. And he’s been steadfastly critical of the hawks pining for war with Iran.

Clinton’s foreign policy record, on the other hand, is undeniably maximalist. On Syria and Libya and Iran, she has staked out interventionist positions, often well to the right of Obama. And, as everyone knows, she bowed to the Washington consensus in 2002, approving the disastrous Iraq War resolution. Clinton will say, as many Republicans have, that she voted for the Iraq War based on the intelligence that was available at the time. But that’s not a compelling justification.

“I looked at the same facts [on the Iraq vote] that everybody else looked at,”  Sanders recently said (without explicitly mentioning Hillary), “and you had most of Congress and you had a lot of the media saying we had to get into this war. I did not believe that. I believe history will record that I was right.” Indeed, Sanders was right – and Clinton, as she reluctantly admitted only last year, was wrong. No matter how you spin it, on this hugely consequential vote, Clinton sided with Bush and Cheney and the rest of the hawks, as she has on far too many occasions.

On Wednesday, Clinton gave a sweeping foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution. Focusing mostly on the Iran deal, the speech was characteristically hawkish, and not quite what you’d expect from a Democratic candidate for president. After perfunctorily endorsing President Obama’s Iran deal (with a few caveats), she tried to distinguish her approach to the broader region from Obama’s. On U.S.-Israeli relations, Clinton was particularly resolute:

“I will deepen America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, including our long standing tradition of guaranteeing Israel’s qualitative military edge. I’ll increase support for Israeli rocket and missile defenses and for intelligence sharing. I’ll sell Israel the most sophisticated fire aircraft ever developed, the F-35. We’ll work together to develop and implement better tunnel detection technology to prevent arms smuggling and kidnapping as well as the strongest possible missile defense systems for Northern Israel, which has been subjected to Hezbollah’s attacks for years.”

In case Clinton’s pro-Israel position wasn’t clear enough for the largely pro-Israel audience, she insisted that one of the first things she would do as president is invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House to “talk about all these issues and to set us on a course of close, frequent consultation.” This, one assumes, was a not-too-subtle reference to the deteriorating relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

Clinton also doubled down on her view that we should have armed Syrian rebels (no concerns, apparently, for the unintended consequences), and she vowed to be more aggressive in dealing with Russia’s expansionism: “You remember President Reagan’s line about the Soviets: Trust but verify? My approach will be distrust and verify.” Clinton added, “We have not done enough [in Russia],” which is why she wants “us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilization of Ukraine.”

It’s not exactly clear what she means by “do more,” but presumably it has something to do with the use or threat of force. Implicit in Clinton’s worldview, it seems, is the neoconservative idea that American can bend history to its will, if only we arm the right “moderates” or interfere in the right civil wars. We’ve spent over a decade testing this theory, and it doesn’t work; I suspect most Democrats have had enough of this utopianism. Clinton’s foreign policy, unfortunately, appears to be more of the same.

Hillary’s militarism ought to arouse concern in Democratic circles. She’s arguably the most self-aware person in American politics; she rarely says or does anything that’s not calculated to minimize blowback (and that's not necessarily a critique). If this is her position now, while Sanders is pressuring her to move left on multiple fronts, there’s no reason to think she’ll be any different in a general election.

For better or worse, Hillary Clinton is a hawk - liberals and progressives should not be confused about that. To her credit, this is what she’s been for a long time, and she’s not hiding it. The question is, after our recent misadventures in the Middle East, is this what Democrats want?

Bernie Sanders Takes A Stand For His Opponent, Hillary Clinton

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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