One of the themes in the critiques of Hillary Clinton that one hears from progressives of an anti-Hillary bent is that she’s a superhawk. The assertion is that, as president, she will pursue the kind of “neo-con” foreign policy that, in our times, has embroiled this country in ugly and unsuccessful military ventures abroad.
My purpose here in addressing that reading of Hillary’s record is modest. It is not my intention, for example, to pass any overall judgment of Hillary’s hawkishness. That would require more detailed knowledge than I possess
But I do have a couple of observations to offer that, in my view, should lessen the weight of evidence for this characterization of Hillary as a superhawk.
One key piece of evidence for that characterization has been Hillary’s vote, in 2002, in support of the authorization for the use of force in Iraq. We’ve heard a lot about that vote: Barack Obama wielded it against her in 2008, and Bernie Sanders has done so again this time around.
But the chances are that Hillary’s Iraq vote tells us little about her hawkishness. That vote, tather, was probably about something else.
To understand that vote, we need to understand the political context within which it was cast. It is in that context that we can understand this striking fact: every Democrat in the Senate who was a potential serious contender for the presidency voted for the resolution. That includes not only Hillary Clinton (who was not actually to run until 2008) but also John Kerry (the eventual 2004 nominee), John Edwards (who ended up on the 2004 ticket), and Joe Lieberman (the VP candidate with Gore in the 2000 election).
Not a single Democrat, then in the Senate, who voted against the resolution ever ran for president.
(Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator at the time. Bernie Sanders was in the House, as an Independent, and did actually vote against the resolution. But I doubt that even Bernie had any idea that he’d ever make a serious run for the presidency.)
And it’s not hard to understand why someone with presidential ambitions would feel strong pressure to vote yes.
At this point, in the wake of the trauma of 9/11, President Bush was riding high in the polls. American nationalism – not to say jingoism and militarism – dominated the national mood. Cheney and Rumsfeld still enjoyed a reputation of competence in military affairs. And there was a long history, dating back to Vietnam, of Republicans successfully beating Democrats over the head for being “soft on national security.”
The Bush forces were already pounding the Democrats, in this post-9-11 circumstance, with being “soft on terrorism.” The Republicans were in the process of unseating Georgia’s Democratic Senator, Max Cleland, who left three of his limbs in Vietnam, by running ads against him connecting him with Osama bin Ladin.
In that context, the most reasonable presumption would be that a vote against the coming Iraq war would prove considerably more risky for a Democrat seeking the presidency than a “yes” vote. It would not have been unreasonable for a seasoned political advisor to have told a Democratic Senator, “If you ever want to be elected president, you’d better support this resolution.”
That advice, though reasonable at the time, has worked out badly because the war proved unexpectedly disastrous (in part because Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld proved unexpectedly incompetent), and thus the politics played out in unexpected ways.
From the outside, there’s no way of knowing whether any of the ambitious Democrats of 2002 voted yes out of conviction. (We might assume that Joe Lieberman was glad to vote yes; with John Kerry it is more doubtful.) But I would bet that what Hillary chose was what seemed to her the politically prudent course.
That vote likely says less about her hawkishness than about her ambition. It could be argued that this would be just as damning. Maybe. But politics is not always morally simple.
Hillary may have figured that she could not stop Bush’s march to war anyway, and that — by not creating the political vulnerability that voting against the measure would have brought upon her – she might someday have a chance to do more than enough good to make up for such a compromise of principle.
Politicians are forced to make such judgments, and such compromises, all the time. Lucky is the elected official who has climbed the political ladder by standing by all that they believe in all the time. One finds such compromises in the biographies of all of America’s greatest leaders.
But, in our public arena, no one is allowed to admit to having bowed to that political reality. We want to believe that there’s no conflict between purity and power. We do not want to confront the regrettable implications of the fact that elected officials are by definition people who have done what is necessary to get elected in a flawed society.
So Hillary is left looking like a hawk, looking like she had bad “judgment,” but we don’t really know whether either of those judgments is valid.
One more thing.
Ever since Vietnam, Democrats have felt vulnerable to Republican attacks that they are not tough enough to protect America. Mostly, those attacks have been bogus, but they’ve been effective. (Perhaps now, with all the military failures, that line of attack will not work as well.) But for Hillary, the need to prove toughness has been doubly imposed on her. She’s not only a Democrat, but she is also a woman.
Old stereotypes put an additional burden on women to prove that they are tough enough to be “commander-in-chief.” (This extra burden on women remains a factor in American politics – as Donald Trump will doubtless seek to exploit – despite the modern record of Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir all winning wars as leaders of their nations.) Whether, once she became president, such pressures to prove her toughness would push President Hillary Clinton to go further in a hawkish direction than she might naturally wish to go, I don’t know.
But if the question is how hawkish are her own proclivities in dealing with the world’s problems, these two factors – that a vote against the Iraq war seemed to every Democrat with presidential ambitions a dangerous vote, and that as a woman she has an especial need to prove her toughness — should lighten the weight of apparent evidence for the super-hawkishness of which her critics accuse her.